‘I wanted to carve it out of me’
Entrance of a comfort station. “Services of Yamato nadeshikos who devote their body and soul (to you)” “Victorious warriors of the Holy War, Very welcome!”, Japan, c.1946. Image via.
Instead of approaching the material with the detached view of a historian or anthropologist, [Emily Jungmin] Yoon’s A Cruelty uses empathy and poetry to dramatize the traumas the comfort women have suffered. In “Fear,” she writes, “I wanted to carve it out of me— / become a fjord flanked by historic cliffs. How else / could I write the years / I did not live.”
While the few novels that have been written about comfort women fail in many ways, according to Soh—through historical inaccuracy, or bad prose—Yoon makes no promise of providing a historically accurate work of art, though the testimonies she quotes directly do lend her credibility. Poetry allows Yoon to move fluidly between time periods, taking on different perspectives, traveling from World War II to the present day, from the perspective of a former comfort woman to that of a modern Western woman. She transcends the politics, refusing to engage in the diplomatic dispute, and powerfully addresses the human suffering that one group inflicted on another—that men, both Korean and Japanese, inflicted on women.
By writing in English, Yoon implicates those of us who may feel removed from this history, and informs a Western audience whose World War II education has likely focused nearly entirely on Europe. Yoon demonstrates how these stories cling to us as the years progress, though neither she nor her readers lived the experience of these women. She even goes so far as to point a finger directly at Americans, who have their own history of Korean occupation; in one poem, Yoon writes from the perspective of her grandmother: “We didn’t fear war. We feared the allies.”
Yoon makes it clear that her investment is with the women; her poetry is decidedly not anti-Japan, but ardently anti-violence. In the voice of a former comfort woman who struggles to reintegrate, she writes, “You’d think a former comfort woman would hate the Japanese. I don’t. I / hate men and I hate sex. I hate the sight of my son-in-law, who lives in this / house.” Yoon’s poetry is about the cruelty human beings enact on each other, whatever their ethnicity. It’s a recognition that history never leaves us. Both Korea and Japan might do well to abandon their routine of provocation and retaliation, and instead focus their attention on the women who were damaged for life.