Nora Okja Keller: telling trauma in the transnational military- (Sex)industrial complex/Nora Okja Keller: milletlerustu askeri (Seks)endustrisi sistemi icinde gelisen ruhsal sarsintilarin anlatimi.
In this paper, I explore war as a historical moment that reveals transnational patterns of domination and subordination. My subject is Nora Okja Keller's novels Comfort Woman and Fox Girl, which have come to prominence recently as key texts that break a silenced historical trauma: the enforced sexual servitude of Korean women and girls under the Japanese military occupation during World War Two, and the ongoing sex trade in South Korea under U.S. military occupation.
Keller's emphasis upon a systematic form of transnational patriarchal oppression is congruent with the very origins of the 'comfort woman' movement, which was organized by the efforts of feminists in Korea and Japan to draw attention not to the isolated incidence of military sexual slavery during the war in the Pacific but to focus the attention of the world upon the sexual exploitation of Asian women generally and Korean women specifically in the global sex trade. Elaine H. Kim, Kandice Chuh, Laura Hyun Yi Kang, and Pamela Thoma are among the critics who have engaged the various forms taken by the 'Americanization' of the comfort women issue and Lisa Yoneyama has written powerfully about the "'Americanization' of redress and historical justice". The economic exploitation of Korean women's sexuality is seen as an expression of powerful patriarchal narratives that dominate both cultures: Korean and American. So where the survivor narratives of former comfort women may shatter cultural narratives of human rights, for example, these narratives also affirm the continued power of narratives of Asian feminine sexuality and patriarchal dominance. That the intersection of discourses of patriarchy and Orientalism is also powerful in American culture is evidenced by Keller's equation of Akiko's suffering as a comfort woman with her suffering as the Asian wife of an American man. This interest is, of course, explored further in Keller's second novel, Fox Girl, which addresses directly the experience of contemporary Korean women who provide sexual services to the U.S. military personnel still stationed in South Korea.
The 'Americanness' of Keller's novel, then, lies in part in this connection between imperialism, patriarchy, and the sexualization of Asian femininity; but I would like to suggest that it also resides in the nature of Keller's rhetoric of trauma, as she recreates the conditions of 'subjectivization': the political process by which an individual is culturally constructed and interpellated into a specific subject- position.
In the second part of the essay, I turn to Keller's use of the cathartic role of literary language in the process of healing. The special characteristics of poetic language are deployed in her two novels as a mechanism by which the full horror of the traumatic event can be recreated or recovered. The theoretical argument that trauma somehow lies beyond representation, an argument assumed by some poststructuralist approaches to trauma literature, is interestingly engaged in these novels. I want to focus upon the potentially cathartic role of Keller's literary language in the fictionalized process of healing, where the special characteristics of poetic language can act as a mechanism by which something approaching the full horror of the traumatic event can be recreated, in order to be purged. Here, the 'Americanness' of Keller's novels is significant: her subject matter concerns the sexual exploitation specifically of Korean women in the context of World War Two and the Korean War yet this is not an 'Asian' text--it is an Asian American text and the role of America as one of the symbolic landscapes of the novel is quite ambiguous, as is the status of the writer/witness as an Asian American subject.
Technologies of the Self and the Rhetoric of Subjectivization
In this first part of the essay, I want to explore Keller's novelistic use of war as a historical moment that reveals transnational patterns of domination and subordination. The extremity of war exposes a gap between what Giorgio Agamben calls "the political life" and "the bare life". Agamben is interested to explore connections between the 'Political' and processes of subjectivization; I am interested in focussing on the complexities of subjectivization itself within the context of war and the international sex industry that is an integral part of the military-industrial complex. My subject is Nora Okja Keller's novels Comfort Woman and Fox Girl, novels that have come to prominence recently as key texts that break a silenced historical trauma: the enforced sexual servitude of Korean women and girls under Japanese military occupation during World War Two, and the on-going sex trade in South Korea under U.S. neo- imperialist military occupation. But it seems to me that the context of trauma qua trauma is largely incidental to Keller's interest in gendered relations between the 'bare' life (or survival) and living (or the politicized life of and in the polis). Rather, Keller is engaged in what Agamben, in Homo Sacer, describes as "the examination of the technologies of the self by which processes of subjectivization bring the individual to bind himself to his own identity and consciousness and, at the same time, to an external power" (5). Agamben continues, in his reading of Foucault's theory of "bio-power" or "bio-politics" to observe that:
Clearly these two lines [subjectivity and external power] ... intersect in many points and refer back to a common center. In one of his last writings, Foucault argues that the modern Western state has integrated techniques of subjective individualization with procedures of objective totalization to an unprecedented degree, and he speaks of a real "political 'double bind' constituted by individualization and the simultaneous totalization of structures of modern power" (5).
