Title: Comfort Woman
Author: Nora Okja Keller
Genre: realistic fiction, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, women’s fiction, literary fiction
content warning: rape, sexual violence, sexual slavery, child neglect
This was a surprisingly easy novel to read despite its incredibly weighty topic. I’m taking an Asian American lit class this semester, and I was assigned this to read immediately following a really frustrating documentary about comfort woman, and to be quite frank, I expected to have to force myself through this, crying and moaning the whole time. And I did cry––of course I cried, I’m the girl who cried during Madagascar––but there was a sense of effervescence throughout the narrative that made it bearable. The writing was, of course, beautiful, but it wasn’t just that. There was a life to the story, a spirit.
Comfort Woman tells the parallel stories of Akiko, a Korean comfort woman, and Beccah, the daughter she eventually comes to have with the American missionary she chooses to marry in order to leave Korea. After Akiko’s death, Beccah is forced to confront the mother she thought she knew––and the woman who, she comes to realise, she didn’t know at all.
I’m not going to talk too long about what an important novel this is––though indubitably it is that––but I do want to talk about how good this novel is. World War II narratives tend to end in victory or in death, and they also tend to end when the war does. In some ways, this makes narrative sense. In other ways, it obscures the generational trama that still lingers to this day, especially in a political climate where Shinzo Abe visits the Yasukuni Shrine, the former mayor of Tokyo is an apologist for Japanese war crimes, and the very few comfort women who are still alive have yet to be offered state reparations or an official apology by either Emperor Akihito or the Japanese government.
Comfort Woman spends very little time in the camps themselves, and it’s a stronger novel for having done so. It certainly doesn’t shy away from the horrors of those euphemistically named “comfort stations,”but it doesn’t gorge itself on the comfort women’s pain. It doesn’t feel at all exploitative––rather, it focuses itself on the aftermath of trauma, and the way trauma never truly leaves us. So instead of visiting brutalisation upon women’s bodies with the reader as a willing or unwilling voyeur, we experience the camp through Akiko’s perspective, and we see the way it follows her, the way it bleeds into the life of her daughter Beccah.
The novel is split into two by time, by space, and by narrator. Akiko begins her story in colonised Korea, going forward through the war, while Beccah begins in Hawai’i in the modern day with her mother’s death, and reaches backwards to her dysfunctional childhood. This split POV was at times frustrating, Beccah’s voice cutting in just as I was getting caught up in Akiko’s narrative––but I think it was effective not only in conveying this intergenerational trauma, but also, I think, in shaping our perspectives towards both Beccah and Akiko.
It’s in the relationship between these two that the heart of the novel truly lies. It’s a tense one, to be sure––Beccah describes growing up with a mother who was unable to take care of her, unable to blend in with the other mothers, who embarrasses her and sometimes neglects her. For Akiko, Beccah is in some ways both fruit and defiance of her trauma––her conception and birth both manifest in a reliving of her time at the camp. Yet it’s clear that they love each other, that they are the world to each other––Beccah is Akiko’s caretaker and advocate, while for Akiko, Beccah becomes the reason she plans and lives, the one light in her life.
There’s a lot between them that’s left unsaid, and it’s up to the readers to fill in the gaps. This is a really effective technique, because I think it really hammers in the fact that trauma takes away our speech, takes away the reliability of language––that language, at times, is a kind of trauma.
I really enjoyed this novel––if enjoyment is the right word. Despite the deep undercurrent of anger, of pain, of bitterness, and resentment, the novel is ultimately one about love, and about the legacies that our parents leave us.