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Graphic Literature

From “Grass”

By Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
Translated by Janet Hong
Before and during World War II, the nation of Japan occupied Korea. The novel Grass tells the true story of a Korean girl's life during that era, in her own words.
(Black-and-white drawing of a small house with a large figure of a man standing in front of it. His back is turned to viewers.) NARRATION: One day a stranger came to our house.
(Panel 1: An image of shoes. Panel 2: The stranger walks away from Mother, who is standing by a stone wall. Panel 3: Mother speaks to Father, whose back is turned to her. Panel 4: Ok-sun and Okja talk to each other while Mother and Father talk in the background. Panel 5: Ok-sun, Okja, and Okhui build a snowman together while Mother and Father talk in the background.) NARRATION: He looked like he was in his mid-forties. My dad didn't seem too happy. MOTHER: Goodbye then. STRANGER: Alrighty, I'll be in touch. NARRATION: And Mom was walking on eggshells. MOTHER (to FATHER): Isn't it a good thing she won't starve? NARRATION: I had no idea what they were talking about . . . OKJA (SISTER): Sis, can you make a nose for the snowman? OK-SUN (OLDER SISTER, NARRATOR): Sure. NARRATION: Since I was busy looking after my sisters. OK-SUN: First you make the eyes. Then the nose. And then the arms. OKHUI (SISTER): Gee, there's nothing you can't do! MOTHER (to FATHER): It'll be better for her.
(Panel 1: Mother speaks. Panel 2: Ok-sun looks over her shoulder. Panel 3: Ok-sun stands in the snow with her back to the viewer. Panel 4: A speech bubble emerges from inside a house. Panel 5: Mother and Ok-sun sit on the floor talking. Panel 6: Mother and Ok-sun continue talking, while Father sits in shadow in the background.) MOTHER (to OK-SUN): Ok-sun! Come in here for a minute. MOTHER: How'd you like to be adopted? OK-SUN: Adopted? MOTHER: There's an udon shop in Busan. MOTHER: The owners don't have any children, and they'd like to adopt you. What do you think?
(Panel 1: Okhui and Okja look concerned as the head falls off a snowman. Panel 2: The girls argue as they look at the ruins of the snowman. Panel 3: Ok-sun speaks to Mother, whose back is turned to the viewer. Panel 4: Father stands with his face downcast and his head in shadow. Panel 5: A bare tree in winter.) MOTHER: They'll even send you to school. OKHUI: Oh no! MOTHER: They have plenty of food, so you can eat every day. OKHUI: Okja! Because of you, we gotta do the face again! OKJA: I was trying to make another arm! OK-SUN: They'll really send me to school? You mean I'll finally get an education? MOTHER: Yup. OK-SUN: Fine, I'll go. OK-SUN: Wow! I can't believe I'll be going to school!
(Panel 1: Ok-sun speaks while Father's legs are visible in the background. Panel 2: Mother looks concerned. Panel 3: Father, seated on the floor, holds a pipe in his mouth. Panel 4: Father smokes his pipe. Panel 5: Ok-sun grins and opens the door. Mother is visible in the background.) OK-SUN: But can I come home if I want? OK-SUN: This isn't goodbye forever, right? MOTHER: You come back any time. MOTHER: But don't waste this opportunity. Try to stick with it. Study hard and listen to your elders. OK-SUN: Am I dreaming? OK-SUN: Papa! I'm finally gonna go to school! OK-SUN: Okhui! Okja! I'm gonna go to school!
(Snow falls on a country landscape). NARRATION: I never should have said yes.
(Snow continues to fall on the country landscape from the previous page.) NARRATION: I had no idea I wouldn't be coming back. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be saying goodbye forever.
(Panel 1: Mother and Ok-sun stand facing the stranger. Panel 2: Mother speaks to Ok-sun, who looks over her shoulder as she follows the stranger. Panel 3: The stranger walks away with his back to the viewer. Ok-sun follows, waving without looking back as Mother waves good-bye.) NARRATION: Early in the morning, while everyone was sleeping... MOTHER: Please look after our Ok-sun. STRANGER: Humph, I told you there's no need to worry. NARRATION: I left home. MOTHER: Take care of yourself. NARRATION: If I looked back... MOTHER: Make sure you listen to your elders. OK-SUN: Don't worry about me. I'm your daughter, ain't I? Ma, you just worry about yourself.
(Panel 1: Father stands in a doorway. Panel 2: He looks downcast. Panel 3: Mother crouches on the ground. Panel 4: Mother's legs appear alongside a speech bubble. Panel 5: Mother's feet walk through the snow. Panel 6: Mother breathes heavily.) NARRATION: I was scared I would start crying, so I didn't look back. MOTHER: Aigo! MOTHER: What mother's heart doesn't break to send her child away? MOTHER: Ok-sun!
(A tear rolls down Mother's cheek as she looks at the bare trees and the snow.) MOTHER: Ok-sun, my baby girl. At least you won't go hungry now.
(The small figures of Ok-sun and the stranger walking away are visible in the distance on a snowy hill.)

