|▲ “Banned Book Club”. The protagonist Hyun-sook (far left) and Uni (far right), who is president of the School Girls' Association. Uni is modelled after Kim Kyeong-yeong, a Gyeongsangnamdo assemblywoman (source: English version Twitter).|
The graphic novel “Banned Book Club”, which was published simultaneously in both Korea and the United States, has garnered attention domestically and globally, ranking first on Amazon pre-orders. “Banned Book Club” was co-authored by Kim Hyun Sook, who graduated from Changwon National University in 1983 with a degree in English Language & Literature, and her husband Ryan Estrada, and was illustrated by Ko Hyung-Ju. The graphic novel tells the autobiographical story of her hard life as a college student in Korea in the early 1980s.
Kim Hyun Sook was born in Changwon, South Korea. Kim stepped on campus with dreams about being a college freshman, but the reality was far from what she expected. College started with the smell of tear gas and protests at the main gate against the regime of Chun Doo-Hwan who served as the President of South Korea from 1980 to 1988.
Kim joined the folk-dance club where she met a handsome senior who invited her to join a banned book club. She was at first afraid of the club which secretly smuggled books which had been banned by the government. She watched videos showing what truly happened in Gwangju in May 1980, now called the ‘Gwangju Democratization Movement’, which is remembered as a defining moment in the history of Korean democracy. She realized that not only was there a whole world beyond what she knew, but also that her government had been lying to her without consequence. Since then, she participated in protest activities even though she faced the risks of being caught and punished just for having books prohibited by the government. She made flyers, firebombs for demonstrations, read a variety of books, and spent almost all of her campus days with her club.
However, the government wasn’t going to turn a blind eye to these activities. Police and the Agency for National Security Planning (NSP) constantly monitored, arrested, and tortured students who participated in campus demonstrations. To make matters worse, the club was on the verge of being disbanded after Ji-hoo, a senior member of the club, was arrested for reading Kim Il-sung's article, "For a Self-Reliant and Peaceful Unification". The main character, Hyun-sook, was also questioned by police, and the club members prepared for a protest to demand the freedom of Ji-hoo.
The other characters include a member of the university newspaper and an informer under the pretext of being a scholarship student etc. They all show resistance in the face of oppression and show the reality of the corruption and military force that abused their power at that time.
In the last chapter, “Class Reunion”, all the characters from the graphic novel, including Hyun sook, gather in Gwanghwamun. They all participate in the Resignation Candlelight Movement which called for the resignation of Park Guen-hye who served as the President of South Korea from 2013 to 2017. A conversation with a teenager who was marching together really emphasizes the novel’s main message. The teenager asked, "Are you surprised that after all that, we still have to fight the same fights?”, one of them answered, "Not at all. Progress is not a straight line. Never take it for granted and you’ll never be alone." The answer may seem a bit cliché, but it seems appropriate when talking about one of the most important points in modern Korean history.
Lee Ho-young, the president of CWNU said, “The experiences that the students had during the Democracy Movement continues to be an important part of our history. The fact that the book is set at Changwon University, and is attracting attention from people in Korea and the United States, makes all the university members feel proud. We look forward to supporting the activities of our students who are still making history to this day.”
Kim Hyun Sook shares a truly dramatic story of political division, fear-mongering, anti-intellectualism, the death of democratic institutions, and the relentless rebellion of reading. Students resisted oppression to make the Republic of Korea what it is today. This book is a milestone towards documenting a supportive community fighting for the rights of others, it’s not just a record of blood and tears. Readers of this graphic novel may be inspired by the characters in the story, and open their eyes to how they can help create the change they want to see in the world. People should never stop asking what does it truly mean to have civil rights, how can political structures be improved, and how to make a better society through this book.
By Lee Yeon-ju,Editor-in-chief email@example.com
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