The paradoxical condition of individuals who achieve a sense of self only at the point of intepellation into a totalized structure of power, so that subjectivity and agency are indistinguishable from external cultural determination, is the condition Keller explores in her narratives; this is a condition that can best be exposed in its extremity within the novelistic setting of war.
Agamben opposes to these subjective technologies of the self the political techniques "with which the State assumes and integrates the care of the natural life of individuals into its very center" (5). War is crucial to Keller's work in so far as the disruption of 'normal life' in war strips away and exposes the fundamentally technical nature of these technologies. In both novels she emphasizes the organized nature of the system of sexual exploitation in which characters like Akiko and Hyun Jin are enmeshed. In Fox Girl, sex workers are monitored, tagged, subjected to regular medical inspections, and are incarcerated if they fail their medical tests. A clear disciplinary regime controls these women and places them in the subject position of 'prostitute.' However, government officials (agents of what could be called State political techniques) refer to the women as 'hospitality workers' or 'patriots of the Republic of Korea' (43). These linguistic indirections are themselves resonant of the euphemism 'comfort woman' that obscures the status of these women as having been sexually enslaved by the Japanese military. Laura Kang's extensive account of the difficulty faced by surviving comfort women, who seek to name their ordeal as sexual slavery, underlines the ways in which the experiences of sex workers can be variously constructed, and appropriated, according to how they are named. She argues:
One possible way to contest the discursive Americanization of "comfort women" is through tracking the contested range of possible names and terms that have been deployed under the hegemony of English as the language of international activism, adjudication, and knowledge-production, in which Korean/American cultural and scholarly productions are also partially implicated. The problem of translation into English from not one but two languages [Korean and Japanese] is exacerbated by different ideological valences of a range of terms in Japanese and Korean (p. 44).
"Comfort women" as voluntary camp followers or prostitutes, as military manual workers (who did not perform sexual labor), or as military sex slaves: the language of naming is a crucial means by which subjective experience is rendered as an external politicized condition. The political techniques by which the State (be that the Republic of Korea or Japanese-occupied colonial Korea or, indeed, the U.S.) controls the natural life of individuals are not obscured but are recreated by technologies of the self that construct individual identity through naming. The binding of the individual to consciousness and to the external power that makes available and validates those names happens through the process of naming a subject-position. The 'political' and the subjective thus are not opposed, but complementary.
One such name is 'prostitute' and, in both Comfort Woman and Fox Girl, Keller explores the ways in which the 'bare life' is transformed into 'social life' through the interpellative power of the name. In Fox Girl, Keller poses the question: "are prostitutes born or made?". The question is explored through the problematic of blood - as inheritance, as fate, as destiny versus nurture. When Sookie is abandoned by her mother, the prostitute Duk Hee, Sookie becomes a sex worker because she has no alternative livelihood. However, Hyun Jin's adoptive mother interprets her move into prostitution as the triumph of 'bad blood'. She demands of her husband: "Tell her what she is"
"You are what you are," my father said.
"See!" his wife gloated. "Blood will tell!"
[...] "She's right, Hyun Jin," he said. "Blood will tell". (125)
This interpretation, indeed the very question of 'blood,' exposes the myth of a 'preculture,' a pristine site before culture that is innocent of ideology. It is against this assumption of 'the pre-cultural' that the processes of subjectivization are exposed. For Hyun Jin's mother, prostitutes are born; in contrast, we witness in the fiction the process by which Hyun Jin is made a prostitute. When her 'original' identity as Duk Hee's daughter is exposed, together with the 'original' relation to the world this presumes, Hyun Jin is literally thrown away by her parents and left to survive how ever she can. When she sells her body to a group of GIs, this is a continuation of the history she has recently learned: that she was sold by her birth mother to her father and his wife. To learn how this could happen we have to look to the points at which Fox Girl intersects with the earlier novel, Comfort Woman.
