"Comfort Women" Revisited: Literary/Cultural Trafficking in Female Bodies in Nora Okja Keller's "Comfort Women" and Chang-rae Lee's "A Gesture Life"
It may be a coincidence that two novels published two years apart by two of the most acclaimed Korean-American writers in contemporary America, Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman (1998) and Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life (2000) figure in the Korean “comfort women” a quite popularized euphemistic reference to the military sex slaves of World War II. Each of the novel’s plot pivots around a young Korean girl’s horrendous experience as a comfort woman and the spiritual, psychological, and familial effects (impacts) it generates on people around her as well as herself. This paper reads the ways in which the (neo)colonized bodies of the Korean women are being culturally trafficked in the two novels. I use the phrase “culturally trafficked” because in this paper, I would first address one of the recent cultural phenomena of a potentially ‘global’ consumption of ‘local’ and previously ‘localized’ historical experiences (aside from “comfort women” issues, recent filming of The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini might serve as another example); second, I analyze political/cultural effects of such literary trafficking in female bodies and especially the girls’ bodies; third, I argue that the literary consumption of the “comfort women” as girls and cultural reification of their bodies (re)produce the image of the Korean “comfort women” as sexualized and racialized victims of violence who are trapped in their girlhood, incarcerated and damaged by the physical violence forced upon them. Thus rendered, the Korean “comfort women” who (out)lived the colonial history are perpetually and paradoxically associated with ‘virginal,’ if vulnerable, young girls who still remain within the circumference of paternal and patriarchal disciplining of our current global politics.
Keywords: Comfort Women, Female Bodies, Virgin Body, Cultural Consumption, Sexualized Subjects, Daughters, Girlhood, (Neo)Colonialism, Postcolonialism
Prof. Kyung-Sook Shin
Associate Professor, Department of English, Yonsei University