i believe that literature flows somewhere behind order and definition. amidst all that remains unsolved. perhaps literature is about throwing into disarray what has been defined and putting it into order to make it flow anew for those in the back of history, the weak, the hesitant. about making a mess of things, all over again. is this, in the end, an attempt at order as well? is it now my time to look back? (shin kyung-sook, the girl who wrote loneliness, 58)
this week, i started reading tiger pelt (leaf-land press, 2016) by annabelle kim, and it’s a historical fiction set in mid-20th century korea. it follows multiple characters, one of whom is a young girl, who is kidnapped and pressed into service by the japanese during world war ii, and, as i read her section, i very much wanted to throw up, to put the book down and walk away.
basically, what the japanese did during world war ii was to recruit girls from korea, china, the phillippines, all over southeast asia, telling them that they would be working in factories and providing valuable contributions to imperial japan and its war effort. instead, the girls were forced into sex slavery, raped multiple times every night by soldiers, each of whom was given a set number of minutes — and, if the girls weren’t being tricked into signing up, they were being taken and abducted.
hildi kang gets into this in her book, under the black umbrella (cornell university press, 2001), a collection of oral histories from koreans who lived during the japanese occupation of korea, a time during which japan made the korean language illegal, forced koreans to take japanese names and worship at shinto temples, and tried simultaneously to cannibalize koreans by playing on their similarities and to keep koreans as the colonized other. in some ways, it is an interesting relationship to study now, decades removed, though the horrors of what imperial japan did to korea (and the rest of asia) aren't softened much at all, especially when you read an account like the one this woman, kim p. [anonymous], gives in under the black umbrella:
the men lined up outside the barracks doors where the women were, and took their turn. the girl just lay there inside. each man had a given amount of time, about seven minutes. if he wasn’t out in time, the next man went right in and yanked him out. each door had a long line of men waiting their turns. […]
the woman, on the wall near her head, used chalk or a pencil to make a mark for each soldier she served. she thought she would be paid that way, but it turned out they were not paid anything at all. (kim p. [anonymous], 135)
japan has continued to deny that this happened, claiming that the women were volunteers and taking some very deliberate actions in attempts to whitewash its history of this horrendous black mark, from trying to remove statues erected in remembrance of comfort women to trying to convince american textbook publisher mcgraw hill to revise text about comfort women in its history textbooks. these women and their supporters continue to show up every wednesday in protest in front of the japanese embassy in seoul.
the point of this post isn’t to get into japan’s war crimes, though, but this: as i was reading tiger pelt, i thought, this is why we need stories. we need stories that twist us up inside. we need stories that remind us of the horrors that humanity is capable of committing. we need stories that remember what happened, what a country and its people suffered, how that country and its people survived.
we need these stories as much as we need the stories that affirm the goodness, the generosity of humanity, because we need to remember that we all have monsters inside of us, that we are all capable of violence and grotesque behavior. we need to remember this because, if we allow ourselves to forget or pretend that we are above this ugliness and slide into indifference or apathy or a sense of moral superiority, we are more susceptible to making a farce of human brutality and, in a weird twist, letting it slide.
this post is kind of a cheat because i’m only 40-some pages into tiger pelt, so this isn’t an actual review of the book. it's also admittedly kind of poorly planned (these photographs, what?) because i actually had another author i wanted to recommend today (and had already shot the accompanying photos), but i unfortunately didn’t finish reading her book because i’ve been spending my week working on a personal essay and another blog post, which means i didn’t get to read as much as i’d have liked.
this is honestly something that’s been weighing on me these recent weeks, though, and starting tiger pelt simply triggered something in me. also, considering our cheeto president who does not read, i just really wanted to throw this out there: read. just read. read broadly. read intelligently. read intentionally.
read something that makes you uncomfortable, that makes you squirm and want to vomit because it twists you up and horrifies and outrages you. read something that challenges your worldview. read something that comes from another country, another culture, another language.
maybe you’ll find that this reading brings you back to your already existing worldview, your faith, your convictions, but the point isn’t to force yourself to change. the point is to consider. it is to take yourself out of your bubble (and we all exist in some kind of bubble) and ask yourself why you believe what you believe, why you think the way you do, why you see people the way you do.
the point is to question, to open yourself up, and to try to understand and love people in better ways.
(this post has not been sponsored by blue bottle. i simply went to blue bottle in downtown LA today and loved it. i also loved that the books on these shelves are for sale, and all proceeds go to the library foundation of los angeles.)