In Hiromi Goto and Ann Xu's graphic novel Shadow Life, an elderly woman faces life and death on her own terms
This interview originally aired on March 19, 2022.
Hiromi Goto is the Japanese Canadian author of eight books of fiction, poetry and writing for children.
In her graphic novel Shadow Life a 76-year-old widow named Kumiko fights hard to live on her own terms. She breaks out of her seniors home, which is called Green Acres, defies her daughters — and finally, like a superhero, she wrestles with death and its minions.
This heroine breaks stereotypes of older women, and that's what Goto wanted to do when she created Kumiko. She's fearless, fierce and defies attempts to curb her independence.
Goto and her Shadow Life illustrator Ann Xu spoke with Shelagh Rogers about creating the graphic novel.
A remarkable protagonist
Hiromi Goto: "There's something about visual representation that is so much more real than just word-based text. If you're privileged to have sight, then to see representations of older people or all kinds of different diverse characters is a different experience than to just read about it. It's different in your mind and it's different in your heart. And I really, really wanted to see Kumiko alive in all her glory.
"She's a 76-year-old Japanese Canadian woman who's been living in a supported living situation. Her daughters really wanted her to be there, I think just for peace of mind and safety and all sorts of loving reasons. But Kumiko never felt comfortable there and she was never happy there. She's a tough older woman with a great deal of fortitude and she just goes on the lam — and this is the adventure of her life."
She's a tough older woman with a great deal of fortitude and she just goes on the lam — and this is the adventure of her life.- Hiromi Goto
The spectre of death
Ann Xu: "I think I tried to portray death as sort of amorphous, kind of looming and very shadowy, of course, as the title implies, Shadow Life. And there are several scenes where it also almost takes the spectre of an animal — but it's not an animal. It turns into a crow, it turns into a cat and various other creatures later in the book as well.
I wanted to portray that scary, uncanny-feeling monster that also has a little bit of whimsy to it.- Ann Xu
"I wanted to portray that scary, uncanny-feeling monster that also, even in some scenes, has a little bit of whimsy to it. It's a little bit playful in those instances, which I thought was quite interesting about the script."
Hiromi Goto: "I really wanted to relay that sense of companionable nudity that can happen in some bathing spaces. Particularly drawing from a non-WASP background, the relationships we have with our bodies and public nudity can mean very different things.
"So for the bathing-room scenes, I was drawing upon the camaraderie that one can feel in a Japanese bathhouse. There's a lot of puritanical but then also highly sexualized relationships to the naked body in North America. I miss that comfortable feeling that you can have around just being your naked self among other people and it's just normal."
I think it's very nice to show these different older women caring for each other in this public space.- Ann Xu
Ann Xu: "Showing bodies in this non-sexualized manner is very important. I also like how in those scenes with these other women in the shower room, they're not really main characters — they don't really talk that much and when they do have their conversations with each other it's in Korean. But they have a very companionable silence with each other and they're always passing each other by.
"And they do try to help Kumiko out in some instances later as well. I think it's very nice to show these different older women caring for each other in this public space."
Dealing with worry
Hiromi Goto: "People respond to worry in all kinds of ways. And in the case of Kumiko's oldest daughter, she becomes very controlling and demanding the more worried she becomes. And that actually arises from fear and concern.
I wanted to relay the different ways we are loving, and also controlling, to the loved ones in our lives and how there needs to be balance with that.- Hiromi Goto
"I'm also drawing upon my own family systems where we have all sorts of people in our family who express their emotions in different kinds of ways.
"I wanted to relay the different ways we are loving, and also controlling, to the loved ones in our lives and how there needs to be balance with that."
Hiromi Goto and Ann Xu's comments have been edited for length and clarity.