Releasing the Story to the World: An Interview with Nora Okja Keller

Nora Okja Keller's luminous first novel, Comfort Woman, winner of the 1998 American Book Award, is an unsettling narrative that interweaves first person stories of a Korean American mother and daughter, each of whom are haunted by the mother's harrowing experience as a sex slave in a Japanese Recreation Camp during World War II. It is an experience that leaves the mother halfway in the world of the living and halfway in the spirit world, haunted by the ghost of the woman whose place she takes in the camp after the Akiko before her dies a martyr's death at the hands of Japanese soldiers.

Nora Okja KellerKeller is a writer, who like one of the mothers of contemporary Asian American literature, Maxine Hong Kingston, will not let forsaken ghosts go unworshipped. With Comfort Woman and her newly published second novel Fox Girl, which charts the brutal narrative of two young Korean bar girls who come to Hawaii, she revives the lives of women largely silenced in history. Along the way, she rips the skin off the euphemisms "comfort woman" and "bar girl" to reveal these women in all their naked courage and imagination that allows them to survive and keep going. Not only does she give them back their lives, she makes readers understand how those lives blend into the lives of Korean American women and Asian American women everywhere and she does so in prose that is what it must be in order to honor such material: dreamlike and lyrical for Comfort Women and sharp as a curse in the florescent glare of Fox Girl's realism.

Nora comes to us from Hawaii where she lives with her husband and two young daughters. She was raised in Hawaii though she was born in Korea. We are very grateful that she is here with us today at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

Jocelyn Lieu: In a recent Poets & Writers interview (March/April 2002) you said that you began writing Comfort Woman after you were moved to nightmares by a lecture that you heard at the University of Hawaii by a former comfort woman who had survived the camps. You said, "I felt like the only way to exorcise it all through my dreams was just to write it down." Speaking about your process you said, "I was writing and not knowing where it was taking me, constantly wondering what's going to happen next." Can you begin by talking about that larger pattern that you tapped into with both Comfort Woman and now with Fox Girl?

Nora Okja Keller: The thing that drew me to write Comfort Woman in 1993 was a lecture I attended where a former comfort woman, Keum Ja Hwang spoke about her experiences as a young girl forced into a comfort camp where she was forced to sexually serve Japanese soldiers. That was the first time I had ever heard about that and I remember thinking, 'Why is this the first time I've ever heard about this? Why am I only hearing about it now? Why doesn't everyone hear about it? Why isn't it a part of our national consciousness of world history? '

At that time I didn't think I was capable of writing something that had such emotional depth. It seemed too big for me. I didn't think I could handle it. So I told a friend of mine who is also a writer. I said, 'Hey, you should write about this. This is very important. ' And she turned it back on me. She said, 'No, you're the Korean. You write about it!' And I kept saying,' No, no, no. Too big, too big.' But it just took hold of me and I couldn't let it go. It kept haunting me. I thought okay, I'm going to do this short little story about it. And that wasn't enough. There was so much more to explore and to write about. So the story grew chapter by chapter, story by story.

Going back to your question, the thing that drew me was this idea that there was so much silence surrounding it. One of the things that this former comfort woman talked about was her silence and why she didn't speak up sooner. Not only was it painful for her to speak about it and to relive it through the telling, but she also felt that anybody she could shame with her story was now dead. So it's not just that she felt ashamed herself. She didn't want to shame her family. She felt she would bring dishonor on her family but now everybody that she ever knew during the war had passed away and she felt the need to release the story out into the world. And that just moved me so incredibly. I somehow inherited that incredible need to tell the story, to release the story into the world and that is the same thing that drew me to Fox Girl.

The difference with Fox Girl is that there is so much material on the camptowns surrounding the American military bases. There is so much material - tons and tons of written material, which surprised me because it's something, again, that has a lot of silence surrounding it. It is something that is not talked about. It's not discussed. It's not really acknowledged in America or in Korea. So I was surprised at the extent of written material available about it. And yet to me, the need was still there to bring the story out. Not so much the story of 'Yes, there are camptowns here and here and here and this goes on,' not so much the bare facts of it but the true stories of it and the hard stories of it. The story that gets you right here (gestures to her heart) and makes you kind of connect on a gut or an emotional level. To me, the way to do that was through fiction.

JL: How are you able to go deep down inside yourself and get into a very private passionate scary place? Can you talk about your process in making the material yours? For instance, in Fox Girl, how did you do that research and then how did you make that story yours?

