[INTERVIEW] Author of 'comfort women' series urges world to hear their testimonies - Korea Times
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[INTERVIEW] Author of 'comfort women' series urges world to hear their testimonies

Author Kim Soom / Courtesy of Hyundae Munhak
Author Kim Soom / Courtesy of Hyundae Munhak

Novel depicting Japan's wartime sex slavery to be reprinted in US

By Park Han-sol

In recent months, Harvard Law School Professor John Mark Ramseyer's paper "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War" has created an uproar in political and academic circles by challenging the dominant discourse of Japan's wartime sexual slavery.

In his article published in December, Ramseyer labelled World War II sex slaves as "voluntary prostitutes," not wartime victims who were taken to comfort stations against their will and forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers.

As expected, his paper has been weathering a torrent of criticism from historians the world over.

The professor's controversial claims, which echoed the views of Japanese far-right activists, meanwhile, rekindled some U.S. readers' interest in Japan's wartime crimes. Those relatively unaware of the horrendous sex slavery during World War II, began to wonder about the truth behind these women's stories.

Kim Soom's first book of the "comfort women" series "One Left" is scheduled for its second printing in the U.S. against such a backdrop, according to its translators Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton.

Kim Soom's 'One Left' (2020), translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton / Courtesy of the University of Washington Press
Kim Soom's 'One Left' (2020), translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton / Courtesy of the University of Washington Press
Author Kim said there were plenty of unexpected turns and twists even before the decision to reprint "One Left" was made, although she was not aware of the exact details.

"I understand that Mr. and Ms. Fulton initially didn't think the publication would be that difficult," she said during a recent Korea Times interview.

In a media interview, the Fultons explained that more than 30 U.S. publishing houses refused to print the book without citing a specific reason.

"One Left" has not gained much attention from the media, either. After it was released under the University of Washington Press, few U.S. news outlets would report on the publication.

To promote the timely book, the couple went the extra mile by appearing at local book clubs and gave college lectures.

"The Fultons had a passion and a strong sense of duty to let the world know about the comfort women issue during and even after the translation process. They added a meaningful layer to my book, which made me rethink about the role of translators. I'm so thankful for their work," Kim said.

Her novel, published in 2016 and later translated into English in 2020, is an excruciatingly painful journey following a 13-year-old girl who was kidnapped and taken to Manchuria and placed into a "living hell" as a sex slave for Japanese soldiers. Even after Korea gains independence and she returns to her home country, she continues to live in isolation as an outcast, forever traumatized by her haunted past.

Based on painstaking historical research and hundreds of testimonies of comfort women, the author portrays what must have been the fate for nearly 200,000 women aged as young as 11 through to their mid-20s across Japanese-occupied territories. Raped by dozens of solider per day, these girls were subject to gut-wrenching suffering including beatings, stabbings, forced abortions, malnutrition and sexually transmitted diseases.

Kim urged those who were unfamiliar with wartime sexual slavery to become aware of the horrendous nature of this violation of human rights.

"This isn't just an event that once took place in the past but continues into the present through the lives of the survivors," Kim said. "And we continue to witness similar forms of sexual violence and gross violations of human rights. I wanted to stress that this issue is not just limited to Korean women in the past, but something we all need to be concerned with."

She added that the comfort women who gave their testimonies emphasized the solidarity with women of other race and nationalities. "The reason we take interest in wartime sexual slavery is because we are talking about the restoration of fundamental human rights and dignity. That's a universal necessity."

The 47-year-old author said that watching the dwindling number of surviving comfort women made her write the story where there is only one official ― and more hidden ― remaining survivor. Currently, the number of the officially registered victims is 15, making the novel not far from reality in the near future.

But Kim didn't stop writing about these women after "One Left." In fact, she went on to publish three more books that came to form her "comfort women" series. Compared to "One Left" whose story primarily came from direct quotations of survivors, with the author's own presence hidden as much as possible, "Flowing Letter" boldly adopts a first-person narrative of a 15-year-old girl mentally rotting away in a comfort station. It's much more direct, agonizing yet truthful.

The two subsequent novels ― "Have You Ever Wished the Soldiers to be Angels" and "Listening to Your Inner Voices: Painful Yet Noble" ― are based on her face-to-face interviews with two comfort women, the late Kim Bok-dong and Gil Won-ok. In writing such an amalgamation of testimonies and fiction, Kim wanted to portray the women not only as the victims, objects of pity, but also as dynamic individuals experiencing complicated layers of emotions.

From left, 'Flowing Letter,'
From left, 'Flowing Letter,' "Have You Ever Wished the Soldiers to be Angels" and "Listening to Your Inner Voices: Painful Yet Noble," all written by Kim Soom / Courtesy of Hyundae Munhak

"After finishing One Left, I just felt that I haven't fully understood their stories. And it seemed like an incomplete piece to me. It took two years for me to gradually take in their experiences and feel them in my body," she said. "I could finally start picturing the reality of these young women and what the dilapidated comfort station would have been like for them. So One Left, Flowing Letter and the two testimonials, they are all one literary work in the end."

Whereas her earlier works were often characterized as mesmerizingly surreal, provocative and grotesque that left the readers in the state of ambiguous anxiety, many of her recent novels from "L's Sneakers" (2016) and the "comfort women" series (2016-2018) to "The Wandering Land" (2020) launch a critical investigation into modern Korean history.

Through the restoration of Lee Han-yeol's blood-stained shoes, "L's sneakers" recounts the story of the student activist whose brutal death propelled the June 10 pro-democracy movement in 1987 against the authoritarian regime of President Chun Doo-hwan. Kim's most recent full-length novel "The Wandering Land" focuses on the forced mass transfer of more than 170,000 ethnic Koreans residing in the Russian Far East to the unpopulated Central Asian regions in 1937.

Kim explained that the shift in her literary focus to examine the socially marginalized came from her interest in the process of restoration.

"L's Sneakers and The Wandering Land are historical restorations, whereas One Left is the restoration of memories. It's not that I'm necessarily an author with a keen sense of history, but these were just the stories I wanted to write and happened to require a heavy amount of investigation into the modern era surrounding Korea and its neighbors," she said.

Her exhaustive historical research is part of her effort to deliver the stories of the oppressed without damaging their dignity and rights that have already been taken away.

"I want to thoroughly confirm whether the story I'm writing about is actually part of the subjects' experiences since I can't simply make it up with my imagination. There's a fine line between turning their life into fiction and keeping the original experience intact, and it's not always an easy task to maintain that boundary."

This month, the author's new meta-fiction revolving around the process of gathering testimonies of comfort women is scheduled to be published. Before the whole nation took interest in the horrific news involving these marginalized women, there were individuals who made efforts to gather their statements in person and turned them into books of great historical value. In her new book, she wanted to portray the long process from tape-recording to transcribing such testimonies in detail.

Since her literary debut in 1997, Kim has published multiple short story collections and full-length novels, such as "Fighting Dog," "Women and Their Evolving Enemies," "To Abandon the Yellow Dog" and "One Night with Kyung-sook." She has also been the recipient of prestigious prizes, including the Yi Sang, Daesan and Hyundae Munhak Literary Awards.


박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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