Seattle Culture

Feeding Ghosts to Free Them

Artist Tessa Hulls creates a revealing graphic novel to help her deal with childhood trauma

By Shin Yu Pai April 15, 2024

Black and white illustration of a woman reading a book to the her daughter and her granddaughter. All 3 figures are linked through their bones. The text in the image is written in the image caption.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

Seattle artist Tessa Hulls’ new graphic novel Feeding Ghosts is a deeply stirring narrative of loss, mental illness, and intergenerational trauma. Set against the backdrop of China and its difficult histories, Hulls’ book is reminiscent of graphic memoirs like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do.

Feeding Ghosts braids together the narratives of three women: Hulls’ Chinese grandmother Sun Yi, her mother, Rose, and Hulls’ own experiences as a mixed-race woman seeking to understand her family’s past. Sun Yi was a journalist in Shanghai during the communist takeover and wrote for pro-nationalist newspapers. She had an affair with a Swiss diplomat and gave birth to a child out of wedlock. Sun Yi was labeled a political dissident and, after eight years of enduring arrests, surveillance and Maoist-era thought reform, she and her daughter escaped China by leaving the country in the false bottom of a fishing boat bound for Hong Kong.

In exile, Sun Yi wrote a memoir about her experiences under the communist regime. With the royalties from the book, she placed her daughter Rose in an elite boarding school before she suffered a severe mental breakdown. Later, Rose moved to the U.S. on a scholarship, and was eventually able to bring her mother to live with her in Northern California.

Hulls grew up with Sun Yi in a small town where she had almost no exposure to Chinese language or culture. Unable to communicate with her grandmother and scapegoated by her own mother as being mentally ill like Sun Yi, Hulls left home and spent much of her 20s living the fiercely independent life of an outdoor adventurer. When she became 30, she began to turn back toward the intergenerational trauma and displacement that her family had experienced. Throughout her book, Hulls acts as a guide to help the reader wrestle with the atrocities of history, make connections between intergenerational patterns, and tease out the complexities of identity and connection to place and home.

Hulls knew that if she made Feeding Ghosts as a written book, the scope of its history would have immediately relegated it to the sphere of a dense academic text. “Making a graphic novel was my sneak-attack way of giving my readers a crash course in Chinese history without overwhelming them,” Hulls says. “Comics have a unique ability to make complex, heavy material emotionally vivid and immediately accessible.”

Portrait of writer and artist Tessa Hulls.

Tessa Hulls chose a graphic-novel format to tell a complicated story of her family.

Gritchelle Fallesgon

To write Feeding Ghosts, Hulls had to teach herself a new art form. She’d been a painter and writer who moved easily between disciplines. But she’d never before worked on a graphic novel. In preparation, she read nearly 100 books on Chinese history. She also had her journalist grandmother’s memoir translated into English, so that she could connect Sun Yi’s life story back to the broader history of Maoist China. Hulls visited the Seattle Public Library regularly to study graphic novels, which prompted her own sketchbook exercises.

In 2019, Hulls spent time working as a writer at the Margery David Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency. During the retreat, she lived alone in an off-grid cabin in Southern Oregon, where she hammered out a 10,000-word outline for the book and mapped six different timelines, while building out the historical context of her project with quotes and primary documents. She spent the next two-and-a-half years making those notes into nearly 400 pages of hand-drawn art.

“The process was brutal,” Hulls says. “I spent four years researching — through books, interviews, archives, and multiple international research trips — before I truly started writing and drawing. I entered the deep production phase of making the actual book just as Covid hit.” Hulls then moved to Port Townsend, where she could disappear and focus on her production deadline.

Despite the dark themes in Feeding Ghosts, Hulls infused her graphic novel with humorous visual metaphors to narrate heavy moments in history. The Sino-Japanese War is illustrated using Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, and a set of Russian nesting dolls shows how her grandmother’s mental breakdown was cradled within the larger collapse of Maoist-era China. She also includes beautiful pages of art that illustrate characters from her favorite childhood books, including Where The Wild Things Are and The Little Prince. “The pages about childhood reading were my favorite ones to draw because escaping into books was the way my younger self found survival and joy within my family,” Hulls says.

Book cover

Book cover for Feeding Ghosts

Courtesy of Tessa Hulls and MCD / FSG Portrait

These moments of Hulls’ imagination interweave with a more objective persona — the author as anthropologist and social commentator. Hulls openly acknowledges the tensions of being emotionally vulnerable while trying to make intellectual sense of the world.

Hulls says that she wrote Feeding Ghosts to answer this question: What broke my family? Much of the book is about repetition, and how three generations of women in Hulls’ family were emotionally crippled by an isolation that kept them from experiencing belonging. She also came to the project as an attempt to heal her relationship with her own mother, who is now disappearing into dementia just as Hulls’ book is finally going out in the world.

“Working together on Feeding Ghosts was both emotionally brutal and emotionally transformative,” Hulls says. “And it’s now providing a heartbreaking gift: My mother is able to slip away knowing and trusting that she has a daughter who loves her. And that would not have happened if I hadn’t embarked on the journey of this book.”

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