The Contours of Negative Space: On Tessa Hulls’s “Feeding Ghosts”

Martin Dolan reviews Tessa Hulls’s “Feeding Ghosts.”

The Contours of Negative Space: On Tessa Hulls’s “Feeding Ghosts”

Feeding Ghosts by Tessa Hulls. MCD. 384 pages.

“I GREW UP in a house choked by ghosts,” writes Portland-based cartoonist Tessa Hulls in the introduction to her new graphic memoir Feeding Ghosts. “My family formed itself around the contours of […] negative space.” Feeding Ghosts organizes its many sometimes-competing strands around precisely this negative space. With chunky yet meticulously crafted linework—white highlights cut into black backgrounds, resembling a series of linoleum-cut prints—Hulls carves a brave new take on graphic nonfiction out of the supposedly solid blocks of history, geography, and narrative voice.

The events of the book’s nearly 400 pages are neatly laid out, reference-book style, as an illustrated timeline preceding the first chapter. Jumping across 80 years and three continents, Hulls literally maps her family’s history onto that of Mao Zedong’s rise and the transformation of CCP-dominated East Asia. However, as Hulls explains in the book’s introduction, her goal for the book isn’t necessarily settling on the “truth” of what happened to her family. Rather, she’s most interested in the ways her maternal grandmother’s trauma reverberates in her and her mother’s lives, even a decade after her grandmother’s death.

The narrative follows Hulls’s grandmother, Sun Yi, from her birth in the major Chinese city of Suzhou in 1927. The eldest daughter of a middle-class teacher, Sun Yi ends up working in Shanghai as a journalist and comes of age in an era when even the most cosmopolitan of China’s urban centers buckle under Mao’s surveillance state. In 1949, months before the CCP officially declares the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Sun Yi starts a relationship with a Swiss diplomat and soon gives birth (unmarried) to a mixed-race daughter, Hulls’s mother. The diplomat is soon transferred back to Europe due to rising political tensions, leaving Sun Yi alone to raise a Eurasian daughter, circumstances which, along with her past as a journalist, make her a target for constant surveillance and intimidation. Over the next eight years, Sun Yi and her daughter navigate poverty and political violence in the early years of Mao’s China before finally escaping in 1957 to British-controlled Hong Kong. After reconnecting there with old Shanghai media contacts, Sun Yi writes a memoir entitled Eight Years in Red China, whose success grants her financial security, minor celebrity status, and the validation that her and her daughter’s story is finally being heard.

But Hong Kong is by no means a clean break from the specter of CCP surveillance. With the money from her memoir, Sun Yi sends her daughter to an elite British-style boarding school. There, girls are trained equally in French literature and fashion sense, primed to go to prestigious Western universities and, eventually, marry the next generation’s neocolonial elites. But while her daughter is away, Sun Yi, paranoid and depressed, suffers a nervous breakdown. She is hospitalized and spends the rest of her life on psychiatric drugs, in and out of institutions. As a young adult, Hulls’s mother moves to the United States for college and starts a family, but a mix of love, desperation, and obligation brings her aging, mentally ill mother across the Pacific to live with them too. Hulls—half English on her father’s side, a quarter Swiss and a quarter Chinese on her mother’s—grows up in rural California. She comes of age conflicted by her interest in her Chinese family’s story and her firsthand experience of the trauma that is still stunting the women in her life decades later.

But what’s most compelling about Feeding Ghosts isn’t its narrative. It’s the way Hulls’s voice interjects throughout and questions her own assumptions about so-called “history.”

Sun Yi’s memoir has long since fallen out of print in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where it was originally published, but Hulls located a copy and, using grant money, had it translated to English by Vee Hua for use in her book. She quotes Sun Yi extensively throughout Feeding Ghosts, using a smudgy typewriter font to distinguish their voices. But in light of the nervous breakdown that immediately followed the memoir’s 1958 publication, Hulls pushes back against many of the claims her grandmother makes, writing that the persona Sun Yi adopted for her memoir was just another of the many “masks” that she and her daughter learned to wear. “Willful denial of fact runs through [Sun Yi’s] memoir,” Hulls writes. “She presents meeting my grandfather as a love story, but the language is unconvincing and she often contradicts herself, vacillating between acknowledgment and denial of the fact that she was simply being used.” Later, during research for her own book, Hulls unearths decades-old diplomatic dossiers containing correspondence between Sun Yi and the Swiss ambassador to China who had succeeded her child’s father. In the letters, she demands recognition of paternity and all the financial and political benefits it would entail. The letter sent in return informs Sun Yi that the man she has been looking for is dead. He committed suicide in the late 1950s, shortly after being institutionalized himself.

If Sun Yi’s story is the book’s starting point and Hull’s present-day perspective functions as its frame, Hulls’s (still living) mother acts as the beating heart of Feeding Ghosts. Hulls quotes her mother directly throughout the book, and what makes her presence so engaging is that unlike Sun Yi, whose words are only encountered through her literary output, Hulls’s mother comments on both the present-day and historical narratives. And, interestingly, she functions as something of an antagonist—vocally suspicious of Hulls’s preoccupation with unearthing their family’s past.

