Nora Okja Keller Criticism - Essay

Publishers Weekly (review date 6 January 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Laura Shapiro (review date 28 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 weaves together in Comfort Woman, her first novel.

Akiko's harrowing memories of the "recreation center" are seared into her brain and soul, from the first night she is raped—"It was a free-for-all, and I thought I would never stop bleeding"—until she escapes after the camp doctor gives her an abortion.

"He did not bother tying me down…. Maybe he knew I had died and that ropes and guards couldn't keep me anyway." Rescued by missionaries, she marries one of them and moves to America but never really returns to life. The gods and spirits who swarmed into her consciousness at the camp and helped her survive don't let go: they keep command of her ever after. Beccah grows up both protective and resentful of the mother who guards her from Saja the Death Messenger by wrapping the child's nightie around a raw chicken and flinging the bundle out the door.

Like Amy Tan—in another now legendary debut, The Joy Luck Club—Keller skillfully mingles the Asian past and the American present, the earthly world and the spiritual one, a mother's trauma and a daughter's quest. But she is very much her own writer, with an emotional touch so sure and a sense of language so precise she seems to have sprung into print full-grown as a novelist. The gods in charge of terrific new fiction must be very pleased.

Christopher John Farley (review date 5 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lise Funderburg (review date 31 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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."