Den uppgrävda jorden
by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom
reviewed by B.J. Woodstein
Den uppgrävda jorden (Excavated Earth) is Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s second graphic novel. Her first, Palimpsest, was a memoir about her search for her Korean origins. In that work, she peeled back the layers of the stories she was told in order to understand why she was given up and who she really was and what it meant to be Korean and Swedish.
Now, in this second book, Sjöblom explores the story of Maria, a woman adopted from Chile to Sweden. Based on in-depth interviews and extensive research, but with a narrative that reads almost like a fast-paced thriller, Den uppgrävda jorden aims to give voice to all those who have been silenced.
It’s a devastating, harrowing story. Maria Diemar finds out that her adoption papers are not accurate and contain contradictory details, but when she questions this, she is told that women who gave up their children for adoption were ashamed and lied about their situations. Further investigation shows that this simply is not what happened, for Maria’s mother or most of the other Chilean mothers whose children ended up in Sweden. Sjöblom writes about how certain Swedes working in Chile basically used Chilean hospitals as baby mills for childless Swedish families, while the Swedish government and the Adoptioncentrum (a non-profit adoption agency and organisation in Sweden) ignored the facts about where these babies were coming from. Many Chilean women, usually poor and often indigenous, were told that their babies had died at birth or that they couldn’t care for them. When the women requested to see their supposedly dead babies or to discuss the situation, they were ignored and told more lies. Meanwhile, the babies were spirited away, taken to foster carers or orphanages and then on to Sweden, where adoptive parents were likewise not told the truth about where the babies had come from.
Maria was one of those babies, as was her brother, who was stolen from a different mother but adopted by the same family. As an adult, Maria goes on a quest to learn what happened in Chile all those years ago and in the process, she founds a meeting-place on the internet for other Chilean adoptees, makes news headlines in Sweden, travels to Chile multiple times and tries to bring both the Chilean and Swedish organisations and governments to reckoning. While raising her own children, she takes on the stories of so many other adoptees who have long felt that there is something missing from their lives, and she also begins to meet the mothers, who have spent years, often decades, desperately trying to discover what actually happened to their children. In some cases, she even helps mothers and children reunite. In her brother’s case, his suicidal tendencies and deep depression lift as he understands who he truly is, and he even ends up going to live in Chile.
The colour palate for Sjöblom’s illustrations is natural, heavy on the browns, with hints of green and grey, matching the earth of the title. The earth – or truth – is being dug up, excavated, examined. The images and the text both make visible stories that had been buried and left to rot.
This book is not an easy read, but it is important testimony, telling us about crimes that have been and still are being committed: mothers robbed of their children, babies whose identities and families are taken from them, corrupt people making money off of those who are desperate. Beautiful and touching, it is sure to advance the adoption rights movement around the world.
Den uppgrävda jorden
Foreign rights: Sofia Olsson, Galago, Ordfront
Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom is a graphic designer, illustrator and activist. She has studied at Södertörn University and the Comic Art School in Malmö. Her debut, Palimpsest, was published in English (tr. Hanna Stromberg) by Drawn&Quarterly in 2019 and was nominated for the VLA Graphic Novel Diversity Award.