Comfort Woman by Nora Okja Keller

By Lise Funderburg

The New York Times
August 31, 1997

A mother and daughter wrestle with the mother’s plagued past in Nora Okja Keller’s accomplished first novel. The daughter, Beccah, comes of age in Hawaii, where she is taunted by other children because she is poor, because she is of Korean and American heritage, and because her mother, Akiko, seems to be mentally imbalanced. (When she isn’t falling into trances, Akiko is performing strange rituals meant to protect Beccah from Saja, the Death Messenger, or honyaek, the cloud of Red Disaster.) The reader learns long before Beccah does that Akiko was sold away from her Korean family during World War II – as a sister’s dowry – and forced into a ”recreation center” run by the Japanese Army. There she was renamed and remade into a ”comfort woman,” a prostitute for Japanese soldiers. Akiko escaped after a clumsy abortion and was taken in by American missionaries, one of whom, Beccah’s father, married her and brought her to the United States. But by the time we meet them he has died, leaving Akiko and Beccah to live in their own tormented private world. Moving between the mother’s voice and the daughter’s, Keller beautifully evokes both their anguish and their love. ”I wanted to help my mother, shield her from the children’s sharp-toothed barbs,” Beccah tells us when Akiko descends on the local elementary school, intent on purifying it by tossing handfuls of grain from a sack. ”And yet I didn’t want to. Because for the first time as I watched and listened to the children taunting my mother, using their tongues to mangle what she said into what they heard, I saw and heard what they did. And I was ashamed.”