Mourning Unmourned Deaths: Shamanic Rituals in Nora Okja Keller’s
Comfort Woman *
- Author: Yook Sung Hee
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 19, Issue3, p127~153, 31 Dec 2011
This paper reads Nora Okja Keller’s
Comfort Womanwith emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship. Having undergone multiple rapes and sexual objectification, Akiko, a former Korean comfort woman, is deprived of the possession of her female body, let alone her own identity and agency. Her impoverished body is later claimed by the spirit of Induk, a murdered comfort woman, through the process of melancholic identification, in which one takes in the shadow of one’s lost love object by denying its death and loss. Transforming into a shaman who incorporates the memories and legacies of lost love objects like Induk and her own mother, Akiko mediates unresolved wishes and desires of wandering spirits and ghosts. Approaching Akiko’s shamanism as a psychological space in which she preserves what she loved but lost in reality, this paper claims that Akiko’s shamanism functions to offer mourning rituals for unacknowledged lives and deaths, like those of the comfort women during the war. The reconciliation process that Akiko’s daughter Beccah undergoes with her shamanic mother is also examined by tracing Beccah’s melancholic identification with her mother and other matrilineal spirits. Tracing the way Beccah comes to understand her mother’s traumatic past and accept her mother’s legacies, the paper examines the transmission of mothers’ life-stories, secrets, and genealogies to their daughters.
Nora Okja Keller , Comfort Woman , melancholic identification , shamanism , mother-daughter relationship
Generational gaps and bonds, difficulties in communication, and/or sharing and transmitting family histories and secrets in Asian American women’s fiction are often represented through mother and daughter relationships. Nora Okja Keller’s
Comfort Womanis a good example that reveals the conflict, tension, and separation, as well as the differences between mothers and daughters. Akiko in the novel does not disclose her suffering and traumatic past to her Americanborn daughter Beccah. She instead keeps secret her past as a “comfort woman,” one of the Korean women forced to serve as prostitutes to Japanese soldiers during the Second World War, disguising this past with invented stories until she dies, and this contributes to widening the breach between them. It is not only Akiko’s secretive, traumatic past but also her transformation into a shaman that makes Beccah feel further distanced and isolated from her mother. The mother has her own room, which is not shared with her daughter, and the daughter does not plumb the depths of secrets hidden in her mother’s smothered silence, but instead builds a separate room of her own.
The character of Akiko, a former Korean comfort woman, was conceived after Keller witnessed the personal testimony of Keum Ja Hwang, a former Korean comfort woman, at the University of Hawaii in 1993.2 Akiko is a character whose life is fractured by her parents’ early deaths, Japanese colonialism in Korea, the objectification of her body as a sex slave at the comfort camps and her consequent psychological death, her abject state in her marriage to an American missionary, and her migration to America. All of these experiences are violent since they bring the losses of her parents, her mother country, Korea, her possession of her own body, and her sense of home and identity as a Korean woman. The discontinuities and displacements resulting from these violent life experiences are all inscribed in Akiko.
Although she has survived, these unforgettable events from her past haunt Akiko, as if each unclaimed experience “repeats itself [as a trauma], exactly and unremittingly, through the unknowing acts of the survivor and against [her] very will” (Caruth 2). The return of the unclaimed, unacknowledged experience takes place as the spirit of Induk, another Korean comfort woman Akiko met in the camp stations, enters and fills Akiko’s body and mind. Akiko’s incorporation of Induk’s spirit is significant because through the process of spiritual incorporation, Akiko offsets what she has lost in reality. With Induk’s spiritual help and guidance, Akiko is led into the other world of spirits and awarded the power to communicate with them and mediate their unresolved wishes or desires. Transformed into a shaman, Akiko consoles and mourns for comfort women who remain nameless and voiceless as well as other immigrant spirits who stray and drift far from the countries of their ancestors.
This paper first explores the psychological significance of Akiko’s shamanism as initiated with the incorporation of Induk’s spirit through a process of melancholic identification, rather than reading it as superstitious belief and ceremonies, or a psychological split caused by the systemic appropriation of her body. Akiko’s incorporation of Induk’s spirit is not just the simple psychical process called identification, in which she takes in parts of Induk’s personal qualities. It is much more complicated since Induk’s spirit occupies Akiko’s body and mind and lingers alive in spite of Induk’s physical death.
