By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Nora Okja Keller, her 3-year-old Tae and dog Baxter relax
after an Easter party at her home in Waipahu.

Sweet Smile of Success!

Nora Okja Keller scores big --
her first novel is released by a major publisher

By Burl Burlingame

Who'd have thought, at least around the Star-Bulletin, that when we were giving Nora Okja Keller crummy press releases to rewrite, that she had a finely crafted novel in her?

Keller worked at the Star-Bulletin off and on for several years, mostly doing scut work while attending college and helping out at Bamboo Ridge.

Now that the obligatory conflict-disclaimer is out of the way, we can get on to the business at hand, that is: Local writer gets first novel ("Comfort Woman") published right out the door by big-time New York house (Viking) in a bidding battle ("almost six figures!" says a press release) and gets sparkling advance reviews (the tone set by Publishers Weekly's "striking debut by a strongly gifted writer" is typical).

So. Local girl does good.

The novel, which is episodic in structure, bounces between the POVs of Beccah, an American daughter who struggles to understand her Korean mother's frazzled behavior, and Akiko, the mother, whose horrific childhood is revealed in the book's title. The characters are strong and memorable. And the Star-Bulletin is mentioned more than once.

But it's strictly fiction, even though Keller is of Korean descent herself.

"In 1993 I went to a symposium at the University of Hawaii to hear Keum Ja Hwang, who had been a comfort woman," said Keller. "Her experience was so extraordinary, I thought someone should write about it. But not necessarily me.

"I couldn't let go. It haunted me. I was having vivid dreams about it, and I'm sure part of that was because I was about three months pregnant, which was really unsettling.

"I got up one night and wrote down some images from a dream, and later put an order on it, and it became a short story."

"Mother Tongue," the short story, won the Pushcart Prize in 1995, and afterward, "friends kept telling me there was more, that I should expand it to a novel.

"So I did. . . . I did the mother's narrative first, and it wasn't until I was almost finished with that that I realized that we needed to be brought up to date with the daughter's narrative. I was a new mother myself, and I think that shows in the work. After that was done, I added the framework and put it all in order."

She had friends read drafts, and did the copy editing herself. When it was done, Keller thought she'd just pass it on to Bamboo Ridge Press and hope for the best. But friend Lois-Ann Yamanaka had faith in the work and urged her to spring it on a New York agency.

"They wanted it right away!" said Keller, and she still sounds a little amazed by the quick sale. Next came the typical hurry-up-and-wait period of novel publishing, and the book is being released nearly two years after submission.

Keller was surprised by how much interaction she had with the publisher on details like typography and cover graphics. The pensive cover photo is taken from a newspaper account of comfort women, and her dust jacket picture shows Keller quite severe and serious-looking. "We thought it wouldn't be appropriate to show me with a big smile," said Keller, who, indeed, has a big smile.

It's just now in the stores, and the sight of it caught Keller short the other day while visiting Borders with her daughter. "I went, yow! I had to pick it up and hold it in my hands to let it sink in."

Any reaction yet?

"Can't really tell, but not many people have read it. My husband said it's good! Does that count? I gave a copy to a friend who's a neighbor, and she came up to me in the street, and said 'I can't believe that YOU wrote THIS!' Her eyes were really wide!"

Now to the nitty-gritty. How much of "Comfort Woman," a novel about a Korean woman and an American daughter, written by an American woman with a Korean mother, is based on fact?

"Oh, I did draw on some details, and some people in it are composites. My own mother has gone to fortune tellers (like the character in the book). People have told me it's emotionally true, which I like to hear."

Ironically -- you can't write about novels without using the irony-word -- Keller's own mother may not be able to read the book until it's translated into Korean. Her English is still a little rocky.

Keller leaves soon on a nationwide publicity tour, with the attendant terrors of radio and television interviews. She's working on another novel, tentatively titled "Cibaji."

And what if Hollywood calls? Who does she see playing Beccah?

"Oh! That's easy -- ME!" There's that big smile again.