NOK: I spent quite a few months just gathering and reading material. There are some really fabulous documentaries and great films on it. Later Katharine Moon followed with Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations (Published 1997 by Columbia University Press) that started to approach the camptowns from a woman's perspective. This is something I wanted to try to do through fiction. Once I had this framework built, the scary part comes. And that scary part is that at a certain point you have to say, I have so much. I've built this foundation. I've built this structure. Now I've got to take this leap and imagine what it would be like to be one of these girls living in a camptown, a child growing up there, a woman working there ? And that truly is where that connection to a deeper space comes from. You imagine, but you're never quite sure. You hope that you've built the framework to get it right. But you're taking a leap and you just hope that the foundation is strong enough to support you when you jump.

JL: It is quite an act of courage that we see in both novels. Both deal with the very brutal effects of imperialism on Korean women and the marks it leaves behind very literally on their flesh and on their bodies. You also discuss the forms of resistance they find to help keep them alive - how Akiko summons freedom and how Hyun Jin has personas in the form of the cast-off baby and the little mermaid. You told us you were really struck by the comfort woman's testimony. Can you say, in retrospect, what drew you to these beings in particular?

NOK: In Comfort Woman, I tried to make Akiko's experience after the camps parallel the tradition of shamanism in Korea which, I understand, is a very woman centered tradition. I think 95% of the shamans are women and the few men who are Shamans have to dress like women and act like women in order to flirt with the spirits who come down and speak with them. It’s a very woman centered tradition but it's a tradition that exists outside the cultural norms for women in Korea. [Female shamans] are allowed to act in ways that wouldn't be respectable [for women] in the traditional culture . To me, that is a very powerful tradition to draw on and so I tried to parallel her movements, even her sickness and the experiences she has with the spirits to the studies I did on shamanism. That was an interest I had years before I even conceived of Comfort Woman, before I even heard that first testimony. It's not like I analytically said, 'Not only does the shamanism illuminate Akiko's movement but it also illustrates post traumatic stress syndrome.' It's not something that you do consciously but again that's tapping into something that's a little bit deeper and finding the patterns as you go through the writing of it. Part of the excitement and the enjoyment of writing is that sometimes you start off somewhere and you have an idea of what you want to write about but it's only through the process of writing that you come to a fuller understanding of it. You come to a place you never expected to go and all of a sudden, there you are and it makes sense. I think the journey of discovery through writing is one of the best things about it.

JL: Can you talk about your process? You began to say that you had these stories that you were piecing together and they kept getting longer and longer? Can you talk about when you discovered Comfort Woman was a novel? Was there an Akiko moment? How did it all come together?

NOK: When I first started writing Comfort Woman, I had only done short stories and short personal essays. The longest thing I had ever written was maybe twelve pages. I resisted the idea of something big because I was intimidated. If I had gone in and said, 'I'm going to write a novel about comfort woman,' it would have paralyzed me. In a sense, I tricked myself into writing the novel. I started off approaching each chapter as a short story. It has a beginning. It has an end and it kind of circles around. It's a short story.

I would do each of the earlier chapters that way. I wrote Akiko's chapter's first. I really felt that the mother comes first and the daughter's stories are a response to the mother. So I had maybe six or seven Akiko short stories and then I needed another way to approach this subject. I needed a way that might give readers a way to reflect on how issues follow generation to generation. So I started on the Becca chapters. I would look at one of the Akiko chapters and say this is what Becca would say to this experience. So I had maybe six Akiko stories and six Becca stories. I laid them down on the floor. Akiko in one row. Becca in another row. And I literally pieced them together like a puzzle and I found that for example, even though I wrote this short story/chapter seventh, it really belongs first and because that belongs first, this Becca story really belongs here and so I began piecing it together like that. That is why the structure is so different for Fox Girl. Right away, from the beginning, I thought, this was my second novel and because of that I was very conscious of structure and how I wanted to differentiate it from Comfort Woman so Fox Girl consequently is much more linear and plot driven.

JK: How does that feel, writing such a linear and plot driven novel? The styles seem so different.

NOK: I though it would be easier to do but it was actually harder. I had this concept that since I wrote my novel Comfort Woman, I should know how to write a novel by now. Then sitting down to write Fox Girl, I realized I was still starting from scratch. That’s still a blank piece of paper there and I still have to figure out how to write this story all over again. Also, I was conscious from the beginning that this was a big work. I was conscious of the choices I could make as a writer and the choices that my characters could make. I would second guess myself a lot more with Fox Girl. About two hundred pages into it, I realized, 'Oh my god, I made them do so many bad things and they make so many bad choices they just have to die.' That's it. They're stuck. There's no hope for them. I really backed myself into a corner. I just can't figure out a way out.