In conceptualizing the signification of Induk’s spirit incorporated in Akiko’s psyche, Sigmund Freud’s concept of melancholia offers a useful framework. Melancholia is a process of interminable grief since the lost love object is taken into the ego of the subject through a process of melancholic identification, rather than this lost object being replaced by a substitute, which would enable the subject to overcome the loss. Even though Freud states that melancholia is pathological, for it means mourning without end, this paper focuses on the characteristics of melancholia, such as the melancholic’s inability to admit the loss or death of the love object, to resolve the various tensions and conflicts that the lost love object effects, and to replace the lost love object with a new object. What accumulates within the ego by way of its refusal to admit the loss of love objects, as Freud explains in
The Ego and the Id, results in the construction of the ego’s character (29). Similar to how David L. Eng and Shinhee Han use the psychic condition of melancholia in exploring “resisters of loss and depression attendant to both psychic and material processes of assimilation” (344), the process of melancholic identification offers a compelling analytic concept with which to examine the love objects lost but still alive within the psyche of comfort women like Akiko. This paper therefore views melancholia not as a pathology but as “a depathologized structure of feeling” (Eng and Han 344) and as a metaphoric term that reflects one’s conflicts and struggles with traumatic experiences. In other words, appropriating the psychical state of melancholia as a foundational theoretical framework, this paper depathologizes melancholia and understands it as a metaphoric space that mirrors the psychological topography Akiko has mapped with her love objects. The point is that Akiko transforms into a shaman through the process of melancholic identification and that Akiko’s shamanism functions as the psychical space that contains her lost-but-not-entirely-lost love objects. As a synecdoche of Akiko’s psychical space, it becomes the reservoir of what Akiko loved but lost in reality. The “sedimentation of those objects loved and lost” (Butler, “Melancholy” 167) forms Akiko’s psyche represented by shamanism.
This paper also examines how the tensions, conflicts, and separation between Akiko and Beccah mainly caused by the mother’s secrets and trances are reconciled with a focus on the process of Beccah’s melancholic identification with her mother. As Akiko loses various love objects, such as her parents, country, language, Korean identity, and the like, and consequently experiences psychological death, Beccah also experiences the psychological loss of her mother since Akiko frequently falls into trances. Beccah cannot reach her mother when she is claimed by spirits: her mother remains helpless and unavailable when Beccah most needs her support and protection. The psychological, and later physical, loss of her mother, the primary love object, makes Beccah fall into a state of melancholia since her mother’s place is replaced neither by Max, her earlier teenage lover, nor by Sanford, her present married lover. Encountering the death of her mother, ironically, Beccah understands and revives her mother, who had been absent while alive, in her mind rather than admitting the ultimate loss of her mother. As Akiko had restored what she had lost by recovering it through the process of melancholic identification, Beccah also restores her deteriorated relationship with her mother. Therefore, this paper explores how Beccah reconciles herself with her mother by taking her lost mother inside herself. Beccah’s melancholic identification with her mother is examined as the way she inherits historical and genealogical legacies from her mother.
2Keller talks about how she came to the topic and wrote her first novel, Comfort Woman, in several interviews. See “Releasing the Story to the World: An Interview with Nora Okja Keller” by Jocelyn Lieu; “Interview: Nora Okja Keller” by Robert Birnbaum; “Nora Okja Keller and the ilenced Woman: An Interview” by Young-Oak Lee; and “Nora Okja Keller Writes Powerful Debut in ‘Comfort Woman’” by Beth Gardiner.
The narrator Akiko is psychologically murdered in the night when she replaces Akiko 40, who was killed for her nonstop, trancelike talking, and serves the Japanese soldiers for the first time as Akiko 41. Looking back on that night, she narrates:
As Akiko realizes, Induk ironically becomes sane in her trances, and her spirit escapes from the comfort station when she is “reclaiming her Korean name, reciting her family genealogy, even chanting the recipes her mother had passed on to her” (20). Although her body is imprisoned in the name Akiko 40 at the comfort station, Induk emancipates her spirit from sexual slavery and restores her subjectivity, which is compulsorily denied and inhibited, by conjuring her dignity and agency out of her national, familial, and sisterly relations. Given that Induk uses her deprived, but dignified voice to reclaim her lost identity and defy the soldiers, death is what she bravely and heroically chooses. Thus, what is murdered by the Japanese soldiers is only Induk’s body; her spirit is liberated as her body is split and killed. The one instead killed by the soldiers is not Induk, but Soon Hyo, who is forced into prostitution that night and becomes a new Akiko, Akiko 41. Filling the empty space of the name Akiko as a result of Induk’s death, the new Akiko undergoes the same suffering and violence that drove Induk to choose death. Living as Akiko 41, the narrator becomes split and impoverished, losing her own ego, subjectivity, and agency, and becomes a sack of a body without its substance, the sexual object desired by the soldiers.
