Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #73 by Drew Barth
Many of our best stories come from our families—I always break out the one about my great-grandparents bottling liquor for Capone during Prohibition—and those are the stories that stay with us the longest. They’re the stories that are told through our childhoods and at every reunion. We can get sick of them but we always remember hearing them. Those stories give us a familiar warmth like our favorite blanket. Emei Burell has invited us to experience those stories with all of the warmth that they were told to her. We Served the People: My Mother’s Storiesis the kind of book that makes you want to relive those stories your parents told you while balancing you on their knee—and even if you can’t, this is still the next best thing.
We Served the People centers on Burell’s mother, Yuan, after the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution in 1966. These are the stories of Yuan being fourteen in Beijing and being made to work in Yunnan as a part of the Down to the Countryside Movement for ten years, many of them as the only female truck driver. This is her story along with thousands of other Rusticated Youth who were not given the choice of having a full childhood and had to catch up to the rest of the country at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1977. This is also Yuan’s defiance in the face of bureaucracy and bullying and how through years of studying and testing she was able to leave to get her degree in Sweden. So much of this is the formative years of Yuan’s life and at all times we are kept attentive to her words. Burell says it herself that her mother is a great storyteller.
A memoir typically keeps the readers focused on the moment and wants them to be fully immersed in what is happening. But Burell always brings us back to her mother telling the story. So much of We Served the People’s sense of intimacy comes from these few panels. We’re no longer attempting to relive Yuan’s past as we’re now next to Emei and her brother, laying on the rug in front of their mother as she tells them her stories. That effect is what makes this such an engrossing story—Burell’s illustrations and panels let us seep directly into the stories in that same way her mother had done with her words.
We Served the Peopleis one of the greatest graphic novels of the year so far. It is a story that resonates across decades with Yuan’s words and Burell’s illustrations. Emei Burell has crafted a graphic memoir that needs to be read. It creates so much that we can hang onto as readers—the hope and resilience that feel essential in these past few months—and does so with such care and openness that you can’t help but feel the affection flowing through the page.
Get excited. Get your family stories.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.