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Graphic Literature

Tell Me Where to Go

Influenced by video games, the graphic novel Kafe Limbo takes place inside a dystopian future, as a group of renegades desperately searches for a new home and a mythical life-saving "Mirror." Below is one chapter from the book.
(A black-and-white drawing of a man in a hooded jacket reading a book.) Title: Tell Me Where to Go
(Panel 1: An insect-man eats at a table while kicking away a man with an axe. Panel 2: An insect-woman smiles at the insect-baby she's holding while pushing away a uniformed man with a gun. Panel 3: A newly married insect couple smiles at a photographer while the female member of the couple kicks away a man with a gun.) NARRATION: 2:1 The search for the Mirror is painful. Each time you are rejected ... You lose a bar on your life meter.
(Panel 1: A creature looks at a cell phone while holding up his other hand in front of a sweating person holding a knife. Panel 2: An insect-man looks at his phone while waving off a bewildered man standing behind him. Panel 3: A hooded man hangs his head.) NARRATION: The Mirror is foggy. You can't see anything. DIALOGUE: Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope! Nope! Nope! NARRATION: 2:2 The hardest war is the one the enemy doesn't even know is happening. A passionate, one-sided fight. An unrequited war. The search for the Mirror is one failure after another. Morale drops among the crew.
(Panel 1: Three armed men crouch behind a wall topped with barbed wire. One of them speaks on a walkie-talkie. Panel 2: An armed man throws a stick of dynamite while his companion holds a gun.) HOODED MAN: Recon team status report? WALKIE-TALKIE MAN: They're standing by. Launch operation? NARRATION: 2:3 You are an animal. You are not a plant. Stop trying to fix all your problems in the same place you were born. DYNAMITE MAN: Go! Throw the smoke bombs! NARRATION: The captain dispatches the recon team to the embassy of Country 49, but expectations are low. His only hope is that they make it out without any major injuries.
(A man with a knife and a woman with a gun crouch outside a wall marked "Embassy.") NARRATION: 2:4 You're a born stranger. You'll feel out of place in every country. But if you find yourself in a country that's killing you, then that's the country that will kill you. Run for your life. MAN: I see a gap in the blockade! Cover me! I'm going in!
(Small cockroaches move through the visa maze as large cockroaches in uniform interrogate and yell at them. A few small cockroaches emerge at the end of the maze and celebrate their visas, while several others crouch on the ground crying.) LARGE COCKROACH 1: Hey! You deaf or something? I'm talking to you! You wanna piece of me? SMALL COCKROACH 1: I'm sorry, sir! SMALL COCKROACH 2: I NEED this visa. Please. Have mercy on me. I beg of you! SMALL COCKROACH 3: Bloodsuckers! My parents had to sell their home for this. SMALL COCKROACH 4: Mine too! LARGE COCKROACH 2: You're done here. Now scram! SMALL COCKROACH 5: Finally! I got it! SMALL COCKROACH 6: Success! Success! SMALL COCKROACH 7: *sob* We're done for!
(Small cockroaches move through the visa maze as large cockroaches in uniform interrogate and yell at them. A few small cockroaches emerge at the end of the maze and celebrate their visas, while several others crouch on the ground crying.) LARGE COCKROACH 1: Hey! You deaf or something? I'm talking to you! You wanna piece of me? SMALL COCKROACH 1: I'm sorry, sir! SMALL COCKROACH 2: I NEED this visa. Please. Have mercy on me. I beg of you! SMALL COCKROACH 3: Bloodsuckers! My parents had to sell their home for this. SMALL COCKROACH 4: Mine too! LARGE COCKROACH 2: You're done here. Now scram! SMALL COCKROACH 5: Finally! I got it! SMALL COCKROACH 6: Success! Success! SMALL COCKROACH 7: *sob* We're done for!
