Some years back, graphic novelist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim interviewed an elderly Korean woman named Lee Ok-sun. Gendry-Kim hoped to learn about social class and gender disparity during World War II and write a book about this subject. But after several interviews, Gendry-Kim realized Lee’s personal story warranted a book of its own. The result is Grass, a graphic novel now out in an English translation by Janet Hong.
The subject matter is distressing, as it centers around sex slavery during the War, which often traumatized girls as young as eleven or twelve. Early in her book, Gendry-Kim discusses the term “comfort woman”, a now-household term that describes the girls and women forced into sex slavery during World War II:
A direct translation of the Japanese euphemism for “prostitute,” ianfu, the term continues to be controversial, especially among survivors and the countries from which they were taken, since it reflects only the perspective of the Japanese military and distorts the victims’ experiences. For the purpose of this book, despite its very clear failings, we’ve opted to use the literal translation, given its common usage with Korea, to refer to this specific form of forced sexual slavery.
Grass is hardly the first book to recount these harrowing stories; graphic novels (a genre which includes non-fiction) on the subject are still rare, at least in English. This format works especially well because through drawings the author can convey Lee’s emotions and the stark scenery of the northeastern Chinese wasteland where she was sent after some Korean men abducted her at the age of fifteen. Gendry-Kim draws her images in black and white; the lack of color lends urgency and gravity to the story.
She will also sometimes depart from the traditional comic strip boxes to use a two page spread to draw just one image. For instance, at the beginning of the story, when Lee is returning to Korea after fifty-five years in China, Gendry-Kim draws an airplane flying through the sky to emphasize Lee’s return after half a century. It’s a tearful goodbye, but Lee needs to return to South Korea because the government there has reported her dead:
No matter how long it’s been, I can find my way back home with my eyes close. Bosu, Busan… It took me fifty-five years to return and yet the flight was only two hours. Fifty-five years. That’s how long it took to go home.
The graphic novel format allows Gendry-Kim to jump easily back and forth in time. After Lee leaves China, the story suddenly rewinds to the 1930s and 40s when she was a child. Her parents couldn’t afford to feed all of their children, so they gave Lee away to a family in Busan with the promise that she could finally go to school. All Lee had ever wanted was to get an education, so she convinced herself this separation from her family was for the best.
It’s in this part of the story that author Gendry-Kim places herself in the book, interviewing the elderly Lee at her Korean nursing home for former “comfort women”, her new residence after returning to Korea. Gendry-Kim will appear in other parts of the book as she tells Lee’s story. But in this first scene with Gendry-Kim, Lee reveals that the promise of school was a lie and she instead worked all hours of the day and night for her new parents at their udon shop. Lee was eventually kicked out, but didn’t know her way home. A tavern owner found her wandering and brought her to his tavern to work long hours there.
While on an errand for the tavern, several Korean men abducted her; she was only fifteen. Lee was taken by train to northeast China and forced into sex slavery. When the war ends, Lee and many of her friends feel so ashamed they don’t dare return home to face their families. Many Korean women stayed in China, marrying men there as did Lee.
As Lee tells her story, Gendry-Kim feels great sadness and anger. Drawing herself with a resigned expression, she wonders about her real purpose for interviewing Lee.
I felt lost. What exactly did I want to hear? As time went on, I wondered if there was even a story here.
Yet through her images and text, Gendry-Kim has succeeded in telling a vivid story. Her images stir up anger, sadness, and frustration, and will likely stay with the reader longer than similar stories told only in prose. Sometimes pictures indeed speak louder than words.