When she is later handed over to the mission house in Pyongyang, marries the minister of the mission house, and immigrates to America as the war is ending, Akiko is still unable to restore what she has lost. As Chungmoo Choi notes from reflecting on her own experience in postwar Korea, despite humanitarian intentions, any charitable gifts or relief facilities “require the recipient’s self-degradation and surrender of dignity to the power that not only produces the fine commodity but affords a luxury surplus to be dispensed” (12). Housed in the mission residence and caught in the implied hierarchy of recipient to giver, Akiko is unable to redeem her self-esteem, voice, home, family genealogy, or Korean name and identity. She is just seen as “the wild child raised by tigers” (Keller,
Comfort16), the wild child who needs to be cultivated and educated by the missionaries.
The condescending Orientalist viewpoint of the missionaries is well marked by Akiko’s married life with the minister Richard Bradley. Old enough to be a father to Akiko, Richard marries her under the pretense of saving her from abandonment, an arrangement that, as Lisa Yoneyama comments, delineates “the paternalistic relation between the United States and Asia” (70). Furthermore, accompanying her minister husband, who gives lectures in America on “Spreading the Light: My Experiences in the Obscure Orient” (107), Akiko is exhibited in an exotic dress as an object from “the Obscure Orient” that the minister saves and cultivates through his humanitarianism. The minister’s Orientalist disposition is also revealed in his secretive desire for the young, exotic woman Akiko. She senses the same desire in her American husband as that glimpsed in the Japanese soldiers, seeing in his eyes “the lust, dark and heavy and animal, that [she had] seen in the eyes of men at the camps” (146). Whenever they have sex, Akiko realizes that “[her] body was, and always would be, locked in a cubicle at the camps, trapped under the bodies of innumerable men” (106). Akiko’s married life is therefore juxtaposed with, or is an extension of, her experience at the camp stations. Although she has escaped the camp stations, Akiko cannot put her splintered self back together in her married life.
From these experiences of objectification, Akiko is eventually deprived of attachment to her country, family, mother tongue, and Korean identity, and not least of all her liberty. According to Freud in “Mourning and Melancholia,” “the loss of a loved person, or . . . the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of [the loved] one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on” (243), is the main cause of grief. If we lose a loved one or the ideals that we live by, we fall into the state of grieving, with loss of interest in the outside world and in any activities associated with what has been lost. However, once all libido attached to the lost object is withdrawn from that object, the ego is able to replace the lost object with a substitute. Redirecting the detached libido to a substitute, the ego becomes free and uninhibited enough to have a new object of love. The work of grieving is then over, and Freud explains this terminable process of grieving as mourning.
By contrast, argues Freud, melancholia differs from mourning in that it fails to let the lost object go. In melancholia, the libido “was not displaced on to another object; it was withdrawn into the ego . . . [and] served to establish an
identificationof the ego with the abandoned object” (original italics 249). Melancholics deny the death or loss of the love object and incorporate images of the lost object in their minds. The melancholic identification with the shadow, images, or memories of the lost object results in the resurrection of the lost love object within the ego. The “setting up of the object inside the ego” (Freud, The Ego29) is the process occurring when the subject falls in to a state of melancholia; in other words, when the ego cannot abandon the lost object by substituting it with a new object. Therefore, as Anne Anlin Cheng points out, these love objects are lost, but not entirely lost, in the mind of the melancholic. The shadow of the objects loved and lost are reserved in the psychical dimension of the ego. Unfulfilled wishes and desires, unresolved tension and conflicts, memories of the loved person or thing, all continue to live in the psyche of the ego.
