A Korean American author's reverie on the victims of World War II sexual enslavement has landed in e-book form in the midst of fresh controversy provoked by a Japanese politician's defense of "comfort women" as necessary for wartime discipline and morale.
Sibyl, whose Korean mother and GI father have imparted a sanitized version of their postwar meeting during his service at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, is in search of the secrets of her heritage, which were lost with her mother's early death from cancer. Jang-Mee, adopted from a rural orphanage at age 4 and brought up in small-town Minnesota, has come to look for her birth mother, whom she recalls through fragmented memories she has meticulously nurtured.
Their stories veer through a South Korean capital freshly invigorated by an economic boom and successful hosting of the 1988
Her novel is a work of fiction, but the channeling of the comfort women's abuse is so intimate and graphic as to seem at times like narrative history. It captures the essence of women caught between two cultural identities and traveling into the realm of the surreal.
"I can feel in my heart their suffering, the rage of those who died in the ordeal, silenced by shame," Sibyl conveys upon learning of the comfort women's ordeal in the novel. The shame "finds its way, slips through the pores of the living, surviving as a quiet
A Generation X scholar of Greek tragedy, like narrator Sibyl, Lee spoke with The Times about "Sunday Girl" and the legacies of Korean and American culture that led her to write it.
Question: What was your inspiration for writing the book? Did you hear stories growing up about the sexual enslavement of Korean women before and during World War II?
Lee: No stories were passed down to me. I was brought up in near silence, as far as my parents' past and the war were concerned. I think there was a lot of trauma they went through, that they chose not to remember. And I didn't ask. There seemed to be this kind of invisible fence I couldn't cross. Then when I heard about the comfort women, in the 1990s, my reaction was so visceral, it was almost seismic. I felt the tragedy immediately in my body. I had always wanted to be a writer and I felt like I needed to lend my voice to their stories. After the brutal trauma they experienced, the second trauma was their silence, due to the shame. It prevented any kind of healing.
Q: Are any of the stories or resources referred to in the book historical accounts or are they all purely fictional? The diary of Dr. Noh Young-Soo has such an authentic ring to it.
Lee: It is purely fictional. One of my writing professors was E.L. Doctorow. The best advice he gave me was not to do my research beforehand, that it would weigh me down. But I did read a lot of war narratives and assimilated it all.
Q: The book is threaded with mystical elements, the notion that blood can carry memory and pass it down through the generations like physical traits. Do you feel experiences of women in previous generations?
Lee: Mysticism is something I've been quite skeptical about, as is Sibyl. But I have to say that the active creation and writing led me to believe otherwise, that I have this soul that has experienced many things that I have not. That's why I can write about it with such knowledge. I felt like there were these unremembered dead within me. The ones that died tragically, penniless. They were people who suffered tremendously and were not able to talk about it. I intuited, though I had no personal experience, that they were my ancestors. When I first heard about the comfort women, something within me was speaking, asking me to write about it.
Q: There are scenes of sadomasochism as well as sexual violence involving Sibyl. Is she trying to channel the blood memories of the abuses suffered by the comfort women?
Lee: This was very difficult for me, almost a sacrifice. But I think that divulging some of these topics, which are quite taboo, is very healing. Shame is at the threshold of taboo. Sibyl is able to break through it by enacting the most shameful experiences she can think of.
Q: There is a parallel story in the book about adoption of Korean children by Americans and the influence that has had on the grown children's identity. Do you see the stories of sexual enslavement and the proliferation of adoptions as connected?
Lee: They share the element of shame, of sex before marriage, and when a child came, there was a need to hide that evidence of shame. Most of the children given up for adoption came from unmarried women. If you were a Korean woman, your future was entirely dependent on finding a man who would help you survive. If you had sexual relations – God forbid you got pregnant – no man was going to look at you. You were used goods. Christmas cake, as the Japanese say: something no one wants after the holiday.
Q: Why is the story of the two young Korean American women set in 1991?
Lee: That was the year when Kim Hak-soon came forward, the first comfort woman to tell her story. I wanted there to be a revelation at the end of the book. There was so much going on in 1991 – the first Gulf War, with a lot of American soldiers still in Korea talking about the possibility of getting shipped off to the [Persian] Gulf. My novel is very much in that zeitgeist, the main motif not being just about comfort women but about how wounds that are not dressed and healed will recur and get passed down.
Q: The mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, has revived the controversy over
Lee: Hashimoto is a bit hotheaded, quite extreme. But Japan has really sidestepped legal responsibility throughout various prime ministers' terms. They have paid lip service and expressed regret over what happened and set up some kind of compensation fund. But they have not admitted in categorical terms that what occurred was an atrocity. That's why many of the surviving comfort women won't take the money.
Right-wing militarism seems to be growing in Japan. Hashimoto’s comments made me reflect on the disparate ways that postwar