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Book Review: Comfort Woman by Nora Okja Keller

Trigger warning: any number of things

When I first started reading Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller, I had to put it away more than once. I even contemplated abandoning it altogether. The writing was smooth and Nora Okja paces the narrative well, but the story was brutal. Four out of every five books I read have a strong, female lead – usually a colored woman. These are the kinds of books that appeal the most to me because reading is like having a long conversation with the author. Sometimes I learn something new, but more often than not, it is the points of connection and resonance that I seek out. Depending on the story, other books can be so immersive that they suspend reality and provide a mindless escape. Those are the best.

Fox Girl is not a book you read for entertainment. It’s a book you pick up to help you make sense of your world – why things are the way they are and what made them that way. The female protagonist, Hyun Jin has a dark birthmark on her face that she thinks of as a blemish. To make herself less conspicuous, she befriends Sookie, a dark-skinned girl she knows others will perceive to be uglier than her. The narrator makes no effort to mitigate the ugliness of racism. There are no pretenses of modesty or decency.

It pissed me off from the get go. But then again there was nothing objectively wrong with the writing. So I did a history deep-dive and read several literature reviews to understand where this narrator was coming from and where the narrative was going. Only then could I proceed to hate-read it much like I hate-watch Succession. Both are an exercise in crossing the line, saying the things that should not be said.

To really understand Fox Girl, you need the historical context. This is the long and short (mostly short) of it. In the early 1900s, Japan successfully fought off China and Russia for dominance over a formally independent Korea. The Japanese were seeking to expand their empire so in 1910, they annexed Korea using violence and forced assimilation – tactics that were popular with imperialists around that time. The Korean language and culture came under assault. Koreans were forced to abandon their names for Japanese ones. During World War II, the imperialists forcibly enlisted many Korean men to the Japanese military. They did not spare the women either. They carted them off into sexual servitude for Japanese soldiers. These women later came to be known as the comfort women.

Many Korean works have explored this subject. It’s in their films (like The Battleship Island), shows, and books (Pachinko, When my name was Keoko, Comfort Woman). Then came the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition, the Soviet Union – which had held up its end of a neutrality pact with Japan until then – invaded Japanese territory and assured their surrender. The USSR advanced into Korea’s northern region, catching the US (which did not have troops on the ground) by surprise. The US, which favored capitalism over the Soviet Union’s communism, proposed a division of the peninsula to deter their takeover. A couple of US officials decided it in half an hour. Differences in political and financial ideology further complicated things. This division was originally a temporary hold, but it remains in place to this day.

In 1950, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (north) backed by the Soviet Union seized the opportunity to unite both Koreas under communist rule and invaded the south. This sparked the Korean War, with the US (and a host of other nations under the UN) coming to the aid of the southern Republic of Korea. The end of this war gave birth to the DMZ (demilitarized zone), the heavily guarded border between what is now North Korea and South Korea.

This is the backdrop against which Fox Girl unfolds. It is not a read for the faint-hearted. During the American occupation of South Korea, camp towns referred to as America town came up around the military bases. Soldiers (or GIs) regularly left the bases to find entertainment in what appeared to be government-sanctioned prostitution. Being the 1950s, racial segregation was still rife in the US. This was no different in the military. They carried over this social hierarchy abroad. America’s social construct of race seeped into the Korean psyche. Locals thoroughly despised and ostracized Korean prostitutes who serviced black GIs were . The characters regularly refer to the black GIs as black dogs in the book, which is hard to stomach.

When the war ended, some soldiers left, many leaving behind their half-Korean-half-American children – some of whom were black. This forms the cast of characters in Fox Girl. The protagonist’s mother, plucked from the north as a girl to serve as a comfort woman, returns home to find that the war obliterated everything. With no family left, she flees to the south hoping for better odds there, but instead enters the sex trade serving the black GIs. Her children fair no better.

I do think that the book sometimes thumps on the shock-value drum too hard. There’s a scene where a mother tries to drown her baby in dirty dish water but it’s when we cross over into dog-eating territory that’s too far. Right? This is why I never watch horror movies and don’t understand people who enjoy them. The blood is fake, and you just have to picture the filming crew following the axe murderer around to remember that it’s all bullshit. If you want to be properly horrified you pick up a History book and keep in mind that it’s all real.

Nora Okja forces you to open your eyes and look at the ravages of war like the folks in Bird Box. By the time I finished, I was shook. Hell, I’m still recovering.

Like us, Koreans suffered at the hands of colonial overlords. The imperialists took their land away and imposed oppressive taxes on them. They attempted to destroy their culture, language and religion. They forced their people to fight in wars that did not belong to them. For a time, faced with starvation due to a faltering agricultural-based economy, they had to depend on foreign aid. At the time, Kenya was in a position to advance a loan to them. Then they took the industrial path to rehabilitate their economy and our paths diverged.

More or less, they have the same wounds in their collective psyche as we do. But unlike us, they don’t turn away from them and try to bury them in the past. They harness them for their book and film industries. They tell their stories, their history, in their own voices. I admire that, maybe even envy it a little.

Today, South Korea has the highest rate of suicide in the world. Their history probably has a large role to play in this, but that is a subject we will explore later.

What are you reading this Valentine’s?


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