From Grass. © Keum Suk Gendry-Kim. Translation © 2019 by Janet Hong. Forthcoming 2019 from Drawn & Quarterly. By arrangement with Drawn & Quarterly. All rights reserved.

Read About Bios Context Explore Teaching Ideas

From Grass. © Keum Suk Gendry-Kim. Translation © 2019 by Janet Hong. Forthcoming 2019 from Drawn & Quarterly. By arrangement with Drawn & Quarterly. All rights reserved.

Before and during World War II, the nation of Japan occupied Korea. The novel Grass tells the true story of a Korean girl’s life during that era, in her own words.

Definitions

Ok-sun: Name of the narrator, the oldest daughter in the family.

Okja: Ok-sun’s sister.

Aigo: “Oh, dear” or “Oh, my gosh” in Korean, pronounced something like “a-eeko.” (See the Context tab for details.)

“Comfort woman”: A Japanese term for a girl or woman forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II.   

Keum Suk Gendry-Kim

Keum Suk Gendry-Kim was born in the town of Goheung in Jeolla Province, a town famous for its beautiful mountains and sea. Her graphic novels include The Song of My FatherJiseul, and Kogaeyi, which have been translated and published in France. She also wrote and illustrated The Baby Hanyeo Okrang Goes to DokdoA Day with My Grandpa, and My Mother Kang Geumsun. She received the Best Creative Manhwa Award for her short manhwa “Sister Mija,” about a comfort woman. She has had exhibitions of her works in Korea and Europe since 2012, and her graphic novels and manhwa deal mostly with people who are outcasts or marginalized.

Janet Hong
Translator Janet Hong

Photo credit: Laura Pak

Janet Hong is a writer and translator based in Vancouver, Canada. Her translation of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale was a finalist for both the 2018 PEN Translation Prize and the 2018 National Translation Award. She has also translated Ha Seong-nan’s Flowers of Mold and Ancco’s Bad Friends.

Meet Keum Suk Gendry-Kim

In a Korean-language interview, Keum Suk Gendry-Kim explains the book’s title:

The interviewer comments that people often use the metaphor of a broken flower to refer to “comfort women,” survivors of Japanese sexual violence during World War II.

Kim responds that Lee Ok-sun and other women survivors didn’t “live like flowers”—they lived without food or basic necessities. But, like blades of grass, the women always stood back up after being trampled.

For more from Keum Seuk Gendry-Kim, check out this exclusive interview titled “Imagining the Collective Memory of History” on Korean Literature Now.

Meet Janet Hong

“I gravitate toward stories that feature broken, imperfect people, the unremarkable, the odd, the neglected, the marginalized and the disenfranchised.” Get to know Janet Hong in an interview with the Global and Mail, or read the Twitter feed of the self-described “translator, writer, mama bear.”

Hear the Names

Listen to pronunciations of the Korean terms in this story, read aloud by WWB Campus graduate intern Olan Munson.

(Listen on Soundcloud.)

Meet the Subject—and Other Women Survivors

As a teenager, Lee Ok-sun (the narrator of “Grass”) was kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese army.

Listen to a four-minute radio story featuring “Granny Ok-sun”—as she is now called—commenting on a California statue commemorating victims and survivors like herself.

Then, in the Emmy-nominated short documentary below, you’ll see how Granny Ok-sun and other former “comfort women” responded to a recent deal between Japan and South Korea. (Trigger warning—describes sexual violence.)