(The man and the woman stand in a packed hallway full of cockroaches. A cockroach guard waits around the corner.) NARRATION: 2:6 Note the wall, the gatekeepers. How they filter out the dregs. How they tame the foreign. WOMAN: You can't fail this time. MAN: I got this. NARRATION: 2:7 Do you have the connections? Do you have the capital? GUARD: Number 211! Number 212! SMALL COCKROACH 1: Good afternoon, sir! SMALL COCKROACH 2: Here! Here! Coming! NARRATION: Asylum is all but impossible. It's hard for any Limbo to get a foot in the door of an embassy.
(The man from the previous panel stands before an enormous bureaucrat at a desk.) NARRATION: 2.8 If you don't, be bold. MAN: I don't have the required documents because I'm not a regular visa applicant. I am applying for asylum in Country 49. My basic rights of political freedom, financial security, cultural determination, freedom of thought and sensibility are under attack in Country 82. I hereby request protection. For your reference, international law dictates that all countries have the duty to protect asylum seekers...
(The man disappears into a mass of barely legible words.)
(The bureaucrat, wearing the jaws of an enormous animal over his head, is the source of the mass of words enveloping the man in the previous panel.)
(The enormous bureaucrat sends the man and woman flying out the door and stamps them with a huge "Rejected" stamp.) NARRATION: 2:9 Why hasn't anyone invented a country for those who don't belong anywhere?
(Panel 1: The man's face has been squashed by the stamp and now reads "Rejected." Panel 2: Three of the man's renegade comrades crowd around him.) NARRATION: 2:10 No country welcomes the maladjusted. The only way to prove yourself worthy is to show proof of (above average) income, proof of affiliation (to an officially recognized organization), or proof of (extraordinary) influence. HOODED MAN: Mission abort! Retreat! NARRATION: 2:11 What are the odds that those who belong nowhere will acquire even one of these? NARRATION: 2:12 Extremely slim.
(A black-and-white map of the Western Hemisphere. Each country is numbered.) LIMBO ASYLUM GUIDE *Limbos are often paralyzed with lethargy and self-defeat. Marginalized in a crowded world that they are forced to participate in, they wallow in their aloneness. But people are animals, not plants. And animals never stay in the same place. *It stands to reason that a cornered being will seek to broaden its territory. Of course, any attempt to fight in Country 82, which has been overrun with Roaches, would be suicide. But if a Limbo can make it out of that brutal battlefield alive, then it can overcome any hardship. Country 82 is, in fact, the ultimate training ground. *But things are no better outside Country 82. Country 82 is not the only country ruled by Roaches, and no country in the world welcomes Limbos. That's why you must strategize. You have to calculate the infinitesimal range of possibility that lies in the slight differences between countries and throw yourself into that gap. The number one destinations for asylum are the 20s and 200s; number two, the 50s and 500s; number three, the 30s and 40s. There is no hope anywhere else. Country 1, Country 44, and all of the 80s must be avoided at any cost. These countries have been completely obliterated by Roaches. They've gone to the dogs. They can't be saved.
(A black-and-white map of the Eastern Hemisphere. Each country is numbered.) *The best country is any one where you can blend into the crowd, where the racial features of foreigners are less conspicuous. (e.g. You can barely do anything in Country 90 because of the way they love to stare at foreigners.) Given this, Country 7 and Country 81 are good, but expectoration frequency and average noise level is too high in Country 7, and the high cost of living and reclusiveness inherent to island countries makes Country 81 unwelcome. *We have received intelligence that the low 40s countries are experiencing rapid Cockroachification. We must expedite our research on the 90s countries to prepare for this eventuality.

