"I would even say that Kim Hak-Sun’s testimony was the impetus to my writing career"
"I would even say that Kim Hak-Sun’s testimony was the impetus to my writing career"
  • Shin Yu-Ri Womennews reporter
  • 승인 2013.08.26 14:24
  • 수정 2013-08-26 14:40
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[WOMEN NEWS Interview]Korean-American writer Kalliope Lee

The world memorial day for Comforted Women(Kim Hak-soon's day) was made anniversary on 14th Aug, 2013 for the first time. Civic groups in U.S., Germany, Philippines, Taiwan and Japan have launched a united international rally in protest to Japan’s attitude toward comforted women issue. The campaign to obtain signatures for 100 million people was started in July. The global community all regard it as a humanitarian issue and they continue to ask Japan to apologize and compensate women forced into sexual slaves during World War II. Korean-American writer Kalliope Lee wrote a novel. In an E-mail interview with the Womennews sh e said her novel 'Sunday girl' about former sexual slaves mobilized for Japanese soldiers during World War II to highlight their suffering.


Q:  Introduce yourself to Koreans who may or do not know much about you.

A:  I was born in Seoul and immigrated to New York with my family when I was four years old.  I was quiet as achild and adolescent, extremely sensitive and could not bear the suffering of others.  I cried easily and frequently.  From an early age, I began questioning what I saw as an imbalance of justice in the world--why some people seemed to suffer more than others.  This was the main question that drove me to become a writer.  I read constantly, usually three books at a time, and felt increasingly isolated when I learned that others did not share my questions or curiosity.  What made me most happy was figuring out the world; I saw it as a great puzzle.  I majored in the classics and ancient civilization in college because I wanted to know how everything started.  I did not know how I was ever going to get married because what I enjoyed most in life required my being alone.

I am insatiably curious and impatient.  I am constantly seeking the origin of things.  I love beauty and 1960’s fashions.  I love a good challenge and will never ever give up until I reach my goal.  I am a humanitarian and have infinite hope for humanity.  Though I am not a very social person, I have been blessed all my life with good, faithful friends wherever I go.

I have lived now on three different continents, but my favorite form of traveling is in my mind.  Some would say that my daily life is boring:  I am a workaholic, but that’s what makes me happiest.  I exercise every day after I write.  In my study, my treadmill and weight bench are right beside my desk, so I can roll off the desk chair and start exercising.  Aside from my work, my other favorite thing in life is animated conversation with a friend over dinner, during which I learn something new.

If I were smarter, I would have become a physicist.  My other dream professions are fashion designer and researcher in paranormal psychology.  I have sort of a photographic memory, which I consider to be more of a curse than a blessing.


Q:  How did you feel when you published your 1st novel? How long have you wanted to write? Will you write your novel continuously? What kind of writer do you want to be? Do you have any roll-models?

A:  Publishing my first novel was the most liberating moment of my life.  I had been working towards that achievement for a long time--learning and practicing the craft of writing for many years.  I worked hard, sacrificing many things, and it finally paid off.  However, I felt that it was not only a solitary success, but a collective one, as I had not written the novel to express my personal story and convictions.  Instead, I had lent my voice foremost to the plight and suffering of those who had come before me, those of my ancestors and countrymen/women who had suffered gravely but were unable to express themselves due to circumstances.

In retrospect, I see that I’d wanted to write all my life.  However, it took me a long time to grow confident and brave enough to admit this desire to myself--and then to others.  I kept it a secret while I was in graduate school, but I kept getting ill.  My body was revealing what I was trying to hide:  I could no longer continue my current situation and had to pursue my true path and purpose in life.

I want to be a writer of books that a reader can’t put down--and once s/he’s finished, can’t wait to tell all their friends to read it.  I want my books to be a comfort to people who are looking to be understood, to find meaning and belonging and healing.  These are the things I looked desperately for as a teenager--and I want now to be able to provide them to others.

