Suffering… Pain… Humiliation…Nightmare… Horror…Hopelessness… All these words can clearly define the novel which goes under the title “Comfort Women” written by an outstanding Korean writer Nora Keller. This novel is devoted to the topic of military sexual slavery brought by the Japanese which was taking place in Korea during World War II. The whole novel is written in an unusual form, the story is presented from the point of view of two women: from the point of view of Akiko, who is a comfort woman in past from Korea, and also, her daughter, Beccah, who is trying to find the right way of life. These two women are the representatives of two different generations, so they have their attitude to all the happening events.
The novel’s structure is pretty complex, the storyline rushes back and forth in both time and space, starting from Akiko’s childhood in Korea, to World War II military sex slave camps, and finally to Hawaii 80s and 90s. Akiko is struggling to raise her US daughter while fighting with her past full of pain and tragedy. From the first words, you begin to feel sorry for the main heroes of the novel. Nora Keller tried to show the reader their mother-daughter relationship, which is the point at which Korean religion and superstition are conflicting with American nationality. Keller gives us two narrative perspectives in his book, showing the reader World War II through the eyes of a Korean woman whose gender, class, and race made her most vulnerable to the atrocities of war, and United States through the eyes of a girl, whose mixed heritage is making her choosing one of two ways of living in this world.
Military sexual slavery
Nora Keller is one of the writers who disclose the theme of the ugly violence of Korean young girls. In this novel, the term “comfort women” is considered to be the euphemism for women forced into prostitution and sexual slavery for Japanese military brothels during World War II. Comfort women were female prisoners, forced to be sex slaves imprisoned in “recreation centers” and to serve Japanese soldiers. Many people did not survive at the end of the war, and those who did, were mostly settled wherever they happened to be at the moment when the military withdrew.
The women that survived, who tasted all the atrocities of war, were trying to keep their horrific experiences out of shame in a secret, and it is a very controversial question, whether they were lucky to survive or not, as the majority of the women wanted to be killed, than to live with all this disgrace and to live in tortures the rest of their lives. So, Akiko is one of the representatives of such women, who all her life was trying to protect her daughter from all the possible sorrows, and because of this, she was making a lot of misunderstandings in her relationship with the daughter. Beccah could not understand why did her mother behaved in such a strange way, a strange way for her. Sometimes, she even had the thoughts, that her mother does not let her lead a normal way of life that she just, so to say, switching off the air. And could you imagine the fear of Akiko, who all her life was afraid, that her only child, the only close person in the whole world would find out her heritage and would turn away from her?
The author alternates Beccah’s story with Akiko’s, and the reader comes to realize the extent of the horror Akiko experienced as an adolescent sold into prostitution and forced to become a comfort woman, an element of her past that Beccah learns only after her death. Even though that Akiko managed to get married to one of her rescuers, she could not recover after her slavery, and all her life she was suffering from it. Beccah is lost on the path of life, unsure where her future lies, while her mother is lost in the past, unsure whether it is possible to continue living in the future. Even though that this novel is the first novel of N.Keller it is full of different stylistic devices such as personifications, metaphors, oxymorons, and litotes are presented. Through all these stylistic devices the whole pain of suffering and humiliation which these women have been going through all theirs life is revealed. Through the plot of the novel, the readers get to know all the truthful information about the events which were taking place during World War II. As our society does not get used to calling things by their proper names and all the panic-stricken information is often hidden from the people’s eyes, the only way to tell the truth to humanity is to write novels. Of course, we are not living in the lithic age and such notion as freedom of speech is discussed everywhere. But still there exists the topic which is not to be discussed for everybody to hear it.
And the literature is served as a real tool for speech freedom, especially if this tool is in the hands of such a brilliant writer as Nora Keller. Comfort Woman received a much positive critical response, with reviewers pointing out the sensitive portrayal of a woman’s search for identity and the exploration of the mother-daughter relationship. Many critics described Keller as a gifted writer and storyteller. She succeeded in bringing such a controversial and deep topic to the attention of readers not only in the US or Korea but all over the world. As Merle Rubin, a famous literature critic, stated, “Strongly imagined, well-paced and written with an eloquently restrained lyricism that conveys the subtleties of feelings as well as the harshness of facts, Comfort Woman is a poignant and impressive debut.”
Nora Okja Keller “Comfort Woman”, London, Penguin: 1998. ISBN 0-14-026335-7.
Kim, Jodi. “Haunting History: Violence, Trauma, and the Politics of Memory in Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman.” Hitting Critical Mass: A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism 6.1 (1999): 61-78.