White Chrysanthemum, Mary Lynn Bracht’s first novel, should be one of the most powerful and important books published this year – not least because it was inspired by real events. “White Chrysanthemum is about what happens to women in war,” Bracht tells Post Magazine.
“When it comes to atrocities committed against women, because they always involve sex, we don’t talk about it. We don’t really want to know about it. We don’t really want to be informed about it. But it’s something you can’t look away from because it’s still happening.”
Bracht’s debut marries a tender portrait of the haenyeo, female divers who, to this day, work the waters of the Korea Strait surrounding Jeju Island, which lies about 70km south of the Korean Peninsula, with a frank and affecting account of the country’s comfort women, who were abducted into sexual slavery by Japan’s Imperial Army before and during the second world war. Some, like real-life comfort woman Ahn Jeom-sun, were as young as 13 when their terrible trials began. Their purpose, so they were told, was to prepare soldiers to die in battle for their emperor.
“The [comfort women’s] story has been out for decades, but still no one cares,” says Bracht. “We are not taught it in world war two history.” Indeed, the single fleeting allusion by a grateful Japanese soldier in classic British documentary series The World at War made the comfort women sound eerily cheerful. The obscene truth, which involves rape, humiliation, violence and mass murder, suggests an atrocity to rank alongside any other during the global conflict.
Yet, despite a mountain of evidence and an official apology given in 1994 by Japan’s then prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, the country’s so-called military brothels remain deeply contentious. Last month, South Korean President Moon Jae-in condemned Japan’s treatment of comfort women as “crimes against humanity”. Japan’s response, voiced by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, called Moon’s denunciation “unacceptable and deeply regrettable”, not least because it violated a 2015 agreement whereby 1 billion yen of compensation effectively bought South Korean silence on the issue.
I meet Bracht in The Landmark London hotel, near Baker Street, to discuss the myriad issues raised by White Chrysanthemum. It turns out Bracht herself requires similarly nuanced explanation, something she confirms. “I feel like I’m a million different people put together.”
Take her accent: Bracht’s mild but distinctive twang contains traces of her Texan birthplace, despite years spent in England. And while she may live in London with her husband and young son, it is her parents’ story – above all, that of her Korean mother – that shapes both White Chrysanthemum and our conversation.
Bracht unfurls her cultural identity with a few simple sentences. “My father was drafted for Vietnam,” the 40-year-old says. “He is from California. He was supposed to go straight there, but the week before his basic training group was due to be posted, he was sent to Korea. He met my mother there. It was fate.”
Bracht makes the meeting sound almost commonplace: “His friend was dating her best friend,” she says. The truth was anything but ordinary, of course, with few relationships between American GIs and young Koreans in the late 1960s being straightforward. “The expectation, especially for Korean parents, was if your daughter married an American, then you are ostracised,” Bracht says. “Most of those women moved to America.”
Bracht’s mother, however, had little family to do any ostracising. “She had no home,” the author says. “Her two younger sisters both died from illness, most probably pneumonia and TB [tuberculosis], although they weren’t seen by a physician. Her mother died some years later, when my mother was 15. Her father left.”
Almost entirely alone, the writer’s mother had swapped her rural home for the South Korean capital Seoul at the age of 16. Bracht laughs at the bravado this must have required. “She worked in a factory that made the 60s bouffant wigs,” she says. “She lived in a flat with all the other girls. They lived together and ate together and went out together. They had all this freedom.”
Such freedoms frequently came at a price, however. “A lot of country girls went to the city to find work,” Bracht says. “Once you did that, you weren’t going to find a husband. No Korean man would marry you at this time.” Perhaps this explains why Bracht’s mother accepted her American suitor, despite initial reservations: “She was afraid of Americans. Their features were so big. She didn’t speak English.”
On moving to Texas, Bracht’s mother and father were “like hippies; they are free and natural people”, she explains, but her mother’s origins generated a separate identity. “There was a pretty large Korean community in my town because of the military base. My mother went to a Korean church. All her friends were Korean. There was one Korean restaurant. One Korean grocery. All the Koreans would go to those places. But that was it.”
As Bracht discovered later, Korea was something of a mystery in the United States. “People looked at me and thought, Asian: Chinese or Japanese,” she says. “They don’t know what Korean culture is.”
One day, this ignorance would fuel her writing. “I found [my mother’s background] fascinating,” she says. “Sometimes I felt that how she was seen through Western eyes didn’t allow her to shine. With any kind of immigrant, you don’t get to see the extraordinary lives they led to get to where they are. People just saw my mother driving in her car. They had assumptions. She had an extraordinary life. I just wanted to put that somewhere.”
Bracht’s own journey has been long and winding. Her first ambition was to follow her father into the military. “I felt like my father’s son,” she says, laughing. “He had three daughters. We would go running together, do training with him. I loved that mixture of travelling, danger and military equipment.”
Bracht won a US Air Force military scholarship to study computer science at university. “You wear the uniforms,” she recalls. “I wanted to be a fighter jet pilot. They said, OK.”
