Comfort Woman by Nora Okja Keller [...] women's theories of the mother-daughter relationship and absent father throughout the book. "The Comfort Woman" is the moving tale of a daughter struggling to understand her mother while coming to grips with her own emotionally unsatisfying life. The book explores many sides of several feminist theories, including the all-important mother-daughter relationship, which can insinuate itself into every facet of our adult lives. Beccah must deal with the death of her mother, the absence of a father, and the knowledge that she never really knew her mother at all, which may be the most difficult part of her life to deal with.
The Comfort Woman
Comfort women actually existed during the Second World War. Korean women were forced to care for the Japanese soldiers, and become sex slaves to the men. The author, who grew up in a biracial family in Hawaii, did not know about comfort women until she listened to a woman speak about her experiences in 1993, and hearing the woman's story so completely overtook her that she felt she had to write about it. She remembers, "I couldn't believe that people didn't know about this, that we don't learn about this in history books, so I tried to get my friend to write an article about this. My friend turned it back on me and said, 'You should write about this, you're Korean'" (Hong). Even today, little is understood about the lives of nearly 100,000 women who were eventually forced into servicing the Japanese. Keller's book is a novel, but the things Akiko (the mother) faced in the book are the same type of things any comfort woman would have faced, and it is difficult to read about the cruelties and horrors she faced. One critic noted, however, "One must keep in mind, however, that the notion of comfort women is not a Japanese invention; in fact, it is as old as the Roman Empire" (Mitsios 244). While some women may have chosen to follow and serve the troops, the Japanese conscripted women from Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, Burmese, and even Dutch Indonesian (Mitsios 244), and for many years, the Japanese denied their existence. Keller's book is a compelling look into these little known women, and the effect their slavery had on the rest of their lives, and the lives of their families.
The Comfort Woman" is a shocking tale of a young Korean girl forced by the invading Japanese forces to become a sex slave to the army men. The woman attempts to build a relationship with her daughter who has grown up in America, while recounting the horrors she endured during the war. One critic noted, "Comfort Woman' is in essence a story about troubled love between Korean-born mother Akiko and her American-born daughter Beccah" (Ilbo). The story is also the story of Beccah's own coming of age, and learning too late the secrets of her mother's life as a "Comfort Woman" to the Japanese troops.
Mothers and daughters have always seemed to have difficult relationships, especially when the daughters reach their teen years, and Beccah and Akiko are no exception. Beccah is embarrassed by her mother's spiritualism and trances, and wishes she could be more like "normal" mothers, "like the moms on TV -- the kind that baked cookies, joined the PTA, or came to weekly soccer games" (Keller 2). This is the beginning of their estrangement. Beccah simply cannot understand or accept her mother's fits and trances, and does not understand what has led to them.
However, every just about every daughter comes to a point where she believes her mother is "weird," and not like any other mother, and the estrangement can last a lifetime if mother and daughter let it. One critic states about the book, "In fact, it is an excellent read on the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and daughter, how love and hatred can be woven together in the same fabric" (Mitsios 244). It can also trickle down into their relationships with men and their own daughters. Beccah does not come to terms with the love she feels for her mother until her mother has died, it is too late, and this is unfortunately often the case with mothers and daughters. Beccah's ritual Korean cleansing of her mother is also a cleansing of herself, and it begins when she begins to recognize the similarities between them, even if she does not want to really see them.
A unbuttoned and untaped the gown and tried to wrestle her arms out of it. When I started to sweat, I cut it off her, letting it hang in tatters along her sides. My mother lay naked under her dress, in the body that had always embarrassed me both in its foreignness and in its similarity to mine (Keller 209).
Beccah discovers an audiotape her mother made recounting her life as a comfort woman, and it is then she begins to understand her mother's strange behavior and trances. She also learns why her mother hated men - especially her long absent father.
Many issues in this book are certainly feminist in nature, from the mother-daughter issues to the absence of a father figure, and Beccah's own difficulties with the men in her life. Beccah's father died of a heart attack when she was five, but her mother always believed she killed him as a result of her thoughts and "hate arrows" she sent his way. Without a father figure to guide her and to temper her mother's madness, Beccah only knows sadness, loneliness, and poverty in her youth, and these things help turn her against her mother. They also lead to her unsatisfactory relationships with men, and her dissatisfaction with her job. Clearly, she is searching for a father figure as she has affairs with older, married men, and this is quite understandable, since she lost hers so young. It is as if her life is in limbo, and the dream that she has that she is drowning is all too real. She is drowning in a life of indifference and pain, and nothing will heal it until she rectifies her relationship with her mother. Once she begins to understand just why her mother acted the way she did, and just what her mother endured during the war, she can not only forgive her for not being "normal," she can forgive her father for not being there, and move along in her life. As she begins to understand and respect her mother, she says, "I could not imagine her surviving what she described, for I cannot imagine myself surviving" (Keller 194). She discovers her mother is a true "survivor," and that she is too.
Another compelling theme in the novel that binds the two women together is their life in Hawaii. They live in "the shacks," the side of Hawaii the tourists do not see, and it is a place reeking of poverty and sadness. Beccah grows up between the white world of her absent father, and the Korean world of her mother, but she is even more torn because she has so little of her father and his culture to bind her to him. Her life is difficult, and she really becomes the "mother" in the relationship early, because her mother is so often off in a trance and unable to take care of herself. Beccah sees the world through two cultures, she does not exactly fit in either one of them, and this is another source of her restlessness and isolation after she leaves home. She is an unhappy woman caught between two worlds, and caught between the love and hate she feels for her mother. It is the same love and hate that so many daughters feel for their mothers, and Keller explores the mother-daughter relationship with such tenderness and understanding that she must have experienced this same joy and pain with her own mother.
Not only is this a novel of female relationships, it is a well-written and lyrical look at Korea and Korean customs, and how they had to change when Koreans came to America. Akiko says she had to learn to "waste" in America, and that is only one of the many differences that surround the immigrants in their new lives. Beccah does not understand the differences, and has lost much of her Korean culture until after her mother dies, when she learns more about her mother, and even her grandmother. The author is also a Korean-American, and it is clear she certainly faced some of the same issues in her own struggle to be accepted in both arenas. While the dominant theme of the book is certainly the mother-daughter relationship, this dual culture relationship is also important to the outcome, and to Beccah's eventual understanding and acceptance of herself. She remembers, "And while I had felt invisible, unimportant, while my mother consorted with her spirits, I now understood that she knew I watched her. That in her…