Nora Okja Keller (1999) Comfort Women

Comfort Women by Nora Okja Keller began as a short story. Keller turned it into an acclaimed debut novel.

Comfort Women sounds kind of nice. A pseudonym for mass rape, torture and mass murder by Japanese soldiers who invaded Korea in the same way England invaded Ireland. Japanese Imperialism, claiming to be ‘for the good of Koreans’, failed when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The roots of genocide remain because some nationalities aren’t considered real people. Soldiers harvested Korean women to sexually service them in stalls. Beaten, violated and gutted for bringing diseases such as syphilis was their payment. Throwaway women. Their children aborted by hooks or rat poison.

Beccah’s mum, Akiko, was one of these Comfort Women. Just a child, an orphan, she was sold into slavery. Her job was to tend to the women in each stall. They weren’t allowed to speak, but communicated by codes. 1930, 1931, 1932.  She too had a stall.

‘Even though I had not yet had my first bleeding, I was auctioned off to the highest bidder. After that it was a free-for-all, and I thought I would never stop bleeding.’

 She too serviced hundreds of men daily.

In alternate chapters, Beccah tells of her story with her troubled mum. She married an American missionary and escaped to America. Honolulu was their new home. Akiko never escaped. She died many deaths and still lived them daily. She tried to honour the spirits of the dead and the undead, honour her ancestors in the old ways. She tried to protect her much-loved daughter from the spirits that surrounded her and tried to take her away.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder puts these traumas neatly into a box that keeps springing open. She takes on the identity of Induk, who defied the Japanese soldiers by telling them them home truths. They were violating and raping her. They were beasts. Japanese soldiers ripped her body apart as a lesson to others. Induk spoke for them. Hers was the lesson they learned. ‘Induk didn’t go crazy. Induk went sane.’ Survival was the language they didn’t need to speak.

Korea remains split and Akiko remained split too. Auntie Reno recognised ability. Akiko could speak English, Korean and Japanese. She entered trance states and could speak to their ancestors and the spirit world. She was touched. Such people were rare. Her gift was having been to hell she could provide a service to those that needed to know about their loved ones that had died. How could they placate their ancestors? Auntie Reno became her manager. This was her work, which provided an income, mostly for Auntie Reno, but that’s good business sense.

Beccah lived in the real world. American schooling could be brutal for those that didn’t fit in. She, of course, never could. Never would. Her mum made sure of that. That maternal love-filled fear that nurtured and suffocated her in an Un-American way. Birth, menstruation, marriage, birth and death. Her mother was a pathfinder, but never enough. Sometimes too much. The story of Korea in the twentieth century, but also of American missionary prejudices and a sense of exceptionalism, bigger and brasher than the Japanese and wrapped in the Star Spangled Banner. Told in poetic prose, a masterclass of a novel. Read on.




Those poor brutalised women


Bruatlised and forgotten. The seed of hatred remains. The otherness and hatred that is part of the eugenics movement that is part of the right-wing swing that hates foreigners.