From Kafe Limbo. © Kim Han-min. Published by Workroom. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2015 by Jamie Chang and Sora Kim-Russell. All rights reserved.

Read About Bios Context Explore Teaching Ideas

From Kafe Limbo. © Kim Han-min. Published by Workroom. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2015 by Jamie Chang and Sora Kim-Russell. All rights reserved.

Influenced by video games, the graphic novel Kafe Limbo takes place inside a dystopian future, as a group of renegades desperately searches for a new home and a mythical life-saving “Mirror.” Below is one chapter from the book.

Kim Han-min

Cartoon by author Kim Han-min

Kim Han-min is the author of several graphic novels, including Dear EuripidesComet StudyFairy of Places, Kafe Limbo, and The Book Island. He has also written and illustrated storybooks for children such as Tip Toe TapirMy Amphibian Dream, and Ungo and the Pink Dolphin. He contributed comic strips to the Daily Hankyoreh and worked as editor in chief of the quarterly culture magazine I/n, where he experimented with half-fictional interviews adopting graphic narrative forms. He lives in Portugal, working on his new book and translating poems by his favorite poet, Fernando Pessoa. Most recently, he translated The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa.

Jamie Chang

Jamie Chang is a translator. Her works have been published in Azalea, ASIA, and The American Reader. She lives in Denmark.

Sora Kim-Russell

Translator Sora Kim-Russel

Sora Kim-Russell’s publications include Kim Un-su’s The Plotters; Hwang Sok-yong’s At DuskFamiliar Things, and Princess Bari; and Pyun Hye-young’s The Law of LinesCity of Ash and Red, and The Hole, which won the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award for best novel. She lives in Seoul.

Meet the Author

 

Blurb: “[N]ot being a part of the problem wasn’t enough.” On Facebook, find out how Kim Han-min starting working as a quartermaster on the “Sea Shepherd,” and what happened to the totoaba fish that they found one night in an illegal gillnet.

Then, explore Kim Han-min’s personal website. Make sure to press the “about” button in the top right corner, and keep pressing the “switch” button in the center to view all the panels.

Meet the Translators

Jamie Chang. Courtesy of Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature.

“Tell Me Where to Go” is not the first time Jamie Chang has used the word “roach” in a translation—read an interview
in which she explains why she used the term “Mom-roach” in her translation of the novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982.

Then, find out why Chang “ditched . . . medical school” in a piece she wrote for the magazine Words Without Borders.


Next, visit Sora Kim-Russell’s website (in English and Korean—the two non-English headings say “Welcome!” and “Nice to meet you!”).

And watch a video clip in which she talks about the “visibility” of Korean literature outside Korea.

Hear the Names

Listen to pronunciations of the Korean terms in this story, read aloud by WWB Campus graduate intern Olan Munson.

“Exiled from their own land”

A page from Kim Han-min’s Kafe Limbo

Read a summary of the dystopian graphic novel Kafe Limbo, from which this chapter was excerpted. In the novel, members of a renegade group called Limbo “undertake three missions:
strike the Roaches as hard as possible, secure an escape route, and find the Mirror.” (There are a few typos in the text.)

A Scholar's Notes

Brother Anthony of Taizé

Read Brother Anthony of Taizé’s description of this story in his introduction to Korean literature:

. . . [A] variety of science-fiction tale set far from Korea or any everyday reality. The fantasy world it evokes may be understood as a satire of the enthusiasm Koreans have developed in recent years for travel. Despite discomfort and danger, Koreans have been traveling to every remote corner of the world and becoming experts on the negative things awaiting them there, although “Cockroachification” is not usually mentioned. But perhaps after the current pandemic it might be?

“Tell Me . . .” might also be understood as an indictment of immigration policy. Korea is a very closed society, notorious for a refusal to welcome immigrants—asylum-seekers, in particular. Many young men from Southeast Asia come to Korea to work in small factories for low wages, but they are not allowed to stay for long, and certainly not to settle for good. In recent years, reporting on immigration has sometimes employed the term “Fortress Europe” to refer to highly restrictive policies on that continent; “Fortress Korea” may be equally apropos.

Where to Go? Seeking Asylum in the Real-World "Kafe Limbo"

In the dystopian world of this graphic novel, the members of “Limbo” race through a world of closing borders, desperately trying to find a country willing to take them in. What’s it like to do this in the real world, today?

First, watch this TED Talk by a young man from Afghanistan who undertook a dangerous journey in the hopes of finding asylum in Australia.

Then, get some basic terms and facts from the U.N.’s factsheet for World Refugee Day, and find out 9 myths and facts about immigration from the Anti-Defamation League.