And look through a photo essay that also includes photographs of Ok-sun: “70 years on, the “comfort women” speak out so the truth won’t die,” published by Amnesty International. Photographer Paula Allen comments:

“I photographed them because they wanted me to. They were presenting evidence, remembering, both their voices and bodies speaking of the truth.”

(The essay includes descriptions of sexual violence.)

Finally, look at a map of the so-called “comfort stations” where girls and women were imprisoned and raped.

A Scholar's Notes

Brother Anthony of Taizé

Read what Brother Anthony of Taizé writes about “Grass” in his introduction to Korean literature:

In the section “Leaving Home,” the graphic oral history Grass opens with a rural family planning the adoption of the oldest daughter by another set of parents. In earlier times, farming families usually had many children: six, eight, or even more. Poverty often forced such families to put up children for adoption. Many Korean babies were sent abroad to affluent countries, but in Grass, the little girl will be living with a childless family in a large town. She thinks she will finally be able to go to school, but the drawings and text portend something much darker.

Read more in the introduction.

More of the Story
Cover of the book Grass, showing three girls looking through barbed wire.

Find out why one reviewer of Grass believes it “should be read by the governments of all nations.” The review, which includes pages from a later chapter of Grass that depicts Ok-sun’s life as a forced laborer, appears in Pop Matters.

Then, read another excerpt of Grass on Korean Literature Now (Content warning: depicts sexual slavery).

Reading Oral Histories

Learn why oral histories matter and how to interpret them with these online resources:

A Korean Family under Japanese Occupation

Ok-sun’s mother gives her up for adoption, saying, “At least you won’t go hungry now.” Why was life so hard for Ok-sun’s family? One reason lies in the Japanese occupation of Korea, which lasted from 1910 to 1945.

Get the facts about the occupation from a Lumen Learning list of “key takeaways,” or read an article from history.com.

The history.com article comments that the Japanese “view of Korea as backwards and primitive compared to Japan made it into textbooks, museums and even Koreans’ own perceptions of themselves.” You’ll see some of this attitude in the Japanese postcards of occupied Korea below. Yet, these postcards also give a sense of what life was like for families like Ok-sun’s:

The Work Children. Publisher: Hinode shoko (Firm : Keijo, Chosen.) NYPL Digital Archive.

Other postcards:

Background on Korea

New to learning about Korea?

Read about the country’s history in an article from the Asia Society, where you’ll also learn the meaning of the Korean expression, “when whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken. ”

For a “lighting-fast compression of Korean history” beginning in ancient times, watch the video below. (Modern history begins around 3:40.)

Finally, take a look at a detailed map of South Korea and its neighbors, including Japan.

More from Keum Suk Gendry-Kim

 

Read the rest of Grass.

Know Korean? Read Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s book Alexandra Kim, Daughter of Siberia: Joseon’s First Bolshevik Revolutionary Who Dreamt of an Equal World for All. (Title translation from WWB Campus Graduate Intern Olan Munson.)

More from Janet Hong

“Jinju is bad. She smokes, drinks, runs away from home, and has no qualms about making her parents worry.”

  • Take a look at Bad Friends, a graphic novel about “the enduring quality of female friendship amid a gritty landscape of abuse,” translated by Janet Hong. Then, find a copy at a library near you.
  • Then, read “Lament,” a short story about writer’s block, also translated by Hong, and her essay about translating this story.
  • Finally, read Hong’s translation of “Thirteen,” about a girl entangled in street prostitution (Trigger warning: language, sexual violence).
More about Janet Hong
  • Find out how Janet Hong became a translator in this interview, where she comments, “It never even occurred to me that one could do [translation] as a profession.”
  • Read Hong’s best advice on translating comics in The Arkansas International
  • Finally, watch Hong read her translator’s note from The Impossible Fairytale, a “metafictional tale of murder.”

More Korean Women Writers

Left to right: Lee Hyemi, Oh Jung-hee, and Koo Byung-mo. Photo of Oh Jung-hee courtesy of Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature.

For many more Korean women writers, see this list from smokingtigers.com.

Names in Korean

In “Grass,” the narrator’s name is Lee Ok-sun, and her mother calls her “Ok-sun.” That’s because in Korean, the second name is the given name. The first name is the family name—what would be a “last name” in English.