From 'Pre-Culture' to Culture
In a 2002 AsiaWeek interview with Terry Hong, Keller describes these books as the first two parts of a planned trilogy that would reconstruct a historical pattern of cause and effect that began with the sexual enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese military. She explained:
I see Fox Girl and Comfort Woman as being linked together. Fox Girl was the natural follow-up: What happened to these women after they served as comfort women? I feel the women in Fox Girl are the descendants of the comfort women. It's a natural place to go--the 'America Towns'. So many of the women who came back from Japan after World War II did not, could not, return to their families because they felt so ashamed and ostracized. They had no other choice but to continue to be prostitutes. And the children, especially the daughters, remained trapped in that cycle. [...] [The next novel will be] a follow-up to Fox Girl--you can see a glimpse into a sequel in the epilogue. It will again be linked to both Fox Girl and Comfort Woman. I have to think about how it will be different, with a new perspective, a new shift. And I do I see the three as a trilogy (n.p.).
Sookie's mother, Duk Hee, may have been a comfort woman: the narrative is silent on that point but it hints strongly that she had to resort to selling herself in order to survive. Duk Hee accounts for her familiarity with Hyun Jin's father by telling how, at the end of the Second World War, they travelled together from the north to southern Korea. We should recall that in Comfort Woman Akiko was not abducted by the Japanese military, as we hear in so many survivor testimonials, but was deliberately sold by her sister. She describes how: 'I was her dowry, sold like one of the cows before and after me' (18). In such narrative details, Keller emphasizes the operations of patriarchy, which transforms women and girls into commodities to be sold. Akiko is sold by her sister; Hyun Jin is sold by her birth mother; Sookie is sold by Lobetto who also pimps for Hyun Jin. Nonetheless, this is not represented in these texts as an exclusively Asian patriarchy.
The oppressive patriarchy that makes of Akiko a victim even before she enters her life of rape and torture as a comfort woman is generalized from Asia to encompass the U.S. when Akiko migrates with her missionary husband. She finds little difference between the husband who rapes her and the Japanese soldiers who raped her:
He [her husband] cooed to me and petted me, then grabbed and swore at me, as he stripped the clothes from our bodies. When he pushed me into the bed, positioned himself above me, fitting himself between my thighs, I let my mind fly away. For I knew then that my body was, and always would be, locked in a cubicle at the camps, trapped under the bodies of innumerable men (106).
She finds in America that she occupies a subject-position that differs very little from that which she occupied in Korea. In this way, the process of subjectivization is exposed by Keller not as a pre-cultural 'blood' phenomenon but as a coercive patriarchal technology that grants an individual woman a place within the social life but, paradoxically, at the expense of exclusion. The prostitute, the sex worker, the sex slave: all are named in order to be vilified, included in order to be excluded, even as they validate and at the same time deny an 'original' blood identity with consciousness and the external power that names them. For at the same time that the subjectivization of Keller's characters creates an identity with the name 'prostitute,' this subjectivization also involves a dis-identification with, and reassertion of, the distance separating the 'bare life' from the social life. When Akiko begins her life as a comfort woman she describes this transformation as death: she dies as a subject and becomes an object of sexual use. "I was twelve when I was murdered, fourteen when I looked into the Yalu River and, finding no face looking back at me, knew that I was dead" (15). Similarly, when Hyun Jin is brutally gang raped (though the GIs pay to use her body and so this is named as prostitution rather than rape) she describes the separation of consciousness from her body as she lets her "real self fly away" (154). Like Akiko, Hyun Jin is unbound from a consciousness and identity, as the bare life of the body is experienced as something alienated from the discursive social world of language.
I screamed. And then went numb. I could barely hear them above the whimpering, the small animal cries. When I grasped that the inhuman keening was coming not from a cat cornered in the alleyway, but from me, I gave up the struggle of trying to decipher what the GIs were saying. And I gave up trying to hold on to my body, the body that disgusted me with its crying and mess and pain (154).