This ambition was derailed, however, by a class in, of all things, Celtic ethnoarchaeology. “The professor was already in his 80s,” Bracht says. “He knew everything from the Gauls to current Scots. It spanned centuries. I wanted to be him. I don’t want to be a soldier; I want to study people.” She pauses, admitting with a nervous giggle, “I broke my poor father’s heart. He still makes comments. We had dreamt it together.”
In time, anthropology gave way to psychology. “I am not a digging-in-the-dirt person,” she admits, but this new direction also did not last. On the verge of entering grad school, in 2010, her husband’s job took them to Britain.
Of all Bracht’s many career options, writing was the longest held, and the most delayed. She did not take it seriously until her 30th birthday beckoned. “I had this anxiety: what have I been doing with my life? I could never figure out what I wanted to be,” she says. “What one thing would I regret if I didn’t try?”
Bracht promptly enrolled in a novel-writing course, trying her hand at various genres. Throughout she worked on turning her mother’s life into art. Even before she began a master’s degree at Birkbeck, University of London, Bracht had compiled many of her mother’s stories into a novel that was good enough to win her an agent but seemingly too depressing for publication. “They all said it’s too sad. Sorry,” she recalls.
The background research demanded by the project had piqued Bracht’s interest in her Korean roots and she was drawn to the second world war and the Japanese occupation. Bracht’s grandfather was a child when Korea was invaded. “He went to Japanese schools, spoke Japanese and only learned Korean later,” she says, also pointing out that the only lasting effect on Bracht’s mother was an enduring refusal to buy Japanese products. “We never had a Sony in our house. She didn’t explain why, probably because I was too young. I don’t think it was until I was in college that she finally bought a Toyota.”
Bracht first heard of comfort women during a month-long visit to South Korea with her mother in 2002. Even for enlightened citizens, the subject was shrouded in silence and shame. The country’s culture after the second world war ensured that four decades would pass without the comfort women garnering any public attention. They were certainly not mentioned during negotiations over Japanese reparations.
“Any compensation went to soldiers, who were given parcels of land,” Bracht says. “They left out women, who were secondary anyway. To talk about an enforced comfort woman would not have been on their minds. A lot of the women who came back didn’t want husbands. They didn’t want to return to their own families. They were so broken and ashamed of what happened that they didn’t want anyone to know.”
The image of comfort women living alone in hovels on the edges of small towns somehow encapsulates their forgotten status in Korean society. The few who did marry and spoke about what had happened to them were, Bracht adds, “beaten for the rest of their lives. It was better not to tell”.
The turning point was South Korea’s gradual shift towards democratic governance during the 1990s. “Women’s groups flourished,” Bracht says. “They were working for women’s rights and how to better women’s place and position on society.”
In 1991, Kim Hak-sun became the first comfort woman to speak publicly about her experiences, only months after Japanese scholar Yoshimi Yoshiaki unearthed documentary evidence of the military brothels.
“It was a huge moment,” Bracht says. “The immediate thought of most conservative people is she was a prostitute. It is heartbreaking.”
Within a year, almost 250 comfort women had joined Kim in speaking out. Within a decade, a United Nations report recommended that Japan compensate the remaining victims and prosecute all those responsible for the brothels. Japan has since made official apologies and offers of financial assistance, raised largely from private sources. This acceptance of guilt has not been straightforward, however.
In 2007, Japan’s then prime minister Shinzo Abe refused to acknowledge the women’s existence, contradicting the earlier apology. He later authorised a payment totalling 1 billion yen to 46 remaining Korean survivors, although this came with strings: South Korea agreed to future silence, and committed to removing a memorial to the women from Japan’s embassy in Seoul.
Bracht’s research was thorough and disturbing, and she describes testimonies of surviving comfort women as “unbelievable and horrible”.
Speaking to Amnesty International in 2007, one survivor, Dutch East Indies-born Jan Ruff O’Herne, remembered being raped on average 10 times a day, five days a week while being kept as a comfort woman on Java. Bracht talks soberly about the end of the war, when defeated Japanese soldiers murdered comfort women before committing suicide. Children born to comfort women were either killed or, at best, sent away. There were rare glimpses of hope. Bracht cites one case of a comfort woman smuggled to safety in a blanket by a Korean soldier just before the Japanese platoon laid waste to her camp.
Even survival rarely led to any kind of peace: most comfort women never married, never had children, lived in poverty and remained deeply traumatised.
“They have all these illnesses because of the drugs that were injected into them to make them infertile,” Bracht says. “Many were mutilated. They are still living with this shame of being a ‘willing prostitute’ – that is how they are categorised. It was one of those really difficult feelings I never got over.”
These testimonies shaped the trajectory of White Chrysanthemum’s heroine. Hana is a 16-year-old novice haenyeowhose younger sister, Emi, is approached by a Japanese officer while playing on the beach. Hana sacrifices herself to save her sister and is kidnapped. Deceived with promises of paid work in a factory, Hana is transported by train to Manchuria, where Japan is waging war against China. Imprisoned in a camp, Hana becomes one of countless women brutalised by Japanese soldiers preparing themselves to fight for their emperor.
