Study Guide

Nora Okja Keller

Nora Okja Keller Essay - Critical Essays

Keller, Nora Okja

Introduction

Nora Okja Keller Comfort Woman

Born in Korea, Keller is an American novelist.

Keller was born in Korea to an American father and Korean mother. She grew up in Hawaii where her mother, hoping to help her daughter fit in with mainstream America, chose not to teach Keller the Korean language. Consequently, Keller felt alienated from her Korean heritage. While attending a symposium on human rights at the University of Hawaii in 1993, Keller heard the story of a Korean woman who had been a "comfort woman" during World War II; she felt the story should be told and began writing Comfort Woman (1997), her first novel. Comfort women were sex slaves imprisoned in "recreation centers" and forced to serve Japanese soldiers. In the novel, described by a Publishers Weekly reviewer as "an intense study of a mother-daughter relationship," the protagonist, Beccah, grows into adulthood feeling both protective of and embarrassed by her eccentric mother, Akiko, a spirit medium prone to long trances and terrifying battles with Saja the Death Messenger, from whom she perpetually attempts to protect her daughter. The author alternates Beccah's story with Akiko's, and the reader comes to realize the extent of the horror Akiko experienced as an adolescent sold into prostitution and forced to become a comfort woman, an element of her past that Beccah learns only after her death. Although Akiko escaped and married one of her rescuers, a missionary who became Beccah's father but died when Beccah was five, her spirit died in the camp and the experience haunted her for the rest of her life. Beccah must come to terms with her mother's past in order to define her own identity and choose her future. Comfort Woman received much positive critical response, with reviewers pointing out the sensitive portrayal of a woman's search for identity and the exploration of the mother-daughter relationship. Many critics described Keller as a gifted writer and storyteller. Merle Rubin stated, "Strongly imagined, well-paced and written with eloquently restrained lyricism that conveys the subtleties of feelings as well as the harshness of facts, Comfort Woman is a poignant and impressive debut."

Criticism

Publishers Weekly (review date 6 January 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Comfort Woman, in Publishers Weekly, January 6, 1997, p. 61.

[In the following review of Comfort Woman, the critic states, "Though piercing and moving in its evocation of feminine closeness,… the narrative becomes somewhat claustrophobic."]

This impressive first novel [Comfort Woman] by a Hawaii-based writer of mixed Korean and American ancestry depicts one of the atrocities of war and its lingering effects on a later generation. An intense study of a mother-daughter relationship, it dwells simultaneously in the world of spirits and the social milieu of the adolescent schoolgirl who later becomes a career woman with lovers. Beccah is a youngish, contemporary Hawaiian whose Korean mother, Akiko, was sold into prostitution as a young woman and sent to a "recreation camp" to service the occupying Japanese army. Akiko developed a resilience that allowed her to distance herself from the daily plundering of her body; she also developed an intense communication with the spirit world that helped her survive the horror of her experience—and helped her, too, to catch the attention of a visiting American missionary, who married her and fathered Beccah. After his death, mother and daughter live together in Honolulu, Beccah striving for a normal life, Akiko, often possessed, screaming and wailing, by her ghosts and visions. With the help of a flamboyant, ultra-worldly friend who calls herself Auntie Reno, Akiko becomes a seer and fortune-teller. Akiko's flashbacks to her haunted past and Beccah's account of their lives together are told alternately, and it is one of Keller's several triumphs that she is able to render the two worlds so powerfully and distinctly. Though piercing and moving in its evocation of feminine closeness, however, the narrative becomes somewhat claustrophobic, so that the occasional interventions of the cheerfully vulgar Auntie Reno are hugely welcome. A striking debut by a strongly gifted writer, nonetheless.

Joanne Wilkinson (review date 15 March 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Comfort Woman, in Booklist, March 15, 1997, p. 1226.

[In the following review, Wilkinson lauds the lyricism and humor of Keller's Comfort Woman.]

In her haunting debut novel [Comfort Woman], Korean American Keller tells of the complex, loving bond between a mother and daughter. Akiko had been sold into prostitution during World War II when still a child. Her harsh memories of her experiences as a "comfort woman" to the Japanese army alternate with her daughter Beccah's more straightforward account of her attempts to fit in with the popular kids at the local high school. Completely ignorant of her mother's history, Beccah is ashamed of her mother's spiritual "trances," in which she seems to commune with the spirit world, leaving Beccah to fend for herself. When an enterprising Filipino woman successfully markets Akiko as a gifted fortune-teller, their finances improve dramatically, but Beccah is still confused by her mother's strange behavior. In the powerful, moving conclusion, Beccah finally discovers the truth about her family history. With a deft and subtle use of humor and an assured, lyrical prose style, Keller threads her graceful narrative with themes of identity and the search of self.

