Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
During World War Two, a young Korean girl named Lee Ok-Sun was abducted by the Japanese military and forced into sexual slavery as a so-called “comfort woman,” a sex worker for Japanese soldiers. Manhwa artist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim chronicles Lee's journey from the daughter of a poor country family to sex slave to her post-war life, based on her interviews with Lee at a retirement home for survivors of the “comfort stations,” telling a story of strength, survival, and horror.
Learning the basics of history isn't always enough. There's a vast difference between reading about the practices of an invading army and how it affected the lives of everyday people and seeing it play out before your eyes or hearing about what happened through the words of the people who lived through it. For some of us, that history is learned via family stories, but that only gives a window into one (set of) experience(s), leaving the rest to the cold pages of history textbooks. That's why stories like Keum Suk Gendry-Kim's graphic novel Grass are so important: they're a window into another very human piece of what happened in the past, putting names and faces on the horrors of war.
In the case of Grass, the particular horror being discussed is Japan's occupation of Korea during the second world war with a focus on the life of one woman. The narration is divided between the words of Lee Ok-Sun, a survivor of the so-called “comfort women,” women who were either tricked or sold into sexual slavery as sex workers for the Japanese military at what were euphemistically called “comfort stations,” and the creator of the book, Gendry-Kim herself. This allows us both to hear the story in Lee's own words and to see Gendry-Kim's reaction to them and seeing how she conducted her interviews and research. Gendry-Kim is clearly uncertain and uncomfortable with the process, although she feels very strongly that Lee's story needs to be told – she's concerned that she's stirring up bad memories, isn't entirely certain if she's asking appropriate questions, and struck by the fact that Lee largely speaks without inflection, viewing her own life, or at least the war, at a distance. This comes through in the way Lee talks about her experiences, her narration coming across as matter-of-fact. Oddly enough, that doesn't detract from the emotional power of the story; it instead drives home the idea of how horrific what Lee went through was, because if she dwells too much on what happened, she won't be able to go on.
That's where Gendry-Kim's art helps to drive home the power of the narrative. Appearing to be primarily done with a brush and ink or at least a brush pen (with the occasional use of white ink for accents), there's a suppleness to the lines that feels organic and tensile. People are drawn simply, buildings are mostly suggestions of dark interiors or dilapidated exteriors, but the nature is fluid and reminiscent of classic East Asian artwork, removing Lee's story from the trappings of time in order to remind us that while this is a war story, it's also a human one, and that these horrors have been going on for a long, long time. Lee's youth during the war is also portrayed by the artwork in that all of the men who rape her are simply shown as black shadows of vaguely human teeth, their eyes and teeth gleaming out of the shadow faces. It's reminiscent of Lois Lowry's classic WWII children's novel Number the Stars, where all of the soldiers are described from the boots up because that's how the young protagonist of the novel sees them. Lee sees the men as monsters, so that's how Gendry-Kim draws them: the things lurking in the shadowed corners of childhood fears come to terrible life.
To say that Grass is a difficult book would be an understatement. Any war story worth its salt tends to be, but Lee's experiences are both horrific and familiar if you've read other works about the terrible things done to women. This in no way detracts from Lee's own narrative; instead it points out how people today still don't want to accept that it was done and continues to be an issue. Lee is outspoken in her criticism of Shinzo Abe, and in her afterword, Gendry-Kim mentions seeing that Lee is still (as of 2015) attending protests and demanding better and more compensation and apologies to the Korean women abused by the Japanese military. She's as much a veteran of the war as any soldier, and she wants to be recognized as such – as a person, not just as a woman.
Obviously Grass comes with trigger warnings. There's sexual violence, child abuse, slavery, and the ways women attempted to abort a child when medical abortion was unavailable, which is not pretty. But what stands out is not only the terrible things Lee went through, but also her resilience. That's where the title comes in: Grass is among the most resilient of plants. You can cut it, break it, trample it, and burn it, but when the spring comes, the Grass will be right back where it was, growing strong. Lee is like the Grass – people cut, burned, and beat her, body and spirit. But at the end of it all, she not only survived, but she continued to speak out against what was done to her.
Grass may not be easy to read, but it's worth the effort. Stories like this one need to be told, and Gendry-Kim does it well, shining the light onto a dark corner of war and reminding us that wars are not only fought by the people with weapons.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Thoughtful and well-told, details Lee's experience without holding back, wonderfully evocative art
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