Emi’s story is set in the present day. An elderly woman living in South Korea, she is haunted by the past, and above all by Hana’s disappearance. Their stories finally intersect when Emi attends one of the regular Wednesday protests in front of Japan’s embassy in Seoul. For two decades, the real-life weekly demonstrations have tried to win justice for comfort women, both living and dead. Out of an estimated 200,000 Korean women and girls coerced into sexual slavery, only 250 came forward. The remainder had either vanished, died or been murdered.
It is one thing to research such dark corners of history, quite another to turn them into fiction. Why write a novel? “I am not a journalist,” Bracht says. “I couldn’t write a political article about it. But this part of history just stuck in my head. Maybe if I can imagine a scene, I can go from there.”
Bracht started with a late scene in which Hana tries to escape, and worked her way backwards.
“I tried to imagine her thinking, ‘How am I going to get out?’” This formed the basis of a short story published in Birkbeck’s creative writing magazine, but again the comfort women refused to leave Bracht’s imagination. “I kept thinking, ‘What happened? There were 200,000 women; 250 survived. What do you think happened?’”
The decision to make Hana a haenyeo was partly a plot device. Bracht needed a heroine who was physically and mentally strong enough to break out of a prison camp.
“For most comfort women, [escape] would be impossible,” she says. “The haenyeo were unique in Korean society. It was unique to be matriarchal. It was unique to use your body physically as your occupation. It gave them a different point of view and belief system: a strength within themselves.”
Her instinct was proved correct when Bracht learned how the formidable haenyeo had organised early demonstrations against the Japanese occupiers. “I sort of fell in love with them,” she says. “This bizarre lifestyle of living on the water.”
What makes the haenyeo such good divers? “The belief that women have more fat than men,” Bracht says. “Also lung capacity. I don’t know why that is. They have done these scientific tests on how much air these women can hold in and why. It is fascinating.”
Bracht dreamed of diving with the haenyeo and hoped it might happen when she visited Jeju last summer, shortly after completing White Chrysanthemum. “I got my first advance; I didn’t have the money before,” she says. The haenyeoare notoriously suspicious of outsiders: a photographer who eventually filmed the divers in action had to wait a full month before she was granted access. There is a haenyeo diving school open to everyone, but this demands a three-month commitment.
Bracht decided to visit Jeju’s diving spots with her mother and great-aunt and see what happened. “It was amazing,” she says. “We ate the food they brought straight from the ocean. They chop it up and serve it.”
Nevertheless, the haenyeo’s reputation for elusiveness proved well-earned. Bracht did speak to some older divers in the more tourist-friendly areas. “They were in the 70s,” she says. “The haenyeo dive till they die, or they can’t walk out there.”
She saw haenyeo on nearby Udo island using pushcarts and walkers to reach the ocean. “Inside the cart is their wetsuit,” Bracht says. “They help each other pull them on and they just pop into the water. They are free. Their bodies float. They come out and they are slow again.”
The same visit enabled Bracht to witness the Wednesday demonstrations in Seoul for herself. “It’s not like a shouty protest,” she says. “They are singing. They bus children in. There is dancing.” Speeches explain what is going on and what the aims of the demonstrations are. “At the end, they cook food and feed everyone. It is an entire experience.”
Writing White Chrysanthemum clearly took a toll. “You have to pretend like you are living it,” says Bracht. “You have to imagine [being a comfort woman] before you can write it. But it was necessary.”
Portraying the women’s suffering candidly but without exploiting them any further required honesty but also a certain tact. “I didn’t want to write things lightly,” Bracht says. “These women were not willing prostitutes. They were forced. I hoped the reader would really feel it so there wasn’t a question that a woman would choose this.”
Indeed, when I ask what ambitions the writer has for White Chrysanthemum, education is high on her list. “I felt if I wrote a fictional story it might reach more people than a journalistic approach,” Bracht says. “Maybe this will plant a seed somewhere.”
There are signs of growing global awareness about the comfort women. Lest it be forgotten, Korea was not alone: women were forcibly detained from the Philippines, Taiwan, Burma, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Australia and, of course, Japan itself. Moreover, modern-day equivalents abound: for example, the staggering abuses suffered by Yazidi women and children at the hands of Islamic State.
Statues of comfort women (also known as peace statues) have appeared everywhere from Japan’s embassy in Seoul to a square in San Francisco, and even on South Korean public buses. The Apology, a documentary by Toronto-based filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung about three comfort women – one each from China, Korea and the Philippines – was made in 2016.
Time, though, is running out for the remaining comfort women. Ahn, who was abducted aged 13, is now 89. Bracht suspects that the long-running Wednesday demonstrations will continue until proper justice has been served.
She recalls meeting a towering Australian woman on her visit to South Korea last year. “You couldn’t miss her,” Bracht says. “She was probably seven feet tall.” The woman, like Bracht, was new to the comfort women demonstrations. Like Bracht, she was won over.
“She leaned down and said, ‘I would never call this a protest. We don’t protest like this. This is bizarre, and weird and slightly lovely.’”