So I called up the people in my writing group and said, 'I'm sorry but I'm quitting and I've decided that I should write romance novels.' It’s true. Because with a romance novel you have everything right in front of you. You know exactly how it's going to end. So I went to the library. I got half a dozen and I was like, 'Oh, look here's the formula. Just follow the formula.' I know how to do this. Then everybody in my writing group said, Are you insane? You made us read two hundred pages and we've gotten attached to these people. They started complaining so much and also by that time too, I felt I had an obligation to the characters, I couldn't just leave them in those horrible situations so I went back to it. But I did read those romance novels first. My commitment to the writing group and to the characters made me find a way out. It meant going back to the early chapters and injecting some life for them so they'd have some place to go again.

JL: Speaking of your writers group there is the venerated Bamboo Ridge Writer's Workshop. Can you tell us a little bit about how that group has really helped shape your writing? Can you talk about working in that community of writers and what contributions they've made to your work?

NOK: I had always written short little things, even when I was a child but I never would have thought that I would become an author and it would become my career. When I was going to school through high school and college I studied a very traditional curriculum. We studied Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton and the great American authors: Faulkner and Hemingway. Even though I loved reading them, I felt no personal connection to them and I thought, 'Oh well, their stories aren't mine and these are what great writers should be and there was just no personal connection.' I didn’t think that I would ever become a writer because I didn't fit the mold that I had studied.

Then my junior year in college two things happened. I took my first Asian American literature class and it was the first one taught at the University of Hawaii. This was mid-eighties, not that long ago, and in Hawaii you would think there should always have been an Asian American literature class. I read people like Maxine Hong Kingston and Jade Snow Wong. We read works from the Bamboo Ridge Press and that was not only Asian American writers but writers in my home town. People in my neighborhood are writing? At that time, you could walk around the literature department at UH and be like what about local literature? The professors would look at you and be like, 'Huh? We have local literature in Hawaii? There's no such thing. That's just not happening here.' There was no sense that anybody in Hawaii was able to produce anything called literature. We might have dabbling poets here and there but literature?

Eric Chock and Darrell Lum started Bamboo Ridge press because they said there's no place for us to go with the writing that we want to do. Let's make our own press. These are two guys who have known each other since second grade and decided to make a place that they could send their own work. It was a very pivotal time. It really opened my consciousness. These are people like me, writing. These are people who grew up in my neighborhood, writing. I began to see this is possible. I can send my work out and actually become published. They had their press but they also had their writing group and at the time it was open to anybody who was interested in writing. They would post bulletins: Come to this writing group. Come share your writing. Come listen to other writers writing in Hawaii.

So I went down. I had my short story that I had written and it was a very generic story. There was no ethnicity in it. There was no sense of culture. It was very whitewashed and kind of in this empty space. There was no place — but it had two engaging characters. I took this down and read it and Eric Chock stood up and said,. 'Is this local literature?' I kind of crumpled inside and replied I guess not. Then there was this huge discussion about what local literature was and does this even approach what local literature was and I kind of slunked away thinking there is no place for me. I didn’t go back for six, seven years.

I went away to UC Santa Cruz and came back to Hawaii to work on my dissertation. A friend of mine said come back, you don’t have to bring your work Come and just listen to what other poets and writers are doing. I said alright, I'm very interested in what is happening in the literary community here but I'm not participating. I'll just go and listen. So I went and some brave soul read their work and Eric Chock stood up and asked, 'Is this local literature?' My jaw dropped and I realized that he opens every Bamboo Ridge meeting with that question. He asks it not to judge or to question a particular piece but because he is really questioning what is local literature. It is an ongoing thing that he wants to talk about.. Now every time I see him, I try to ask him with a straight face, 'Is this local literature?' We laugh about it now but I tell you I was really scared of him.

JL: His question clearly lit a fire under you. Can you talk about that fire?

NOK: Well, it made me run away.

JL: You ran, but it made you think about it for six years too.

NOK: It did. I didn't write for six years but I read. I read everything that I could get my hands on by emerging Asian American writers and writers coming out of Hawaii. I didn’t write. I read.

JL: You also talked about coming to find a literary genealogy that you could be a part of, one that you couldn't find in your undergraduate years. Can you tell us a little bit about that genealogy? I'm thinking in the larger terms of Asian American writers and local writers certainly but also moving beyond that. Like Bharati Mukherjee, who said she can be Huck Finn and Woman Warrior if she wants to, can you talk about all of your literary influences and how they have nurtured you as a writer?

NOK: There are so many but off the top of my head there is Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor and Cathy Song. I remember asking my Asian American Lit teacher if there were any Korean writers. She said no. Then she said, 'Wait, there might be one. Cathy Song but she's half Chinese.' That's ok! I'll take it. At that time it was a scramble to reclaim not only what was happening then but it seemed like we had lost a whole generation of writers who had come before us. Even finding Jade Snow Wong…In the 80s, the focus of Asian American Literature centered on Chinese and Japanese American writers. So at that time even a professor in that field would say, "Sorry, no Korean American writers." But really, before Cathy Song, there was Theresa Cha, Kim Ronyoung, Younghill Kang. A whole tradition of Koreans writing . And of course -- Filipino and Indian writers as well -- all writing about being in America.