As a former comfort woman, Akiko has lost not only what she loved, but also ideals to live up to in her life, and has consequently fallen into a state of melancholia by failing to adopt new substitutes for her lost ideals or love objects. By her early psychological death through mass rape by soldiers and the repeated objectification both in the comfort camps and in her married life, Akiko loses all connection to her original self, family, and nation, thereby becoming empty and hollow. In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud describes this impoverishment of the ego as a characteristic of melancholia: “The melancholic displays . . . an extraordinary diminution in . . . self-regard, an impoverishment of . . . [the] ego on a grand scale. In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself” (246). In the melancholic identification process through which the lost object is introjected or incorporated into the ego, “an object-loss was transformed into an ego-loss” and the character, or the composition, of the ego is “altered by identification” (249). This transformation of the ego into “a psychic object” or the “melancholic turn of the object to the ego” foregrounds the ego development (Butler,
The Psychic168). Even though it is unclear in Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia,” Judith Butler argues that melancholic identification (Freud) or the “melancholic turn from object to ego” (Butler) opens up the psychical space where “something figured as ‘internal’” is instituted and produced (168). In other words, the loss of the love object results in the formation and emergence of the ego and subjectivity.
Precisely as the impoverished ego is altered and recomposed through the lost objects engulfed by the ego, Akiko’s impoverished psyche is filled with the shadows of her ideals or loved people like the spirits of Induk, her mother, her mother’s mother, and her ancestors through the process of melancholic identification (Keller,
Comfort53). At the moment when Akiko loses her love objects, what fills her impoverished psyche is the spirit of Induk. When she escapes the camp station and finds herself sprawled on a bank of the Yalu River, Akiko realizes that her saved, but empty and hollow body is now in the process of being possessed by Induk’s spirit, which “comes in singing, entering with full voice, filling me so that there is no me except for her, Induk” (36). Inviting and identifying with Induk who, as Akiko’s ideal figure, symbolizes “a full voice” and agency restored by bravery, Akiko restores her own lost voice and identity.
Akiko’s embodiment of Induk opens a way to further reconcile with her dead mother because Induk’s spirit merges with matrilineal ancestors. In the process of Akiko’s melancholic identification with Induk, who is resurrected within Akiko’s psyche, Induk becomes Akiko’s mother “as if without their earthly bodies, the boundaries between them melted, blending their features, merging their spirits” (36). The blurring of Induk’s spirit with the spirits of Akiko’s mother and grandmothers means that what is embodied within Akiko are her matrilineal ancestors. From this time on, the matrilineal spirits engulfed and preserved alive inside Akiko’s abused body guide her back to Korea and bestow upon her the shamanic power to communicate with spirits and acknowledge their unresolved wishes and desires. All these spirits of matrilineal ancestors identified with Akiko’s ego are her shamanic psyche. Thus, Akiko’s shamanism reveals the composition of her psychical space, which is altered and reconfigured by melancholic identifications with “the shadow of the object [fallen] upon the ego” (Freud, “Mourning” 249).
The love objects that dwell in Akiko’s spiritual world are the ghosts or spirits of people whose lives are not recorded and accounted for and consequently, do not enter history through their deaths. They are “[s]o many true names unknown, dead in the heart. So many bodies left unprepared, lost in the river” (Keller,
Comfort192). They involve the spirits of comfort women like Induk who died unmourned in foreign lands, of women like Akiko’s mother who died namelessly after living only as a wife and mother in her blindly arranged marriage, and like the spirits of the foremothers who endured the various inequalities enforced through patriarchal discourse. All these marginalized spirits are hardly recognized or acknowledged even in their family histories, let alone in Korean national discourses or history. They become wandering spirits with nobody to recognize their life stories or mourn their deaths and losses. According to Nadia Serematakis, who explores Greek mourning rituals, “The acoustics of death embodied in ‘screaming’ and lamenting and the presence or ‘appearance’ ( fanerosi) of kin construct the ‘good death.’ The silent death is the asocial ‘bad death’ without kin support. Silence here connotes the absence of witness” (qtd. in Das, “Language” 78). The spirits and ghosts haunting Akiko all suffered “bad deaths” that were neither mourned nor even witnessed in history. Having experienced spiritual death several times in her early years, Akiko not only belongs to this group of women who have suffered unmourned deaths, she is also a living daughter of these matrilineal foremothers and other women who lived in their times. When possessed by these spirits, Akiko therefore has a filial duty as a descendant to perform mourning rituals for them by listening to and acknowledging their unclaimed experiences in her shamanism.3
