The Isolation of Millennial Life: Ancco’s Nineteen

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The millennial experience isn’t the same world over, but there are certain ties that bind us across oceans and continents. There’s the experience of becoming ensnared by the vile persuasive technology of a smartphone. There’s the dawning realization that previous generations’ worship of capital has permanently damaged the earth. There’s the challenge of trying to navigate adulthood in an emotional landscape ravaged by polarized politics, unrelenting advertisements, and unaffordable everything. In this way, the stories of millennial adolescence in Ancco’s Nineteen should hit home for anyone born between 1980 and 1994: ours isn’t a lost generation so much as a confused one, forced to weather late-stage capitalism while trying to keep safe the people and things we love.

Ancco, born in 1983 just outside of Seoul, is a prodigy of cartooning. She began publishing daily diary comics in 2002, developed an audience, and rose to quick acclaim throughout the aughts. In 2016, she won the prestigious Prix Révélation at France’s Angoulême International Comics Festival, the first Korean woman to receive the honor. She is a detail-oriented illustrator, rendering her characters in their messiness with scratchy and angular pen strokes. Her drawing style is somehow simple enough to be easily digestible but complex enough to capture every emotion on the page flawlessly. As dismal as some of these characters’ lives may be, we get the sense that they will ultimately prevail in Ancco’s capable hands.

In Nineteen, the second of Ancco’s two graphic memoirs about growing up in Korea, we watch as Kyung-jin (Ancco’s given name) dotes on her grandmother, argues with her mother, and drinks herself to delusion with her friends. The story of Kyung-jin’s life is told in vignettes with titles like “wild roses,” “school of kyung-jin,” and “me and my guitar.” Some are fairly harrowing narratives of generational disconnect and loneliness. In “wild roses,” a twentysomething illustrator breezes in and out of her grandmother’s life, popping by her house only for necessities and declining her grandmother’s offers for dinner. The narrative ends with the grandmother eating alone at her kitchen table, isolated from the rest of her family. Others are more upbeat, structured around Kyung-jin’s daily habits and small but significant realizations about herself.  “Me and my guitar” tells the story of Kyung-jin’s dogged efforts to learn to play the guitar after restoring an old one from a factory that’s gone out of business. She joins the charmingly named Housewives Guitar Club, where she finds company among older women looking to learn the same skill. Ultimately, however, she goes solo, playing music for her own satisfaction out of earshot of everyone else.

Chief among Ancco’s themes are intergenerational relationships among women: we see much of Kyung-jin embracing or fighting with or ignoring her mother and grandmother, who, like Kyung-jin, appear to struggle significantly with reliance on alcohol. At times, the mother and grandmother appear slightly different—in one vignette, for instance, the mother is an alcoholic buying leopard-print thongs, and in another she’s the buttoned-up wife of a pastor—but the relational difficulties remain the same. Kyung-jin, restless and unable to comprehend the traumatic lives of the older women, is forever at loggerheads with them, busy trying to live her life while they hover around her in demand of her attention. Only twice do father figures appear, once to brutally beat teenaged Kyung-jin for “running wild” and another time to spew religious zealotry at the dinner table. Nineteen is primarily a book about women and girls: how they bond, how they fight, how they care for one another. No one has a boyfriend, and no one seems interested in getting one—in fact, romantic interests appear not to exist in Ancco’s universe. It’s hard to read Nineteen without comparing it to Cho Nam-Joo’s critically acclaimed Kim Ji-young, Born 1982: both are books that train their impressive laser focus on the experience of the Korean millennial woman, bringing to light the societal misogyny their characters have to contend with and inviting readers to examine our own biases along the way. In Ancco’s work, the patriarchy is skewered against the gritty backdrop of contemporary Seoul: crowded streets, row houses, and corner stores form the settings of the characters’ lives. One gets the sense while reading that the characters’ minds are just as jam-packed as the city in which they find themselves. It’s through Ancco’s simple pen-and-ink drawings that this complexity is rendered so skillfully on the page.

Among the most powerful vignettes in Nineteen is “do you know jinsil?” In it, the group of teenagers we’ve been following throughout the book are now young adults ringing in the new year in a bar. The emcee starts making fun of Jinsil, a homeless woman who is seen on the street constantly begging for cigarettes. Kyung-jin is repulsed—Jinsil is low-hanging fruit—but her friends think it’s hilarious. As the story progresses, we learn more about Jinsil: she’s been repeatedly raped and is now pregnant. Kyung-jin seems poised to be the conscience of the story, declining to laugh at Jinsil when everyone else is, glowering at her friends as they make fun of her stoniness. But when Kyung-jin actually runs into Jinsil, it’s an entirely different story: Jinsil begs for cigarettes, Kyung-jin tries to claim that she doesn’t smoke, but then a pack of cigarettes falls out of her pocket and Jinsil scrambles for them. Kyung-jin, furious that she’s been exposed as a smoker, calls Jinsil a freak and storms off. The story entreats the reader to wonder whether they, too, would act the same way around Jinsil. Would you be too proud to treat her like a human being? Too scared? For all of Kyung-jin’s teenaged posturing and hard drinking, empathy—the kind she herself deserves from all the people who’ve hurt and humiliated her—is beyond her.

Other standouts in Nineteen include “mom,” the devastating story of a teenage slacker’s injured mother, and the title story, in which a group of teenaged girls get in trouble at school, get drunk, and meet with even more trouble at home. There are also a couple non-Kyung-jin stories: “life” and “dog.” The former is about an HIV-positive Korean youth who believes himself contaminated and fears for the safety of his family (interestingly, it’s based on an anonymous comment posted in an online forum in 2003). The latter is composed of the meditations of a dog as he walks around Seoul and then, disturbingly enough, humps his own daughter. Like the rest of Nineteen, both stories are dark, their characters isolated. They make effective companions to the Kyung-jin stories in that they remind us of the things happening outside her world: blinded by youth and self-absorption, our heroine is unaware that hers isn’t the only pain out there.

Nineteen is a book that’s by turns smart, sad, and scathing. Drawn & Quarterly’s English translation captures the nuance of youthful speech, and Ancco’s drawing style is a thorough embodiment of teenaged ennui. Readers should not attempt the book without knowledge of its grittiness and unflinching portrayal of what it means to be alive in a time and place that cares very little about your aliveness. But if you’re looking to read about the millennial condition—and you’re willing to grit your teeth through the scary stuff—then Nineteen will be an ideal read.

R.A. Frumkin is the author of The Comedown (2018) as well as two forthcoming books: Confidence (2023) and Bugsy and Other Stories (2024). Their fiction, essays, journalism, and criticism have been published in Granta, Guernica, the Paris Review, and the Washington Post, among other places. They are an assistant professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University. More from this author →