I have a few authors whom I’ve read over and over again: for instance, F.S. Fitzgerald, Joseph Conrad and William Faulker.  As far as contemporary role models, I have great admiration forHaruki Murakami.  Though his characters are mostly Japanese and his novels take place in Japan, they so imaginatively and intimately reconnect readers to our shared human heritage and the universal collective unconscious.  I strive to do the same.


Q:  I heard seeing Kim hak-soon on TV motivated you to write 'Sunday girl'. Tell me about the story specifically.

A:  I was shaken to the core--not only from the shock of revelation, but there was also some sort of recognition, some response that came from deep within my soul, as though the comfort women were speaking directly to me, Korean women to Korean woman, asking me to hear and help them.  From that moment I, like my character Jang-Mee in SUNDAY GIRL, became obsessed with the comfort women and what they had endured, and read whatever I could get my hands on.

I would even say that Kim Hak-Sun’s testimony was the impetus to my writing career.  Her experience as a comfort woman was terribly tragic, but what really struck me was the fact that she and the other comfort women had kept silent about their torment for nearly forty years.

Perhaps in Korea,there is shame about speaking about such things.  But in the West, particularly in America, giving voice to our trauma and painful episodes from the past is a way of healing; thus psychotherapy is called the “talk cure.”  I feel that the comfort women had to suffer the second tragedy of silence, due to shame, which denied them relief and healing.

Kim Hak-Sun’s decision to speak out was courageous and inspiring to me as a young woman who hoped to be a writer.  She singlehandedly broke through the culturally-instilled shame that has kept so many people suffering in silence, fearing the stigma and judgments of society.  I was moved by her tragedy as well as her bravery, which was nothing short of heroic, and I felt compelled to join the effort of the comfort women and help publicize their story.

Q:  What is your goal in writing this novel? What do you want people to think about after reading your novel? What kinds of sources did you use and where did you get them?

A:  Originally, I started the novel with a view to speaking about and for the comfort women, but as the writing progressed, I began focusing on the wounds of the past that survive into the present, through the generations.  So even though my main characters Sibyl and Jang-Mee are young women living and working in Seoul in 1991, they are pulled into the past.  I wanted to convey that their personal pain is connected to the wounding and pain of their ancestors whom they did not even know, but who continue to influence them and “speak” through them.  For instance, though I grew up in America and did not know my Korean relatives or heritage, I always felt their voices in my soul and had an uncanny sense that some of the powerful feelings I was experiencing were not completely mine.

I suppose everyone who reads SUNDAY GIRL may think different things afterwards.  But I hope that they will consider my central theme of suffering.  It is a topic I have contemplated for most of my life, asking myself: “What is the point of suffering?  Especially the grievous pain which the comfort women had to bear?  In the end, I answered the question for myself through the writing of my novel--and I truly believe that suffering is redemptive.  It is through the wound that we connect with others--not only family and friends and loved ones--but to our ancestors and our cultural history and ultimately, to humanity in general.  It is suffering and wounding that keep us connected.  As the poet Rumi said so eloquently:  “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

I did all my research through books, history texts and articles, which included first-hand testimonies from former comfort women.  I also read a lot of war narrative about WWII in the Pacific theatre, and the experience of Japanese soldiers.  As I have never lived through a war, I wanted to get a sense of what it was like.  Through reading about the both the comfort women and the soldiers, I was able to re-create their situation in my imagination.  I felt at times that I was really there, living through it.  Though of course, this is no comparison to the suffering of those who actually endured such atrocities and hardship.

I wish I could’ve met some of the comfort women in person, but unfortunately, I did not get the opportunity.  I think it would’ve been a tremendously emotional experience for me to be face-to-face with these women of my heritage who had suffered such soul-shattering pain.  As they requested, I prefer to call them “halmoni” (the grandmothers) because they feel familiar to me, as though they were my own grandmother.