What Akiko tells nonstop in trances thus includes stories of unacknowledged, unmourned deaths. Complaints about being unfairly treated or cheated, jealousies, or unfulfilled wishes of the dead are all belatedly articulated through Akiko’s lips and resolved either by Akiko’s mediation with their descendents or by her shamanic rituals, which show proper respect and love (172) and acknowledge and remember their existence. All these disputes or contentions between the spirits and the material world shown through Akiko’s shamanism are significant in that they provide individual genealogies of the unmourned deaths. Referring to Michel Foucault’s understanding of history as “a procedure known as genealogy,” Elizabeth Grosz notes:
The unmourned deaths haunting Akiko’s shamanism bear individual life-histories that continue to be alive in the present. The haunting of the dead during Akiko’s trances originates from their unacknowledged experiences or unmourned losses in the past; however, their haunting is not an exact repetition of their past, rather “a memory of the present” repeated as displaced (Gordon 45). Therefore, Akiko as a spiritual arbiter exposes to the material world the stories of these unmourned, endlessly haunting ghosts, stories temporally displaced to the present, becoming memories, or histories, of the present. Like a palimpsest with traces of previous records overlaid by newer ones, Akiko’s shamanism is loaded with the traces and memories of various events from the past still present in the present. As if the multilayered records on a palimpsest are “present” on the surface, Akiko’s past is also present in her present life and constructs who she is. These “histories or memories of the present” as individual genealogies eventually counter and unsettle the official history of Korea that excludes marginalized people like comfort women for standing in the way of Korean nation-building and the modernization process, bringing light to an overshadowed phase of Korean history.
The history of the present tends to cross and blur temporal and spatial boundaries. According to Avery F. Gordon, writing on invisibilities and ghosts:
This crossing over the invisible-visible and the dead-living boundary is revealed in Akiko’s shamanism, especially through her crossing over the boundary between two oppositional worlds (spiritual and material), two temporalities (past and present), and two spatialities (there and here). The spatial and temporal blurring in Akiko’s shamanism depends on the unexpected and unremitting haunting by shadowy, phantasmal people from the past. Akiko lives in temporal blurring where the past and the present coexist. As Yoneyama suggests, for Akiko, the past is not completely past but present in the present (71). Not only does Akiko’s shamanism blur temporal continuity, but it also destroys spatial distinctions since Akiko lives with ghosts from the past who demand she settle their unresolved problems in the present. As a spiritual medium for unacknowledged ghosts, Akiko’s border-crossing makes it possible to remember and reconcile, even though belatedly, what has been unseen, unheard, and unclaimed not only in the personal lives of these spirits but also in the national history of Korea.
3Akiko’s shamanism is in a sense a feminist empowerment that Keller devises for her devastated character. Given Keller’s acknowledgement of Youngsook Kim Harvey’s anthropological research on Korean shamans, Six Korean Women, Akiko is a product of Keller’s effort to empower a comfort woman with her literary imagination. In her anthropological approach to six Korean female shamans, Harvey points out that shamans, who are mainly women in Korea, “make the transition from being helpless housewives trapped in the impasse of a double bind to being shamans who transcend the natural (culturally defined) limits of being a woman, who have a system of social support independent of their domestic role, who have economic autonomy, and who have clear professional identities in the larger society” (237). Transforming a former comfort woman, Akiko, into a shaman, Keller intends to restore to Akiko her own agency and autonomy, which she has been deprived of due to the objectification suffered in the camps and in her marriage.
Beccah has been nurtured with Korean folklores like Princess Pari (48-50), the Heavenly Toad (157-59), and the Little Frog (170) told by Akiko. All these stories involve and emphasize filial relationships and values between parents and their children. The children of these stories are deserted (Princess Pari), adopted (the Heavenly Toad), or raised by their parents (the Little Frog); reconcile with their parents after conflict (Princess Pari and the Little Frog); rescue their parents from hell (Princess Pari); or ascend with their parents to heaven (the Heavenly Toad). When she tells these stories, Akiko asks Beccah to care for her dead body: “When I die, you must prepare my body and protect my spirit” (157). Or Beccah herself promises to do the filial or daughterly duty: “I’ll be like Princess Pari, and I will rescue you” (50).
