Author: Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
Genre: Nonfiction, Graphic Memoir
Before reading Grass, I wasn’t aware of “comfort women”. I wasn’t aware of how they were treated by Japanese soldiers. These women were largely Korean and were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese Occupation of Korea before and during World War II. This is the account of how the atrocity of war ruins women’s lives – no matter the country, no matter the place – the suffering of women is universal. Men go to battle. Women get raped. Men go to battle. Women must bear all consequences.
Grass is the story of a Korean girl named Okseon Lee (becoming Granny Lee Ok-sun) – from her childhood to how she became a comfort woman to depicting the cost of war and the importance of peace. The “comfort woman” experience was most traumatic for Korean women that took place from 1910 to 1945, till they were liberated from the Japanese.
This book is painstakingly honest and brutal. It moves the reader but does not take away from the story and the truth, as should be the case. It is as I said before a woman’s story as a survivor – undergoing kidnapping, abuse, and rape in time of war and imperialism.
Grass opens at a time in Granny Lee Ok-sun’s life when she travels back home to Korea in 1996, having spent fifty-five years as a wife and a mother in China. Kim’s interviews with Granny is what forms the base of this book. Some memories surface clearly, some don’t, and yet it doesn’t take away from the book at all.
To tell such a story through the graphic medium doesn’t reduce the significance or the emotional quotient of the narrative. I found myself most moved so many times in the course of this read. Just the idea that these women were not given the agency to think or feel for themselves, and treated with such brutality, made me think of PTSD and how they didn’t even have the vocabulary to explain this or understand what they were going through. All they knew was they had to be alive, no matter what. In the hope of either being saved by strangers, or finding ways to escape “comfort houses”, to get away from conditions where getting a proper meal is a luxury, where your child is taken away from you, where men constantly enter and exit at will, and ultimately to feel human.
The artwork by Kim is brilliant. The scenes that are tough to digest are portrayed with such beauty – in the sense that it exists, hovers above you as you read it, and yet somehow makes you understand, keeping the dignity of the women. I think also to a large extent, the book is what it is because of the translation – which is so nuanced and on point when it comes to brevity and communicating what it has to.
Grass is a book that needs to be read to understand how people get away with the utmost damage to the human soul. Given the fight of haves and have-nots, of gender differences, of how unequal society is, this book should be read, and reread to understand where violence and also empathy comes from.