Finally, find out why refugees today “spend longer and longer periods in limbo” in a short article from The New Humanitarian.

One reason behind the longer times in limbo is a change in U.S. policies around refugees: the chart below shows how many refugees the U.S. used to take in, compared to today.

A chart from MPI Data Hub showing how many refugees the U.S. took in each year, from 1980 to 2020.
Background on Korea

Street painting in Seoul, by leifbr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0. Access at https://flic.kr/p/G4ggkp.

New to learning about Korea? Read a short profile of modern Korea from the BBC, or a more detailed, historical profile from the Asia Society.

More from the Author/Artist/Translator/Activist

The book cover of Tiptoe Tapirs

 

Read about a jungle that is not as peaceful as it looks in Kim Han-min’s children’s book Tiptoe Tapirs (click on the cover image to use the “Look Inside” feature).

Then, find out how Kim Han-min’s drawings connect to older Korean artwork in a review
of Tiptoe Tapirs.

Next, look at pages from his Korean-language book Moving, which asks, “Why Leave? Why Move? Why Mobilize?”

Combining graphic narrative and activism, the book tells stories of migration (among fish as well as humans) and imagines an encounter between journalist Marie Colwin, who died covering the war in Syria, and migration activist Jerome Rodriguez.


In addition to being an author and artist, Kim Han-min is also a translator. Watch a Facebook clip of him reading aloud from his Korean translation of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

In the clip, Kim reads a line that Pessoa wrote in a letter to his friend Adolfo Casais Montero. Translated into English, it reads: “Since childhood I had the tendency to create around me a fictitious world, surrounding myself with friends and acquaintances that never existed.”

Fernando Pessoa. Template: Cavalão, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

(For more on Pessoa, read Richard Zenith’s short article “The Poet of Many Masks” and look at his work on the Poetry Foundation website. To find out why “you will never get to the bottom” of Pessoa, read an article by Carmela Ciuraru.)

Author as Activist

Explore Kim’s personal website. Keep pressing “switch” until you find his “Organizes” page. Here, you can explore some of Kim Han-min’s activism work.

Then, learn more about the direct-action ocean conservation movement called the Sea Shepherd, where Kim Han-min worked as a quartermaster.

“Vaquita pair” by NOAA Fisheries West Coast. License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Link here.

For more on the “totoaba” fish, and what it has to do with the endangered “vaquita” (a type of porpoise), listen to this 5-minute NPR story.

(For Korean speakers) Listen to Kim Han-min talk about his experience on the “Sea Shepherd,” where he describes himself working as a “non-violent pirate.”

More from the Translators

Read Jamie Chang’s translation of a chapter from the YA fantasy novel The Wizard Bakery and Sora Kim-Russell’s translation of the memoir-essay “A Meal of Solitude for a Restless Heart,” both available on this site.

For more about The Wizard Bakery, check out the trailer below.

Then, read “I Am a Communist“, a different graphic story on which Chang and Kim-Russell collaborated, about a man on the run between North and South Korea when the country was being divided. They write about what it was like to translate the story in an essay, also published in the magazine Words Without Borders.

Finally, check out a short comic about “wild times” in a translation workshop. Sora Kim-Russell wrote the story and artist Yerong drew the illustrations.

From “Wild Times in Translation Workshop, Part 1” by Sora Kim-Russell (story) and Yerong (artwork). Courtesy of Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature.
Kafe Limbo on Stage

Watch a clip from a Korean experimental theater’s production of Kafe Limbo. In this scene, the Limbo members dissect a Roach, commenting on how small its brain is.

Korean Writing and Film About Outsiders
    • Watch the trailer for Dear Pyongyang, a documentary in which the director, Yang Yonghi, tries to find out why her father sent her three brothers to live in North Korea.