Merle Rubin (review date 23 March 1997)

SOURCE: "The Haunting," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 23, 1997, p. 9.

[In the following review, Rubin calls Keller's Comfort Woman "a poignant and impressive debut."]

The ugly story of the women and girls forced to serve as "comfort women" in the "recreation camps" designed to accommodate the sexual needs of Japanese soldiers during World War II took a long time to come to light. Women who had been victimized in this way were devalued not only in the eyes of their communities but often in their own eyes. This bitterly ironic paradigm is not limited to traditional sexist cultures. Almost everywhere, it seems, far too many victims struggle with feelings of shame and despair, while too few victimizers are troubled by guilt.

This powerful first novel [Comfort Woman] by a young writer born in Korea and raised in Hawaii tells the intertwined stories of a Korean-born woman sold into the sexual slavery of the Japanese camps and of the woman's American-born daughter, who discovers the secret of the mother's harrowing past after her death.

Rebeccah Bradley, known as Beccah, grows up in Hawaii, where she enjoys a relatively normal life—or, at any rate, a life blessedly free from the shocking dislocations and acute suffering experienced by her mother, Akiko. But in some respects, Beccah's childhood is abnormal. Her mother is given to strange fits, falling into trances, dancing on tabletops and communing with invisible spirits. Beccah's father, an American Protestant missionary, died when she was 5. Five years later, while dutifully commemorating the anniversary of his demise by preparing a sacrificial offering of his favorite food (shrimp), Akiko tells her daughter that she killed him.

Beccah, however, has learned to take many of her mother's pronouncements with a grain of salt. She knows that in the eyes of her classmates at school, Akiko is the "crazy lady," and there are times when she feels powerfully alienated by her mother's outlandishness. Yet in other ways, Beccah's perceptions and emotions have been deeply colored by Akiko's confused yet potent mixture of folklore, superstitions and passionately held beliefs.

Akiko warns the little girl about Saja the Death Messenger. When the child awakens in the middle of the night screaming that Saja is after her, the mother grabs a butchered chicken, tears off her daughter's nightgown, wraps it around the chicken and throws the bloody bundle out of doors to "fool" the hungry demon.

As Beccah grows older, her mother's strange beliefs seem deluded, yet oddly plausible. There seem to be any...

(The entire section is 1105 words.)

Laura Shapiro (review date 28 April 1997)

SOURCE: "They Gotta Be Making This Up," in Newsweek, April 28, 1997, p. 78.

[In the following review, Shapiro asserts that in Comfort Woman, Keller has "an emotional touch so sure and a sense of language so precise she seems to have sprung into print full-grown as a novelist."]

Her name is Akiko, or so her daughter Beccah has always believed. Not until her mother's death does Beccah learn that Akiko's real name was torn from her at the age of 12, when she was sold from a Korean village to be a "comfort woman"—a sex slave for Japanese troops in World War II. These two stories, Akiko's and Beccah's, make up the somber skeins that Nora Okja Keller beautifully...

(The entire section is 349 words.)

Christopher John Farley (review date 5 May 1997)

SOURCE: "No Man's Land," in Time, May 5, 1997, pp. 101-2.

[In the following excerpt, Farley asserts that "although Keller's prose, at a few points, has more ambition than lyricism, overall [Comfort Woman] is a sturdy, eloquent book."]

Nora Okja Keller used to think real writers looked like Ernest Hemingway. Gruff, bearded, white, male. She was none of those. She was an immigrant, born in Seoul to a Korean mother and a white American father, and raised in Hawaii. But Keller's image of herself started to change in 1993, when she went to a symposium on human rights at the University of Hawaii at Manoa; there she heard an elderly Korean woman tell her true story of...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Lise Funderburg (review date 31 August 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Comfort Woman, in The New York Times Book Review, August 31, 1997, p. 14.

[In the following review, Funderburg calls Keller's Comfort Woman "accomplished."]

A mother and daughter wrestle with the mother's plagued past in Nora Okja Keller's accomplished first novel [Comfort Woman]. 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...

(The entire section is 305 words.)