Learn more about Korean names in this article, which also shows you how to choose your own Korean name.

Today, Ok-sun is often called by the honorific “Granny,” or Halmeoni Ok-sun. Learn more about Korean honorifics and family names in this blog post from lingodeer.com.

More Girls' Voices from Korea
  • Garden of My Childhood, also published on this site, is written from the point of view of a girl whose family of “wandering refugees” has fled the Korean War
  • Ascending Scales, a contemporary short story about a girl growing up in a family without much money
  • The fantastical film Okja is also centered around a Korean girl’s difficult experiences (with a genetically-engineered super-pig.) Read a Vulture article about the film’s “translation joke for Korean Americans” and watch the trailer.
Another Graphic Novel from Korea
The demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. Photo by Driedprawns, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Read an excerpt of a graphic novel that tells the story of a different kind of Korean War refugee: a young communist.

Survivors, Statues, and Monuments

Watch the trailer for the 2019 documentary “My name is Kim Bok-dong,” about another woman survivor of the so-called “comfort stations,” now a leading activist.

Then, look through pictures telling the previously “untold stories” of woman survivors from Indonesia.

Next, read about the controversy surrounding statues commemorating victims and survivors of slavery under the Japanese during World War II:

Finally, read a BBC article asking “Why are so statues so powerful?” in the context of Black Lives Matter protests. Author Kelly Grovier writes, “From their earliest inception, statues were less about the individuals they depict than about how we see ourselves.”

More Stories of "Comfort Women" and Others in Occupied Korea

. . . On Wednesdays, it rains.

for the children they bore. For the children
they could not bear. For the children
They were . . .

Cover image of Who Ate Up All the Shinga?
The "Lai Dai Han" of Vietnam**
St. James’s Square, Mother & Child by Rebecca Hawkins. AndyScott / CC BY-SA

Read about the Lai Dai Han, children who were conceived as a result of rape by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War, in a report from the BBC.

**For Teaching Idea 1

Creating Oral Histories**

Interested in creating your own oral history? For guidance, you can use the following resources:

**For Teaching Idea 1

More Oral Histories**

Elsewhere:

  • Edie: American Girl, by Jean Stein, a multi-perspective oral history of the life of Pop icon Edie Sedgewick
  • Audio oral histories of trauma from StoryCorps, a National Public Radio program.

**For Teaching Idea 1

More Graphic Literature**

On WWB Campus:

Panel from “Heat Wave,” by Juliette Boutant and Thomas Mathieu. Translated by Edward Gauvin, published in February 2020 issue of Words Without Borders as part of a series entitled “Crocodiles Are Everywhere.”  

ElsewhereMaus, by Art Spiegelman, graphic oral history of the author’s father’s experience of the Holocaust

**For Teaching Idea 1

More Children on Their Own**
Salar Abdoh, author of “Hunger,” at age 15 and today.
  • Hunger, a personal essay about coming to punk-era L.A. from Iran as a teenager
  • Sentimental Education, a story about a Japanese girl abandoned by her mother as an infant
  • Grandmother’s Little Hut, a play about two runaway children in Stalin-era Russia
  • The Gringo Champion, a story about a young migrant worker on the U.S.–Mexico border (includes violence and explicit language)
  • Injeolmi Rice Cakes: a Korean poem in which the author remembers what it was like to be alone at home, missing his mother
  • Wizard Bakery: a contemporary Korean story in which a boy finds a new home in an unlikely place

Literature Elsewhere:

Fiction:

Nonfiction on Family Separation in Korea and the U.S.:

 

**For Teaching Idea 2

More Readings on Slavery, Then and Now

Slaves of Moscow: also a work of graphic nonfiction, about a recent case in Russia

 

Only known photograph of Harriet Jacobs (cropped), Gilbert Studios, Washington, D.C., 1894. Restored by Adam Cuerden. Public domain.

More about Life During Wartime

For more stories about living through a war, check out Jane Ciabattari’s list “Five Books about the Civilian Experience of War” on Literary Hub. 

Key Points
1. Oral History, Illustrated
2. Children Alone
To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

From Grass. © Keum Suk Gendry-Kim. Translation © 2019 by Janet Hong. Forthcoming 2019 from Drawn & Quarterly. By arrangement with Drawn & Quarterly. All rights reserved.

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