Hyun Jin, in this episode, surrenders language to wild animal keening; Akiko surrenders to hysterical muteness: this surrendering of the social and the discursive happens at the moment of their subjective interpellation into the military sex-industrial complex as 'prostitutes'. Keller's 'prostitutes,' consequently, are represented not as 'born' but as 'made'.
As I noted in the introduction, Keller's emphasis upon a transnational patriarchal process of subjectivization is congruent with the very origins of the comfort woman movement, which was organized by the efforts of feminists in Korea and Japan to draw attention not to the isolated incidence of military sexual slavery during the war in the Pacific but to focus attention upon the sexual exploitation of Asian women generally and Korean women specifically in the global sex trade. The economic exploitation of Korean women's sexuality is seen as an expression of powerful patriarchal narratives. That the intersection of discourses of patriarchy and Orientalism is also powerful in American culture is evidenced by Keller's equation of Akiko's suffering as a comfort woman with her suffering as the oriental wife of an American man, and this interest is of course explored further in Fox Girl, which addresses directly the experience of contemporary Korean women who provide sexual services to the U.S. military personnel who are still stationed in South Korea. In the second novel Keller suggests that the U.S. provides the model for the sex industry in South Korea-- 'America Town' in South Korea is indistinguishable from Hawai'i in terms of the sex clubs, street prostitutes, and porn shops. The Club Foxa Hawai'i is indistinguishable from the Foxa Club in Korea. In Yoon's Hawaiian club, Hyun Jin has a moment of complete disorientation when she believes she is back in Korea, in America Town. Later she reflects, "though I was three thousand miles away from Korea, I was still trapped in America Town" (269). Indeed, the dominant image of sexual violence in Comfort Woman is the image of Induk speared on a pole from vagina to mouth; in America Town a "GI whore" is discarded by her lover who throws her from his balcony. The narrator remarks wryly that her death is named as suicide even though she died with an umbrella inserted into her vagina. Thus, the image of Japanese sexual brutality finds easy comparisons in the U.S. context.
'Pre-Culture' and the Rhetoric of Trauma
The coercive process of subjectivization, in which patriarchy names women as commodified sexual objects, is exposed in the context of military conflict (World War Two and its Cold War continuation, the Korean War) but, Keller suggests, this exposes a technology of the self to which women are subjected by patriarchy: whether the agents are Japanese or American, whether the location is Korea or Hawai'i. Complementing this transnational perspective on the oppression of commodified women is Keller's use of literary language. As I have argued, in both novels, Keller discredits the notion of a 'pre-culture' that shapes relations between consciousness and the 'Political' life. However, she reintroduces the very notion of the pre-cultural (or that which is before and outside culture) through her use of myth, dream, and symbolism.
Akiko is unable to articulate her traumatic experience except through her ritual mourning of the women who did not survive the 'comfort' camps. She does not even speak her trauma but sings it. Keller represents trauma in highly poetic terms, through dreams, visions, and myths. The language of dream is, according to Keller in the 2002 AsianWeek interview with Terry Hong that I have already mentioned, the vehicle by which she became possessed by (and came to possess) the historical trauma of surviving comfort women. Keller explains how she came to write Comfort Woman after hearing the testimony of Keum Ja Hwang, a survivor of the wartime Japanese comfort stations, at a University of Hawai'i symposium on Human Rights in 1993. The friend who accompanied Keller told her, in Keller's words, "You should write about this, you're Korean". Keller continued,
But the topic was too big, I couldn't even find the words to express how horrified I was, much less find the vocabulary to talk about the pain in this woman's life. But her story took hold of me. I felt so haunted, I began dreaming about images of blood and war, and waking with a start. Finally, I realized that the only way to exorcise these dreams and the story from my mind was to write them down. So I got up one night and began to write bits and pieces of my dreams and the comfort woman's words (n.p.).
Through writing her dreams and nightmares, Keller claims she sought to exorcise the ghosts of historical trauma. She does achieve, in her novel Comfort Woman, validation of the suffering of surviving comfort women but catharsis is reserved for the generations who are damaged as a result of the originary historical trauma. As these generations witness the historical testimony of survivors, Keller suggests, the possibility for self-healing opens through the cathartic power of language. In Comfort Woman, historical trauma is experienced by Akiko but catharsis is reserved for Beccah, Akiko's American-born daughter, and is articulated in the text by the shared imagery of their dreams.
