Sharp Memory Cuts in ‘Grass’

“War is hard on women,” says a character near the end of Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, ruminating on the costs the main character has endured the whole novel and will yet endure. The line ran through my head again and again as I read Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s Grass, a graphic novel that tells in sparse but well-selected detail the horrors of a much more recent war, as told by one who endured them herself as part of an oral history project.

The cover to Grass, showing three young women surrounded by long grass, standing behind barbed wire.
It’s a thick ‘un, but I kept turning every page.

Ok-Sun Lee is introduced to us as an old woman leaving her Chinese home to return to her native Korea for a reunion of sorts: a gathering of those who used to be “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers during the war. That is, women (and, frequently, girls), many Korean, who were kidnapped or coerced into “service” as prostitutes for the soldiers, and kept against their will while their captors kept their earnings while denying them all but the most basic supplies and medical care. At one point, Ok-Sun is beaten unprovoked and can’t hear, but is told that her ears aren’t necessary for her to pleasure the men so there’s no need to address that affliction. When another girl becomes pregnant, the baby is stolen almost as soon as it is born. And when the war is finally over, the women—again, who were repeatedly raped for a period of years—are abandoned by the brothel owners and shunned by civilians as they try to survive.

Ok-Sun’s stories about the war are difficult enough, but the suffering in the decades that follow is perhaps even harder to grapple with. As an old woman, she muses that she doesn’t think she’s been happy all her life, and the circumstances of her life are such that even the most Pollyanna among us would struggle to find a silver lining. As a child, Ok-Sun longs to go to school like her younger brother, but she is a girl and the family is starving, anyway. So when a kindly-seeming couple asks Ok-Sun’s parents if they can care for Ok-Sun and pay for her to go to school, nobody thinks twice, and Ok-Sun leaves home—for what turns out to be the last time. Because the kindly couple has no intention of sending her to school, but rather turning her into a live-in and unpaid servant, and they also don’t care if the older male customers’ hands stray. This would be enough to ruin most childhoods, but it’s also from there that Ok-Sun is ultimately captured and taken to China to be a comfort woman, and everything gets worse from there.

In a page from Grass, Ok-Sun's mother tells her about the purported opportunity to go to school.
Don’t go, Ok-sun! It’s a trap!

And then after the war there’s the whole being shunned by society thing, and it all just doesn’t get better from there.

The premise of Grass is a bit of a downer, and so is writing out some—but not all—of the calamities in Ok-Sun’s past. But as I read Grass, the emotion that quickly followed the horror was outrage, not only that such events had transpired but about the Japanese government’s reluctance to recognize those ruined lives for so long. I had previously read about the plight of comfort women in trying to get recognition and apology, but I can’t imagine any news story puncturing the heart the way Grass did. There is power in telling unhappy stories, sometimes, and that is the case here.

Truth be told, Grass doesn’t seem like the kind of book that would hold such power upon first look. The art looks sometimes sparse and sometimes frenzied, and never neat. Occasionally, I found myself a little lost in the time travel between then and now (though much of that was likely due to how quickly I devoured it). But the art style also conveys on another level the jagged way memory is often preserved. A sleeker style would suit the subject matter in Grass poorly, too. Some stories can’t be told in clean lines, just as some stories don’t have happy endings. The truth is messy, but it will come out, even if it takes decades to do so.

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