‘Kangaroo tribes” is a South Korean term for what is increasingly a worldwide phenomenon: adult children who live with their parents to save money until they get married. An estimated one in four households in South Korea are kangaroo tribes, and Yeong-shin Ma was in one of them. The cartoonist lived with his mother until he was almost 30.
“I never had a good relationship with my mom,” says Ma. “But deep inside, we’ve always felt sorry for each other.” (He describes their current state of affairs as “a truce”.)
When they lived together, his mother did all of the cleaning and cooking, while Ma grew increasingly resentful of her “nagging”. “Due to the nature of my job, I was always home … To her, it looked like I was just goofing off,” he says.
But when he moved out, he got a shock: “I was almost 30, but all I knew how to do was say the right thing and spout a political opinion. I had no idea how difficult and frustrating basic household tasks could be,” he says. “As I learned to properly clean the bathroom, cook, and do my taxes – tasks that should have been as natural as breathing – I decided to write an honest confession.”
One day – while doing his own housework – Ma realised he wanted to better understand his mother. He gave her a blank notebook, and asked her to fill it with the unfiltered truth of her daily life. Less than a month later, she’d filled it with quotidian details, about her love life, her friends, her work; “at once a confession and letter to her son”, as Ma describes it.
“I knew she could be quite daring, so I can’t say I was surprised by what she wrote. However, the drama of middle-aged love was a lot more intense than I expected,” Ma says. “As time passed, though, I couldn’t help but be in awe of my mother, who’d written her story with such honesty at her son’s request.”
The notebook became his graphic novel Moms, following Soyeon, a gutsy woman in her mid-50s, and her female friends. All are mothers and all are dealing with feckless adult children, “shithead” boyfriends who wheedle money out of them in exchange for bad sex and company, and invisibility and sexual harassment in their workplaces. It is both a portrait of the worker – Soyeon starts a small revolution when she tries to lead the other cleaners, all women, to form a union – and a portrait of womanhood and middle-age, where all the women are bright and brash, both victims and fighters – even literally, with Soyeon getting into street fisticuffs with a love rival over the younger man they are both seeing.
It is rare to see older women as main characters in Korea, where they are usually “confined to the role of the nameless mother, who sacrifices herself day in, day out”, says Ma. “This side of middle-aged women isn’t usually covered in movies or K-dramas. It was exciting to read my mother’s notebook of how these women let loose and have fun. I never set out to challenge conservative mores. I tend to get bored by the status quo.”
When Moms came out in South Korea in 2015, readers were shocked – including Ma’s mother. “She read it in one sitting, shaking the entire time. She read it again and again,” Ma says. “But she couldn’t show it to any of her friends. She’s embarrassed by the book, because it goes into such explicit detail.”
Moms is Ma’s first comic to be released in English, translated by Janet Hong, but he has published 11 books in South Korea. He has since used the notebook method again, paying individuals to write out their stories: “They usually jump at the chance, and I find there are many more lively expressions and words I can glean from their notes than I’d originally thought.”
“People often want to publish their autobiographies, out of a desire for their stories to be heard and understood,” Ma writes, in a touching endnote to the comic. “In that regard, I wonder if this is my first act of devotion to my mom, if, perhaps for the very first time in my life, I’m being a good son.” Would he work with his mother again, though? “Even now, my mother sometimes texts me things about her boyfriend or what happened at work,” he says. “One day, I plan to write a story about her later years.”