Every Wednesday since January 1992, an indefatigable group of halmonis (Korean for “grandmothers”) in their 70s and 80s have led a rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. More than half a century after being forcibly conscripted as sexual slaves by the Japanese Army during World War II,
these former “comfort women” demand a formal apology and monetary compensation from Korea’s colonizer. Even though the United Nations Human Rights Committee is finally conducting a long-delayed investigation (it has been more than a decade since the first comfort women came forward in the eighties), Japan has yet to give in on either demand. And to this day, most of the historical documentation of this tragedy of war remains undisclosed–in Japan as well as the other countries that took part in the Pacific campaign.
Korean-American author Chang-rae Lee adds to the growing, but limited, body of fiction on the exploitation of thousands of women by the Japanese military, of which Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman (1997) and Paul West’s The Tent of Orange Mist (1995, set in China) are notable. These authors’ fictional retelling of the plight of the comfort women guarantees that their stories will not be forgotten, as much as the Japanese government may want them to be. Stifled memories about one woman in particular haunt the septuagenarian narrator of Lee’s wondrous second novel, A Gesture Life. Franklin “Doc” Hata, a “retired supplier of home medical goods, expatriate and war veteran and now suburban lap swimmer nonpareil,” has led a seemingly exemplary life in the affluent New York City bedroom community of Bedley Run. But after an accidental fire at Hata’s precious, stately Tudor Revival home–his physical manifestation of the American Dream–the past begins to prey upon the former Japanese Imperial Army medic, after almost an entire lifetime spent forgetting.
In Lee’s acclaimed Native Speaker (1995), second-generation Korean-American Henry Park discovers the common experience of every immigrant: “When I get here, I work. I work for the day I will finally work for myself. I work so hard that one day I end up forgetting the person I am. I forget my wife, my son. Now, too, I have lost my old mother tongue. And I forget the ancestral graves I have left on a hillside of a faraway land, the loneliest stones that each year go unblessed.” Loss and suppression are benchmarks of A Gesture Life as well, as Lee expertly reveals in the intertwining narratives of the faux doctor’s two most important relationships–that with his adopted, mixed-race daughter, Sunny, and the aristocratic Kkutaeh, the Korean comfort woman he tried to protect in a remote Second World War outpost in Burma.