A number of narrative tropes or symbolic images trace back to Akiko's originary trauma, the trauma she cannot articulate in the terms of ordinary language to her daughter. Indeed, the healing of Beccah's traumatized psyche is represented through dream imagery, imagery that arises from the story of Princess Pari who tricked her way into hell so that she could find her parents and drag them free by the strips of cloth she ties around her waist (49). Later, Beccah dreams that she is held underwater by a shark that transforms into the figure of her mother holding her legs, Beccah says, "as though I could save her. Instead I feel myself sinking" (141). Beccah feels herself to be punished by her inability to conform to the ideal established by Princess Pari until she discovers her mother's true identity and learns of her mother's traumatic history as a surviving comfort woman. Only then is Beccah able to shake off the suspicion that she is modelled upon the little frog who was incapable of correctly burying his mother. Then Beccah is able to conduct the ritual preparation of her mother's body, though with the difference that she binds the body with cloth strips torn from the bedsheet upon which she has transcribed Akiko's tape-recorded testimony. Beccah does this in the belief that when her mother's body is cremated, the flames will carry her words away and free Akiko's spirit both from her body and from her history also. The cloth with which Princess Pari saved her parents becomes the cloth shroud Beccah uses to liberate her mother. In the process, Beccah liberates herself.
In the final dream that she reports, Beccah dreams that she gives birth to herself, a new and 'whole' self. She dreams again of being immersed but rather than drowning now she swims through the sky, as she describes, "higher and higher, until, dizzy with the freedom of light and air, I looked down to see a thin blue river of light spiralling down to earth, where I lay sleeping in bed, coiled tight around a small seed planted by my mother, waiting to be born" (213). This image draws together several of the rhetorical strands of the narrative. It recalls the advice given to Akiko that in order to find something lost she must free her mind and allow her unconscious to spiral in towards the lost object; this in itself recalls Akiko explaining to Beccah that her trances are her mind's attempt to find something that she has lost - her past, her history, lost to the devastating power of trauma. The river represents throughout the narrative a gateway to the spiritual realm, be that hell or home. Beccah scatters her mother's ashes in the river by their home, the river that Akiko has ritually united with her daughter through a bond of blood that is extended to encompass herself as Beccah touches her mother's wet ashes to her lips, " 'Your body in mine,' I told my mother, 'so you will always be with me, even when your spirit finds its way home' "(212). The conclusion of the narrative, then, enacts the recovery of traumatic memory and its reintegration into the narratives recalled by Beccah. As a consequence, daughter is united with mother, the unity of the generations is preserved, and ritual is united with history as body is united with spirit.
These discourses of dream, symbolism, and myth, which exceed in their representational power the limits of normal mimesis, demonstrate the ability of poetic language to transform history from event into a discourse that approaches the horror of the originary traumatic event. Once remembered and recreated, the trauma can then be purged. Admittedly, the status of Comfort Woman as an Asian American text raises more questions about the status of the text's language than the text itself can resolve (for instance, why only Reno's Hawaiian accent is transliterated when other characters, most notably Akiko, must speak not only an inflected English, but indeed Korean in sections of the text that are not marked by any such linguistic switching). The rhetoric of trauma, however, operates throughout the narrative, in the recurring images that accumulate meaning until they meet and meld at the end, into a seeming plenitude of meaning that transcends particular technologies of subjectivization by displacing identity into a mystical realm outside the text, language, and culture.