In a telling detail, Hulls’s mother is referred to by several different names as the story unfolds. Rose, the first name by which Hulls knows her mother, is merely a Western name given to her by an English teacher at her boarding school. But Rose is also Gok Yi Teem (her legal name in Shanghai); Baobei (the Chinese pet name Sun Yi called her, meaning “precious”); and Kappeler, the name of her Swiss father, which was denied to her due to unproven paternity and was shortened, in Hong Kong, to Kuo. All these different versions of Hulls’s mother exist at once in Feeding Ghosts. The Rose that Hulls interviews in 2016 is a warped reflection of the plucky little girl glimpsed in Sun Yi’s memoir, or of the teenager at the upper-crusty boarding school who secretly spends her weekends in psychiatric wards, advocating for her mother’s care. In the present day, Rose Hulls is a compulsively religious, chronically anxious woman in her seventies, so used to the burden of caring for her mentally ill mother that it’s hard to recognize her as her own person by the time Sun Yi dies in 2012. This disconnect is largely the book’s point: that only by taking a simultaneously personal and historical perspective is it possible to make sense of generational trauma.

Rose’s decades-spanning presence is also essential to the book’s most interesting yet messy subplot: that beyond merely synthesizing her family’s history, Hulls uses the occasion of writing her memoir to reconnect with her borderline-estranged mother. “I grew up with dual mothers,” Hulls writes, “loved by a force that was simultaneously shelter from the storm and the maelstrom to be feared.” Hulls calls this trauma-stricken version of her mother, cold and distant, the “ghost twin,” an impersonal caretaker’s mask that Rose initially developed as a response to the constant vigilance demanded by Sun Yi’s psychiatric needs. “The contours of my mother’s life bent to the shape of her mother’s illness,” Hulls writes. “Sun Yi could not hold her own reality together: she relied on my mom for that.” Yet, “in her rabid dedication to protecting her family from all assailants, [Rose] could not see that those assailants were often of her own invention.”

As a teenager, Hulls runs away from the house that, in her mind, is poisoned by Sun Yi and Rose’s toxic codependence. Rose worries that signs of latent mental illness, passed on from Sun Yi, are bubbling under the surface for her and her daughter. To Hulls, this fear feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy that she must flee to avoid. So while her mother descends down rabbit holes of increasingly cult-like therapeutic and spiritual movements, Hulls goes to college out of state and adopts what she calls her own “cowboy” persona, seeking freedom at all costs. Embarking on monthslong bike trips, taking seasonal contract work across the globe, and hanging out with loose collectives of artists, Hulls spends her twenties and thirties defiantly avoiding any choices that might pin her down. But after Sun Yi dies in 2012, leaving Hulls’s mother without caretaker responsibilities for the first time since she was a child, Hulls realizes that her life on the road is just another version of the same unhealthy coping mechanisms her mother possesses. Securing grant funding for the project that will eventually grow into Feeding Ghosts becomes a reason not just to reclaim Sun Yi’s past but also to recognize how those historical and personal traumas persisted and developed across nearly half a century to shape her and Rose’s own mother-daughter relationship.

In a great moment near the end of Feeding Ghosts, several threads come together to show the generative potential both of graphic nonfiction as a form and of Hulls’s malleable perspective on history. In a three-panel sequence that’s less of a scene than an illustration of a Socratic dialogue, Hulls draws herself and her mother at opposite ends of the page, holding up a short list of “agreed upon facts” about their falling-out. Yet, in dialogue bubbles scattered in the margins, they argue about specifics. “It was very cutting-edge spiritual stuff!” says Rose, to which Hulls responds, “It was … um … my mom says I can’t call it a cult.” Rose explains that the group she was studying with taught her that “psychological work involves transference […] betrayal is part of that.” To which Hulls’s illustrated version of herself merely replies, “That … speaks for itself.”

This page-long scene, presented almost as a joke, perfectly captures both the formal playfulness and the intellectual rigor Hulls brings to the three life stories woven together in her book. While Feeding Ghosts belongs to a long tradition of subgenre-defining graphic nonfiction including Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) and Persepolis (2000–03), Hulls’s narrative voice is uniquely captivating because she combines her cartoonist quirkiness with both a fine artist’s eye for page composition and a willingness to dive into dense subject matter without grasping for easy closure. Hulls makes it clear in chapters about her own adolescence that she’s skeptical of the psychiatric and therapeutic traditions that trapped her mother and grandmother for decades, but it’s interesting how willing she is to lay out so much about herself for a book that, supposedly, is about her grandmother. She draws connections between Sun Yi’s earliest memories and the insecurities and small traumas of her own life. Not all of these reflections land—some of the summarized history and quoted trauma theorists lend the book an uneasy air of pop sociology—but the density of Feeding Ghosts is admirable nonetheless. It operates on one level as the story of Sun Yi’s escape from Maoist totalitarianism, but the book is so much richer as a portrait of an artist turning the act of writing, of drawing, and of remembering the so-called “truth” into real-time reflection, interrogating her own biases and insecurities along the way.

Feeding Ghosts uses the often untapped potential of graphic nonfiction to reckon with history—both personal and global—in a complex, collage-like way. While Hulls may end up biting off more than she can chew when inserting herself into Sun Yi’s story, the book offers a fascinating look at the inseparable relationship between family myth and history, never losing track of the touchingly messy mother-daughter relationship at its core.

LARB Contributor

 Martin Dolan is a writer based out of Upstate New York. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Baffler, and more.


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