  • Read Yu Miri’s novel Tokyo Ueno Station, a “deeply felt depiction of the lives of Japan’s most vulnerable people.” (Yu Miri, like Yang Yonghi, is a Japanese-born Korean person.)
  • Read a review of Princess Bari, a myth-based novel about a young woman fleeing North Korea by Hwang Sok Yong.
More Stories of Seeking New Homes

Got 20 minutes? For answers to such questions as Who is a refugee? What can you do to help refugees? And what can you do to avoid becoming one?, watch Mohammed Elsaleh’s TEDx talk “The Refugee Crisis: Coming to a Doorstep Near You.”

Then, find out where immigrants to the U.S. come from in this interactive map.

You can see which countries take in the most refugees in “figures at a glance” from the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, and follow “the global flow of people” up to 2010 in this interactive chart published in Science magazine.

This last resource comes to us from the website of The Penguin Book of Migration Literature, edited by Dohra Ahmad. For more stories of leaving home and other resources, visit the website or read the book!

Book cover of The Penguin Book of Migration Literature.

For the most recent news about migration, look through archives from The New Humanitarian, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

For more videos, access the UN’s video archive.

More Walls

“Every country has walls. The essence of a country is its walls, not what lies beyond them.”

Do you agree with this idea from “Tell Me Where to Go”? To get some perspective, read “When Is a Border Just a Border? Almost Never” from the New York Times.

Then, watch a trailer for Ay, Mariposa, a documentary about butterflies and the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Does it remind you of these lines from “Tell Me Where to Go”?

But people are animals, not plants. And animals never stay in the same place. It stands to reason that a cornered being will seek to broaden its territory.

For a short history of US-Mexico border issues, take a look at a seven-minute film explaining How Walls Ended Up Along the U.S.-Mexico Border from the New York Times.

Unsafe in the U.S.?

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

In 2020, a Canadian court ruled that the U.S. is no longer a safe place for returning migrants, citing “cruel and unusual” conditions that place the U.S. outside “the norms of free and democratic societies.”

Get a sense of how this happened in the articles below, published in the The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The New Humanitarian:

A Country For Those Who Don’t Belong

The narrator of “Tell Me . . .” asks:

Why hasn’t anyone invented a country for those who don’t belong anywhere?”

Many others have asked and tried to answer the same question:

  • Read director Ava DuVernay’s thoughts on the imaginary land of Wakanda in her film Black Panther. She says that “Wakanda itself is a dream state . . . a place that’s been in the hearts and minds and spirits of black people since we were brought here in chains.” Watch the trailer to get a sense of Wakanda.

 

"We identify with . . . "

Henry Spira. Wikimedia Commons, fair use

 

On his website, artist Kim Han-min captions an illustration from Kafe Limbo, entitled “Tomb,” with
this quote from the animal rights activist Henry Spira:

We identify with the powerless and the vulnerable, the victims, all those dominated, oppressed and exploited. And it is the non-human animals whose suffering is the most intense, widespread, expanding, systematic, and socially sanctioned of all.

Learn more about the life of Henry Spira, who led the first successful campaigns against medical testing on animals in the U.S., in his New York Times obituary.

More Stories of Refugees**

On WWB Campus:

Salar Abdoh, author of “Hunger,” at age 15 and today.

Elsewhere:

  • A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, about a boy who is displaced by war in Sudan
  • A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea, which tells the story of a young woman who is forced to flee political unrest in Syria
  • How Dare the Sun Rise, a memoir of a young woman’s life in a refugee camp and her immigration to the U.S.
  • For more stories about seeking asylum, look through this PDF guide from the organization Hearts and Homes for Refugees (middle-grade books start on page 6, young adult and adult books start on page 11.)

**For Teaching Idea 1

More Dystopias**

In Words Without Borders:

  • Scandorama: another graphic-fiction dystopia set in a futuristic Scandinavian country where “It’s almost impossible to get in, but getting kicked out is easy.”
  • Death Fugue: a young man begins to see beneath the surface of a seeming utopia

Elsewhere:

Defining Dystopias

**For Teaching Idea 2

Key Points
1. Welcome to "Limbo"
2. What Makes a Dystopia?
To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

From Kafe Limbo. © Kim Han-min. Published by Workroom. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2015 by Jamie Chang and Sora Kim-Russell. All rights reserved.

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