In Fox Girl, Keller uses a similarly Romantic (with a capital R) approach to symbolic language but this time she deploys the oriental myth of the shape- shifting fox spirit as the unifying trope of the narrative. It is in this notion of a mystical power of self-transformation that Keller is able to engineer the (I have to say implausibly) happy ending of the novel. The narrative repetition of variations on the tale of the fox spirit works with the thematic concern with blood: Keller makes of the fox spirit a kind of vampire that sucks the blood of its victims, though the fox spirit more usually possesses dead bodies. But Hyun Jin's final escape from a subjective identification with the category of 'prostitute' and her assertion of individual agency over the dictates of 'blood' is achieved rhetorically when the narrative turns from its insistent identification of Sookie with the fox girl and instead names Hyun Jin as the mystical shape- shifter. Hyun Jin is then able to move into a new discursive world, a feminized world apart from the subjective technologies of transnational patriarchy. In these endings, and with this powerful literary language, Nora Keller achieves a symbolic validation of suffering. She suggests that trauma is the mode of subjectivization for all women living under patriarchy. The bare life is intolerable but the technologies of the self that are available to women exclude them from the social life, the life of the polis, even as they are included within a regime of sexual commodification. The simultaeous identification of self with both internal consciousness and external power is constructed in such a way as to transform women into commodities for sale and for sexual use. Although Keller is able to expose the myth of the pre-cultural as only a myth, a function of ideology, she reinstates myth through her own use of a Romantic discourse of mystical transcendence that once again displaces culture into the realm of the 'pre-cultural', and the writer into a realm of imaginative sovereignty that bears an ambiguous relation to the military industrial complex that provides the war-torn settings for her novels. Keller's symbolic discourse, which exceeds the limits of normal mimesis, demonstrates the ability of language to transform history from event into discourse and into naming. The process of subjectivization, such as I have described it, is a process that takes place in language but in a language that attempts to transcend itself by evoking a pre-cultural, pre- linguistic condition. Keller's use of symbolic language attempts the same kind of transcendence, but to propose a different kind of subjectivization: one based on a relation to (feminine) consciousness, a relation that obscures the role of external power in the process of subjectivization.
This rhetoric of catharsis risks collusion in the processes of interpellation by which the subject is integrated into the normalizing cultural narratives of the military sex-industrial complex. Keller's casualities of war, then, are not the Korean women who are subject to commodification and sexual exploitation. All women are the casualties of war and this feminine suffering is, in Keller's fiction, overcome through a symbolic feminine relation (to the mother, in Beccah's case, or the mother figure, for Huyen Jin) that can bring the individual to bind herself to her own identity and consciousness. But this technology of the self cannot address the external patriarchal power that validates the processes of subjectivization and so the paradoxical condition of Agamben's 'exception'--the inclusion that is exclusion, the exception that is the rule-- remains in place. Thus, Keller's novels end indecisively: with Beccah awaiting her symbolic rebirth; with Huyen Jin living as a fugitive who can only fantasize about freedom. For these casualties of the 'war between the sexes' there can be no world outside patriarchy: no position from which to tell trauma that is beyond or before, the technologies of the self of the transnational military sex-industry complex.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and the Bare Life. trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.
Chuh, Kandice. "Discomforting Knowledge, or, 'Comfort Women' and Asian Americanist Critical Practice". Journal of Asian American Studies, 6. 1 (February 2003), 5-23.
Kang, Laura Hyun Yi. "Conjuring 'Comfort Women': Mediated Affiliations and Disciplined Subjects in Korean/American Transnationality". Journal of Asian American Studies, 6. 1 (February 2003), 25-55.
Keller, Nora Okja.Comfort Woman. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998.
Keller, Nora Okja. Fox Girl. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003.
Keller, Nora Okja & Terry Hong. "The Dual Lives of Nora Okja Keller" AsianWeek, 4-10 April, 2002. <http://www.asianweek.com/2002_04_05/arts_keller.html>. Accessed 28 August 2006.
Kim, Elaine H. "Dangerous Affinities: Korean American Feminisms (En)counter Gendered Korean and Racialized U.S. Nationalist Narratives". Hitting Critical Mass, 6. 1 (Fall 1999), 1-12.
Schellstede, Sangmie Choi. ed. Comfort Women Speak: Testimony by Sex Slaves of the Japanese Military. New York & London: Holmes & Meier, 2000.
Thoma, Pamela. "Cultural Autobiography, Testimonial, and Asian American Transnational Feminist Coalition in the 'Comfort Women of World War II' Conference". Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies, XXI, 1-2 (2000). 29- 54.
Yoneyama, Lisa. "Traveling Memories, Contagious Justice: Americanization of Japanese War Crimes at the End of the Post-Cold War". Journal of Asian American Studies (Feb. 2003), 57-93.
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|Author:||Madsen, Deborah L.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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