Meet the author

Nora Okja Keller reads from her novel, "Comfort Woman":
Wednesday: 8 p.m., University of Hawaii, Manoa, art auditorium
Monday: 7 p.m., Barnes and Noble
April 11: 7:30 p.m., Borders Books and Music, Waikele

Lyrical novel weaves
intimate, haunting magic

By Michiko Kakutani
New York Times

IT'S hard to think of a euphemism more disturbing than the one that gives Nora Okja Keller's stunning new novel its title: "Comfort Woman." "Comfort women" were young women and girls (many Korean) forced by the Japanese army to work in brothels during World War II. Some were kidnapped at gunpoint; others were recruited with false promises of jobs in factories and restaurants.

Taken to battlefront "recreation centers," the women were forced to have sex with dozens of soldiers a night. They were also beaten, tortured and forced to give up their former identities and names. When the war ended, shame and humiliation, not to mention physical and emotional scars, exiled many of the women from their families and their former lives forever.

In her new novel, Keller -- a Korean-American who works as a freelance journalist in Hawaii -- does not simply tell the story of a fictional "comfort woman" named Akiko but by juxtaposing Akiko's story with that of her American daughter, Beccah, turns her tragic history into a familial saga of love and pain and resentment.

She has written a powerful book about mothers and daughters and the passions that bind generations. It is a book that combines the familial intimacy of Louise Erdrich's early novels with the fierce, historical magic of Toni Morrison's "Beloved."

Told in alternating chapters narrated by Akiko and Beccah, "Comfort Woman" cuts back and forth between Akiko's painful past in war-torn Korea and Beccah's existence in suburban Hawaii, between Akiko's desperate struggle to survive her experiences and Beccah's attempts to deal with an eccentric, often irrational mother.

Comfort Woman: By Nora Okja Keller, 213 pages, Viking, $21.95

Both women are torn between two worlds: Akiko, between the spirit world of possession and superstition and the workaday world of the present; Beccah, between her life as a modern American teen-ager and the undertow of her mother's madness.

Bit by bit, we learn that Akiko -- whose Korean name, Soon Hyo, was erased by her Japanese captors -- was sold into prostitution by her older sister, who needed to raise a dowry for her own marriage. At 12, she was being raped many times a night; at 14, she was forced to have a crude abortion, without anesthetic, and nearly died. Although she was eventually taken in by missionaries, the ghosts from her days as a comfort woman continued to haunt her.

"Invading my daily routine at the mission house, shattering the gaps between movement and silence," she recalls, "were the gruntings of soldier after soldier and the sounds of flesh slapping against flesh. Whenever I stopped for a beat, for a breath, I heard men laughing and betting on how many men one comfort woman could service before she split open. The men laughed and chanted niku-ichi -- 29 to 1, one of the names they called us -- but I heard the counting reach 124 before I could not bear to hear one more number."

One of the missionaries intent on saving Akiko marries her and brings her to America for a new life. Beccah grows up knowing nothing of her mother's past. She knows only that her mother is subject to strange spells, that her mother speaks to ghosts.

Ridiculed by her classmates for her mother's outbursts, Beccah longs for normality, a mother who would sign her report cards and make her dinner so she wouldn't have to live on Ho Ho's and nachos from the 7-Eleven. After her father's death, however, Beccah realizes that she must try to protect her mother from ridicule and from the spirits who haunt her sleep.

"Later, after my mother tried to drown herself the second time," Beccah recalls, "I realized that our roles had reversed. Even at 10, I knew that I had become the guardian of her life and she the tenuous sleeper. I trained myself to wake at abrupt snorts, unusual breathing patterns. Part of me was aware of each time she turned over in bed, dreaming dreams like mini-trances where she traveled into worlds and times I could not follow to protect her. The most I could do was wait, holding the thin blue thread of her life while her spirit tunneled into the darkness of the earth to swim the dark red river toward hell."

Moving between Akiko's memories and Beccah's life, Keller describes the cultural and psychological gaps that divide them and the emotional loyalties that link them -- ties delineated through gently patterned motifs, and scenes that echo across time.

The shabby, Goodwill-furnished world they live in is made palpable and real, as is the frightening world of spirits that Akiko inhabits in her mind. We are made to realize that Beccah's efforts to piece together, and reimagine, the story of her mother's past is an attempt to understand this difficult, damaged woman, and also an attempt to come to terms with her own familial past.

With "Comfort Woman," Keller has written a lyrical and haunting novel. She has made an impressive debut.

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