Grass, by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, pub. Drawn and Quarterly, 4.5/5 stars
The opening pages of Grass, a graphic novel, introduce a girl. Her expression, distilled by a few sharp ink strokes, is full of pain, sorrow and uncertainty. Surrounding her on the blank page is an unmoving whiteness, with no sky or ground to anchor her to reality. Her eyes are downcast, her body cloaked against an invisible frost.
This is the real-life protagonist of Grass, Lee Ok-sun. Born in Busan, South Korea, Lee was one of a still undetermined multitude of girls and young women forced into sexual slavery across East Asia by Japanese soldiers during the second world war.
Author Keum Suk Gendry-Kim shows Lee as an elderly woman leaving China, where she has endured one of the most traumatic chapters of her life, spending decades in a loveless, abusive marriage, and a place to which she feels inextricably bound. As she boards the plane, Lee expresses hope and relief at returning to her hometown for the first time since she left, and soon we are transported into her cherished childhood memories, as told to Gendry-Kim.
The first few chapters of Lee’s young life are illustrated in bright, sharp tenor: the lines are crisp, delineating a glossy braid down her back, a ripe persimmon, her siblings’ faces, or the bark of a tree in spring. Throughout, we see the grass of the book’s title – not just the stalks themselves, rolling in waves, but also shrubbery, undergrowth, looming canopies and craggy mountains. Using this grass, which sweeps across grids and pages, as a metaphor, Gendry-Kim sensitively navigates the twists and turns in Lee’s story.
In contrast to the rest of the book, whose pages are mostly white, these incidents are depicted within black squares.
Lee’s eventual escape from the hut, years later, provides little relief. Still sick from the abuse she has suffered, she marries a young man. He disappears, leaving her to care for his dying parents, and when she remarries, hoping for a better life, her second husband turns out to be an alcoholic and a gambler. When she eventually returns to Busan, hoping to find the remnants of her once peaceful life, her siblings are distant and unrecognisable.
Many of the interviews that provided the content for Grass took place at the House of Sharing, a facility in Gwangju, South Korea, that houses former wartime sex slaves, including Lee. Keum’s conversations with her, sometimes depicted as they happened in her small boarding room, are wrought with complications – several times the author wavers, unsure about pushing Lee to address the most profoundly traumatic details of her life.
Her answers to Gendry-Kim’s questions reveal the impact that atrocities 70 years ago have had, and continue to have, on the South Korean collective consciousness.
Lee’s life had always been controlled by others: she was told she couldn’t go to school because she was a girl; she was punished for naming her place of birth as South Korea, the last shred of her identity; and her body and mind were held captive. Yet her resolve has not dimmed; in the final pages, Gendry-Kim reveals Lee to be a vocal activist for human rights and a regular attendee at weekly rallies outside the Japan embassy in Seoul that push for redress for suffering in World War II.
In 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an agreement with South Korea to endow a 1 billion yen foundation to compensate victims of sexual enslavement. Enraged by this, Lee spoke out, as illustrated in Grass: “How can an agreement be made without the consent of the victims? We won’t give up until the Japanese government gives us stronger apologies and compensation. We will keep fighting until the end.”
Grass is by no means an easy read, but it highlights how important it is that the voices of Lee and the other wartime sex slaves are heard. Through humanistic storytelling, we can recognise individuals as they are, despite the trauma they have suffered, as Gendry-Kim does when she describes Lee as “a good daughter, loving mother, affectionate neighbour, and one tough lady”.