You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
(Maya Angelou: “Still I Rise”)
In the past when there was no television, video games, and internet for recreation, comic books were the most favourite among children. Comic books had an added allure as they were certainly frowned upon, if not forbidden, by parents and guardians. When graphic novels came into fashion sometime in the 1990s, I felt I was revisiting a part of my childhood.
Having enjoyed graphic novels such as Art Spiegel’s Maus, Niel Gaiman’s Sandman and Satrapi’s Persepolis, I was pleased to get hold of Grass by South Korean writer Keum Suk Gendry-Kim. I found the title—Grass—to be so trivial, so insignificant, something one walks on, yet poets have been inspired by just a single blade of grass. Crush it, cut it, burn it—it will survive.
The graphic novel Grass, based on interviews with Granny Lee Ok-Sun at a retirement home for survivors of the “comfort stations”, chronicles the journey of a young Korean girl abducted by the Japanese military and forced into sexual slavery. Women and girls—estimated to be between 50,000 to 2, 00,000—were forced to provide sexual services to the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied countries and territories before and during World War II. They were called “comfort women”—a translation of the Japanese word “ianfu”, a euphemism for "prostitutes"—and the places they were put up in came to be known as “comfort stations”. Originally, the stations were set up for voluntary prostitutes but later many women were abducted or enticed with false promises and installed in those stations.
Turning a real life event of historic importance into fiction
Nicely translated from the Korean by Janet Hong, Grass opens not at the beginning, nor at the end but at a significant moment in Lee Ok-sun’s life as she, who has spent fifty-five years living as a wife and mother in China, is at last able to return home in the winter of 1996. From there, we rewind to her childhood in 1934 in rural Busan, during the Japanese occupation of Korea.
Lee Ok-sun belongs to a poor family and her parents are hardly able to feed her let alone send her to school. Her only dream is to learn to read and write. She is sent to live with a family in Busan city, and this transition offers a prospect of education. Much to her dismay, instead of school, she has to work hard for a living. At the age of fifteen, Ok-sun is kidnapped in broad daylight and ends up in a “comfort station” in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. There she remains from 1942 until the end of the war in 1945. For those three years she suffers countless rapes, beatings, and worse still, contracts syphilis.
The author, Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, has herself illustrated the novel. She uses black brush lines and a style which is a blend of both traditional Asian art and Western influences. While the people and manmade structures are clear and well defined, the natural background seems carelessly and arbitrarily drawn, almost as if to signify nature’s indifference to the passage of the humans who temporarily inhabit this earth. In fact, the landscape itself is sometimes anthropomorphic.
It is noteworthy that though figures are detailed, the drawings of Japanese men are often depicted either without faces or as shadows with jagged mouths and cut-out eyes. The inhumanity with which these women were treated is thus hinted by this grotesqueness in the images which deprive the perpetrators of their humanity by wiping out any distinct facial features.
Also Read: Narrating Bangabandhu’s memoirs in graphics
When the writer also paints
The author Keum Suk Gendry-Kim was born in the town of Goheung in Jeolla Province of South Korea. She majored in painting in 1998 and went to France to study sculpture as an undergrad. She discovered the creative potential in the genre of graphic novels when she took a part-time job translating them from Korean into French. She translated around a hundred graphic novels. In an interview with Emily Jungmin Yoon, she says, “A creative work represents the artist’s perspective about the world, you know. I felt that through the medium of the graphic novel, I too could express the stories I wanted to convey…The graphic novel needs a minimum of materials—paper and pencil—and can reach a lot of people through those … I thought, this is the best artistic medium. That’s how I began writing and drawing graphic novels myself.” (Korean Literature Now, March 25, 2021). In the same interview she compares using the brush and ink to the pansori singing method (a genre of musical storytelling performed by a vocalist and a drummer), which she learned for five years. “You put weight on the tip of the brush and release, hit, retreat…like water flowing, the brushstroke glides, clumps together, pauses. And bounces off. Placing the energy of both the body and the spirit into the brush tip, I draw as if I’m breathing, dancing on the page, sometimes roughly, sometimes softly—as if I’m singing pansori.”
Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s graphic novels include The Song of My Father, Jiseul, and Kogaeyi, which have been translated and published in France. She also wrote and illustrated The Baby Hanyeo Okrang Goes to Dokdo, A Day with My Grandpa, and My Mother Kang Geumsun. She received the Best Creative Manhwa Award for her short graphic novel, “Sister Mija,” about a comfort woman. Grass appeared on Best of the Year lists of the New York Times and the Guardian, and received the Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Print Comic of the Year and the Big Other Book Award for Best Graphic Novel in 2019, and the Harvey Award for Best International Book and the Krause Essay Prize in 2020.
Gendry-Kim’s graphic novels and manhwa deal mostly with people who are outcasts or marginalized. Take for example, Lee, who is like grass – she is sold, insulted, trampled on and beaten up. All through the book, the writer emphasises Lee’s strength in overcoming the many forms of adversity she experienced. She not only survives, but continues to speak out against what was done to her.
The book starts in a positive vein with one caption reading: “In the winter of 1996, the SBS Docudrama Tracing Events and People helped Granny Lee Ok-Sun go back to Korea for the first time in fifty-five years. The episode ‘Comfort Women left in China Return Home’ aired January 4, 1997”. The poignancy of the stark line on the previous page is not missed: “It took me fifty-five years to return, and yet the flight was only two hours”. The ending too, is positive. “The winter is over, and the cold that seemed to last forever is thawing. Spring has finally come”. The final picture shows a smiling Lee.
The subject of ‘comfort women’
The topic of comfort women interests me for a number of reasons. First, as a woman, I relate to any woman’s misfortune during a war, and war and rape seem inevitably linked. I find a correlation between comfort women and our own birangonas, the rape victims of Pakistan’s atrocities during the nine-month Liberation War of Bangladesh. They are certainly not equivalent but they share a few characteristics. Both comfort women and birangonas are victims of war who were abducted and held in “stations” to “service” army personnel and soldiers. Both were subjected to social stigma that haunted them long after the war.
In Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman coined the term birangona – “war heroine” – to restore the dignity of the rape victims of the Liberation War but “society” continues to ostracize them. It took Japan decades to compensate the Korean rape victims. Pakistan has yet to apologise or compensate the birangonas.
Though the story of Lee Ok-Sun may seem to be a story from a distant past, about a different people, and culture very dissimilar to ours, as William Faulkner says in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It's not even past”. We have only to look around us at places of armed or ethnic conflicts, to see sexual violence being committed in a variety of ways. That’s precisely why this book is of utmost importance to us. Further, the protagonist’s resilience in the face of violence and trauma makes it relevant to all people across all cultures.
Razia Sultana Khan is a fiction writer, a poet and an artist.
Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
Illustrated by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
Translated by Janet Hong
Published by Drawn and Quarterly (August 27, 2019)