Q:  I wonder what you think about the phrase 'War, Women, Sex, Force' in relation to the comfort women.

A:  This phrase brings to mind my belief that war (no matter what ideological differences are at stake or what superficial reasons are given) is ultimately about the acquisition of another’s land and resources by force.  When you consider the actual geographical territory of Japan, it’s mostly mountainous and highly volcanic, and there is little habitable and arable land.  This would of course make them interested in claiming outside territory for their use. Korea, as the closest country, was the likeliest target.  The Japanese occupation of Korea allowed them to plunder the land and all its resources--including the most valuable resource, women, as they are the key to the future population of the country.

The comfort women issue is so heated and controversial because these women have become a national symbol of Japan’s “rape” of Korea, its land and resources.

Q:  These days the comfort women issue is gaining interest throughout the world. In Korea many people help comfort women voluntarily through diverse ways for example-Gathering, Album, Concert, Translation, Movie, Play, Statue, Lecture and so on. What do you think about this, and do you explore this in your novel?

A:  I think Korea’s national effort in publicizing the plight of the comfort women is admirable, particularly the artists who have supported this cause.  Art in all forms speaks to the deepest part of the human being, and so it has the power to affect the soul.  In this way, the international community will be educated and their hearts moved.  What the comfort women endured is not only a national issue or a feminist issue; it is a human rights issue.  We must all join in this quest for justice and restitution for these women in demanding an official and unequivocal apology from the Japanese government.  Only an admission of wrong-doing will open the road to recovery for both nations.

SUNDAY GIRL is my humble contribution to this effort.

Q:  Are there any plans to translate your novel into Korean yet?

A:  It would mean a lot to me to get SUNDAY GIRL translated into Korean. Since my novel has been getting press attention in Korea, I have been contacted by Korean literary agents and publishers.  Ihope to have a deal secured in the near future and get SUNDAY GIRL to the Korean public.

Q:  Tell me about the life and identity of a foreign(or Korean) woman in foreign countries.

A:  Identity has been a big question for me from an early age.  Though I was born in Seoul, I grew up in New York and now live in London.  I never quite fit in anywhere, and this has been a source of tremendous pain for me, particularly while I was growing up.  When I’d catch a glimpse of a Korean show and see all the Koreans in the audience, I would feel envious.  I longed to belong in the same way.  But as I grew older, I began to see an advantage to not having one national identity.  Because I am always on the fringes, never quite belonging, I have a unique and detached perspective, and I am always observing and analyzing.  This has made me into the writer that I am.  So although being a perpetual “foreigner” has been painful, I have come to see it as a privilege as well.


Q:  Do you think you are a journalist? What is it like to be a columnist at the Huffington Post? Let me know your opinion about the future of global Journalism?

A:  I wouldn’t say I am a journalist, although journalism was my first interest.  I was the editor of my high school newspaper--and I considered becoming a broadcast journalist.  But in college, I went in a completely different direction.  I became fascinated by literature that endured for centuries, and I majored in the classics.  I haven’t written journalism since I was young, but I am surprised how much I enjoy writing for The Huffington Post.  I have so many ideas and strong opinions about things, and my position at The Huffington Post allows me the perfect medium to voice them.

I believe that the future of journalism is being shaped by the blog.  Most news sources have their biases and agendas, even though they claim to be impartial.  Blog writers, on the other hand, are openly stating their opinions.


Q:  What dreams and goals do you have in your life?

A:  I hope to have the time and freedom to write my heart out and increasingly perfect my craft.  I hope to be able to connect with humanity through my writing; I hope to inspire and to be inspired through this process.  I hope to evolve into the best person I can be in all ways.


Q:  For the last words, perhaps you could say something in Korean.

A:  I wish my Korean speaking abilities were better!  So I would appreciate if you could translate for me:  It means so much to me that Koreans in Korea would read SUNDAY GIRL.  I hope I’ve done justice to our shared history and the plight of the comfort women.  I have tried my best.

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