Feeding Ghosts: A Graphic Memoir

Image of Feeding Ghosts: A Graphic Memoir
Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
Reviewed by: 

“a tale of cross-generational trauma and how greater world history can deeply affect individuals.”

Tessa Hulls takes full advantage of the graphic novel format to tell the complicated, dramatic story of herself, her mother, and her grandmother. It's a tale of cross-generational trauma and how greater world history can deeply affect individuals. Hulls starts with the limited information she grew up with and launches an intensive search to uncover the truth behind the family myths.

"I grew up in house choked by ghosts, with my grandmother Sun Yi at the center of a darkness that was felt but never named. My family formed itself around the contours of this negative space.

My grandma lived with us, but as a child, I knew only three facts about her:

One: she was from China.

Two: she had once been a journalist, a famous author who wrote a bestselling memoir.

Three: long ago something happened and she lost her mind."

More than understanding her grandmother, Hulls struggles to understand her mother, who imposes a suffocating kind of love on her daughter, growing out of a pathological need for control. Having seen how bonded her mother and her grandmother were, Hull realizes that her mother's own childhood is a central story she needs to uncover. She needs to see what kind of mother her grandmother had been. When had her mental breakdown happened and why?

"But as I chased the facts of my family's story across three continents, four languages, and thousands upon thousands of hours of research, the answers I found began to shift the questions I needed to ask."

Hulls tracks down her grandmother's memoir, learns Chinese, visits family she didn't know existed, and searches for information about her Swedish grandfather, the man who abandoned her pregnant grandmother to raise her child alone in Maoist China. She dives deep into China's history and what happened to her grandmother and the family she left behind when she fled to Hong Kong.

Through it all, she tries to connect with her mother, interviewing her, bringing her back to China, trying to see that world through her eyes. She learns important facts about the family history but never loses sight of what she's looking for most—a way to understand her mother.

"The thing that makes my mother feel loved—a fever pitch of intense emotional escalation and shared weeping . . . is the exact thing that makes me feel like I'm being drowned, obliterated, and washed away. Her love evokes my fear, and this feedback loop causes us both a lot of pain.

Writing this book has allowed us to see the threads of this knot—how love, fear, culture, and mental illness are so intricately bound.

But it's one thing to see a gulf . . . and another to know how to cross it."

Hull is deeply honest and vulnerable in these pages. For all that she describes herself as a cowboy, fleeing emotion, preferring expansive vistas to domestic ties, she invites the reader into her feelings. She shares both her discoveries and her own reactions in vivid prose and powerful drawings. This is a richly complicated story of cross-generational trauma. But it's also a story about the immigrant experience, about family dynamics, about cultural expectations in China and in America. Hull doesn't shy away from any of it. She is as open about her own experience as "mixed race" as about her mother's life as a "Hong Kong Eurasian."

The only gaps in this complicated story are the mysterious absence of Hull's British father and older brother. The family she depicts for herself mirrors her mother's with Sun Yi—the suffocating tie between mother and daughter. Perhaps she didn't want to introduce yet more characters into these dense pages. Perhaps that's the book Hull is working on now, how she relates to her father's culture and family. One can only hope so. Whatever Hull writes next will definitely be worth reading.