JL: What we find when we look at the history and the literature, Asian Americans started writing the second they got off the steamer and publishing.

NOK: And not only publishing, but etching their poems on the walls of Angel Island. (Editor's Note: In 1910 the Angel Island Immigration Station opened and was dubbed the "Ellis Island of the West." It was primarily a detention center designed to control the flow of Asian Immigrants into the country who were barred by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.)

JL: Do you feel a part of that greater literary body now?

NOK: I do but I try to read everything. And now there is a lot more writing coming out by Asian American writers so it’s harder to keep up. But I do find, too, that when I’m actively writing, I try not to read anything that might overlap with my own work in any way.

JL: It’s also a matter of time priorities too. You have two beautiful daughters. [In Fox Girl] You have these wonderful beautiful sensual images of say the milk jetting from Sookie’s breast as she is nursing and you have these tender and very real images of mothering in both books. Can you talk about how being a mother has affected your work? What have you learned by being a mother? What have you learned about being a writer?

NOK: I was pregnant when I first started writing Comfort Woman. My oldest daughter was a year old as I was in the midst of it. So all those images of nursing and getting up in the morning, I was living that. Earlier you asked how do you interweave certain themes. Well some of it was what I was experiencing in real life. I would get up when she cried in the middle of the night. I would go and nurse her and then I would be up and writing right after that in the dead of night. It's funny, I don’t think I could write that now. When you’re living it you think this is so rich and it’s so immediate you’ll never forget it but even two, three yeas later it’s faded to such a degree that I don’t think I would be able to inject the amount of detail.

More importantly, in the bigger sense, this is going to sound strange, but writing is important to me but it’s not that important to me anymore. It’s not the center of my life. Having children made me reprioritize things a lot. I am definitely not the center of my life anymore. And my writing is not anywhere near that center. The center is really occupied by my family. And because of that, I am not so consumed so much. I write and I enjoy it and sometimes I am tortured by it. But when I go on these book tours or when I hear criticism, it doesn’t really affect me that much anymore. I’m able to put things in perspective. And so when people ask what if the reader takes this from your work and I say, ' Well, the reader is free to take what she wants from it.' The point is, I am engaged in the writing but it's much easier for me to let it go, to say I’ve done with this. I’ve released it. It’s out there and now I go back to my center.

JL: So in a sense, it’s freed you?

NOK: It has and I’m not so worried about getting everything perfect in writing. You'll have a story so complete in your head and it’s so rich and so vast that of course when you write it down there are some disappointments. Before I had children I’d be so consumed by it but now I’m much more able to let that part of it go. So, in a sense, the children have provided this balance for me. The writing in the novels is so dark. Just being with the kids is this incredible lightness in my life. So I have this dark outlet for my novels and then it’s balanced by the daylight.

JL: And perhaps because there is so much daylight, it permits you that darkness. Let’s talk about your future. You envision a new novel, the third book in this trilogy. Can you talk a bit about it, as much or as little as you want to, without cursing it? Can you talk about that?

NOK: This question got me into real trouble after Comfort Women. People would ask what are you working on next? And I’d say, 'Oh, it's this great novel and it's about such and such and there are these two characters and this and this happen and then this and this and it’s great.' I’d tell them the whole story, even the ending. But when I got home and I started to write I was like didn’t I do this story before or didn’t somebody do this story before? I realized that I had talked away the energy of it. The excitement I spoke earlier, of discovering as you write, was all gone because I had plotted it all out and told it and enjoyed it as I was telling it and that was it. It began to fizzle out for me especially as I came across more and more references about camptowns and America towns. That story became stronger and stronger and that place became stronger and stronger and really the story that I talked out lost its energy. So let that be a warning to you.

I call Comfort Woman and Fox Girl and this third novel that I’ll be working on a trilogy in the loosest sense in that they are tied by theme. The third book will be a direct sequel to Fox Girl although now my challenge is how am I going to put a twist on it? How am I going to make it its own novel different from Comfort Woman and different from Fox Girl? It’ll have the same characters but I am still in my head trying to figure out how it is going to be twisted. Is it going to be different in narrative, different perspective, different time, different structure? I am playing with all those in the back of my head.

JL: Well I hope your play is productive. Thank you for taking the time to meet with us.

This interview was made possible by a collaboration between and The Asian American Writers' Workshop. The Workshop is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the creation, development, publication and dissemination of Asian American literature.

Learn more about the Asian American Writers' Workshop at

Jocelyn Lieu is a Professor at Parsons School of Design at the New School University in New York City. Her fiction has appeared in Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, The Chicago Tribune, and The Asian Pacific American Journal.


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