Emei Burell’s graphic novel We Served the People: My Mother’s Stories depicts Burell’s mother, Yuan Ye Ping’s, experience of the Down to the Countryside Movement during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Through these stories, told through prose, art, and incorporating photographs, the audience reflects on the lived experience of the Cultural Revolution. It’s an important, subtle work but feels odd to read right now.
We Served the People: My Mother’s Stories
Creators: Emei Burell (author, artist, cover), Jillian Crab (designer), Gwen Waller (assistant editor), and Sierra Hahn (editor)
ARCHAIA an imprint of BOOM! Studios
April 28, 2020
We Served the People is enjoyable and calming. The simple and emotive style depicts how daily life goes on, regardless of difficulty and hardship. Ironically, the muted color palette used throughout the novel highlights this. The use of subdued greens, pale yellows, blues, and grays underlines the imposed rurality and idealization of farming life that Yuan experienced, the idea that those who live in the country necessarily live simpler lives. It reflects the daily and the lived experience of the enforced communist lifestyle that she worked through.
Narratively, I enjoyed the theme of drive in the novel, both the concept of personal drive and driving as a skill. Drive knits the stories from over a decade into a cohesive narrative. Chance selected Yuan Ye Ping to be one of the tractor drivers at the plantation she was sent to as a rusticated youth. And through that, she moved up to driving trucks, which sets her up for other jobs and opportunities in the future.
While not all of the stories in the novel center on driving as a skill, they all explore Yuan Ye Ping’s drive. Her interest in taking full advantage of her opportunities. She had the drive to do more with what she received. Sometimes, she literally did this while she was on drives. On page 117, while driving Director Gao around she explains the conflict between herself and her superiors. This drive to stand up for herself and her demonstrable driving skills solidifies her rehiring. Burell also combines these visually with the meandering route displayed on the subsequent page 119.
The counterweight to this calming and inspiring narrative is that it’s so wholesome it feels almost inappropriate to be reading right now. I appreciate that the work demonstrates how for any moment we can choose to judge them as good or bad or not having any meaning at all. And while I like that the colors and art allow the reader to evaluate how to interpret the events of the graphic novel, it feels odd to read a book that takes a neutral stance on an event like the Cultural Revolution.
It feels like an objective transposition rather than capturing a mood about the time. And it’s weird because Burell’s introduction describes her mother as a great storyteller. On page 20, Burell’s demonstrates this through an excellent depiction of herself and her brother’s captivation. But that doesn’t land in every adaptation of the following stories. In some ways, the subtlety gets in the way of communicating the importance or weight of the stories. It’s almost too open, sometimes coming across as bland.
My last critique comes from reading this is as a mixed-race Asian-American, which is different than Burell’s background as Asian descent Swedish. Particularly, I struggled with the fact that this feels like a model immigrant story. The ones with “drive” will be able to immigrate, who follow the “right” way to do things, and “deserve” visas.
That underlying implication rubs me the wrong way right now. Particularly as Asian immigrants and their descendants, in Europe and elsewhere, have faced a significant resurgence of explicit racism amid the pandemic and ongoing attacks on asylum and immigration. With that backdrop, presenting a model immigrant story feels too nice and out of place with the realities of today.
However, We Served the People is still an important graphic novel. Its openness to meaning and interpretation in the work is valuable. It is important to have space for stories like this, even though now it feels inappropriate, because it provides a diversity of experience we are only recently getting about immigrants.
Furthermore, I enjoy that the combined subdued palette and evolving unadorned line styles. These help communicate the length of time of the stories and the slow burn of her mother’s drive. The Cultural Revolution and its effects were not singular events but long slogs of time that significantly altered the lives of many. While right now might not be the best time, We Served the People deserves a read.