Nora Okja Keller Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."