I’ve been reading a lot about World War Two lately, partly because of a secret project that I can’t tell you about yet but that is very exciting and I promise you will be the first to know when I am allowed to say anything about it, and partly because I’m interpreting for the lovely Kyoko Nakajima next week at the International Festival of Authors. Her first book to come out in English is The Little House (translated expertly as always by Ginny Tapely-Takemori), and it happens to be about a woman living through the war as a housekeeper in Tokyo. So I need to up my war vocabulary game, which has led to me reading anything and everything around me even tangentially related to the subject.
Not that Grass is only tangentially related. Given that it centres on the subject of Korean “comfort women” pushed into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers in the years leading up to and during the war, it is actually firmly on topic. I went to The Beguiling, the greatest comic book store, to pick up In this Corner of the World (translated magnificently by Adrienne Beck) to do a bilingual read-through with the original Japanese (by Fumiyo Kono), and when they were out of stock of this tome, I was about to go home empty-handed when I spotted Grass on the shelf. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I definitely do judge books by their covers, and this one is a clear winner. So I picked this chonky girl up, flipped open to the first page, and came across a paragraph explaining the choice to use the word “comfort woman” in the text. And then I sighed, knowing that I would have to buy the book and add it to my already long wartime reading list.
As someone who has spent half of her life in Japan, I perhaps sadly know more about the issue of women kidnapped into sexual slavery during this period than the average reader of this book. It’s been an ongoing issue since before I moved to Tohoku, and it will likely continue to be an issue until the Japanese government actually gives the survivors the sincere apology that the women have been asking for. And it will no doubt be a cold day in hell before any Japanese government does that since that would be politically unpopular not only with the right-wing nationalists (who yell the loudest and make everything unpleasant for the rest of us, like in pretty much every country these days), but for regular people who have bought into the propaganda that lingers in the cultural ether. I’ve spoken to otherwise reasonable-seeming Japanese people who have flat-out denied that these women were kidnapped or forced to do anything. It’s distressing as all get out, and you know I immediately never talk to such people again.
So at the very least, we can keep telling the story of these women and not let what they endured be forgotten to time. Gendry-Kim doesn’t approach the task lightly. Throughout the book, she wrestles with her responsibility as an artist to the “granny” whose story she is telling, Lee Ok-sun. She weaves two stories in this book then: one her own meetings with Ok-sun and her journey to creating the book, and the other Ok-sun’s life from childhood up until the present day. She starts her tale, however, somewhere halfway through, when Ok-sun leaves the family she’s built in China to return to Korea for the first time since she was kidnapped into sexual slavery. Once we know she at least lived through the experience, we head back to her earlier days. Life in Korea under the Japanese occupation is rough, and that childhood is filled with hunger and poverty. And unlike her brother, Ok-sun’s not allowed to go to school. Instead, she has to stay home and help take care of her younger siblings and the house. As you’d expect in a narrative about becoming and being a comfort woman, things go from grim to horrific pretty quickly. And given the trauma she’s endured, life is still hard even after she’s free of her bondage once the war ends.
Gendry-Kim also gives us a little historical background, with overviews of the Japanese movement into China and the massacre at Nanjing, so we can better understand why the “comfort stations” were created in the first place. For the most part, however, she leaves Ok-sun’s story room to breathe on its own, without adding any extra context or playing up particular details. And the story is horrific enough on its own. The places she was kept, the men she was forced to see, the friends she made only to lose them because of the circumstances they were in, it’s all dreadful and Ok-sun herself notes that she’s never had a moment’s happiness in life.
The brushwork style of the art makes it feel almost timeless in places, especially the depictions of the landscape, tall grasses blowing in the wind, birds flying above them. Gendry-Kim tightens these loose sweeps of the brush into firmer linework for the less emotionally harrowing parts of the story, such as when she is giving more straightforward descriptions of her time with Ok-sun. But she lets nature be as wild and free as it is. She keeps coming back to images of the natural world throughout the narrative—mountains, snowy fields, trees—and these open spaces are almost cathartic, a breather in a painful, difficult tale. The stark blacks and whites of the ink drawings underline the starkness of the story they tell, however, and the respite never lasts very long.
Grass is beautiful and a real accomplishment. Janet Hong does the source material a great service with her nuanced, warm translation, creating a voice that is just as distinct in English as it no doubt it in the original Korean. This is one of those books that will sit with you for a very long time, as it should.