As Kung Jong Lee argues, Keller pays special attention to the characterization of both Akiko and Beccah as Princess Pari by especially adapting and manipulating the shamanistic myth of this princess. Pari is a character abandoned by her parents who nevertheless rescues them from hell later, after they die, out of filial duty and responsibility. As a shaman, Akiko functions as Princess Pari in that she mediates between straying spirits and their descendants so that unsettled matters can be settled and they can fly free from this world to the other world. As an obituarist, Beccah also contributes to mourning and remembering the deaths of people by recording their lives, although the ambition she had at the beginning of her career has since faded and she now “[deals] only in words and statistics that need to be typed into the system” (26). However, when confronted by her mother’s death and compelled to write the obituary, she realizes that she does not know “the facts for even the most basic, skeletal obituary” (26). Beccah cannot keep her promises. Since she knows nothing about her mother, Beccah does not know how to mediate for her now that she is dead, let alone rescue her from death and hell. Akiko is therefore on the verge of becoming one of the women “who traveled far from home and died a stranger” (140) with no descendant to offer proper mourning or remember her existence.
Akiko is the first love object whom Beccah cannot possess completely. “When the spirits called to her, my mother would leave me and slip inside herself, to somewhere I could not and did not want to follow. It was as if the mother I knew turned off, checked out, and someone else came to rent the space” (4). Since her childhood, she has had to share her mother with the invisible spirits claiming Akiko’s body and mind. Akiko’s disappearance into the spiritual world meant the loss of the love object to Beccah, who remained alone in the material world. Beccah loses her intimate bond and tie to her mother at these times, and this frequent loss and consequent lack causes her to be melancholic in her relationship with her mother, who becomes not just an object of love but also an object of hate since Beccah could not possess her at all times. The sporadic loss and absence of Akiko’s full love and attention result in Beccah’s misunderstanding of, conflict with, and repulsion against her mother and her mother’s shamanism. To Beccah, Akiko’s shamanism is the other world across the invisible spiritual border, something she cannot understand, fathom, or follow.
However, Beccah has been always and already exposed to the spirits of the nameless women haunting Akiko’s life through her shamanism. Beccah is conceived on an occasion of Induk’s entry into Akiko’s body. Induk’s claiming of Akiko’s body is often described as an act of erotic sexual intercourse. One night, Akiko’s body is being spiritually taken by Induk and simultaneously claimed by her husband. Akiko feels the sexual excitement of taking in Induk, rather than her husband, who takes Akiko’s body saying, “Take me . . . for through a child will you be sanctified” (146). Beccah is the child conceived and sanctified through the union of women who share one body. She is therefore born as a daughter of her mothers, a female descendent both of Akiko and of Induk, rather than a daughter of her father.
On the day of her first period, Beccah encounters Induk’s spirit in a dream for the first time. Sliding into sleep as Akiko bathes her body and soothes her painful cramping through water infused with wild grass and unearthed roots from her garden, Beccah meets Induk:
In her dream Beccah becomes Induk, who has claimed Akiko’s body, and Induk becomes Beccah. Beccah’s identification with Induk, who “represents an idealized, pre-Oedipal version of Akiko’s mother, an embodiment of her own resistant spirit, and her motherland” (Chu 70), is symbolic in terms of transmission of genealogies and histories of her foremothers. What is succeeded to and preserved in Akiko is now about to be bestowed on her daughter Beccah. As a bearer of tradition and culture, Induk invites Beccah to realize where she comes from and to go back by crossing “running water” (189). As a daughter to Akiko and Induk, Beccah should know where she belongs, what Akiko refers to as a “spiritual address” (78).
Comfort Woman, the imagery of water and river is crucial: Keller says in an interview with Young-Oak Lee that the water imagery represents “life and rebirth” (151). It works as a metaphor for the life cycle from birth, death, and rebirth through its endless flowing, crossing, and circulating. It is the river where Akiko’s mother lets her stillborn child float away; where Akiko bathes her devastated body and the remaining traces of her first aborted child right after her escape from the camp; where Akiko tries to commit suicide several times; and where Akiko is reborn through embodying the spirits of Induk and her foremothers. According to the river song sung to their daughters by Princess Pari’s mother, Akiko’s mother, and Akiko herself, blue waters of the river carry so many lives and “the sorrow of people far, far away” (40). Witnessing oppressive conditions under Japanese colonialism in Korea, this song is “full of tears” and sung for the country and her people (71). However, as Kung Jong Lee comments, this song also “reflects the strong will of common people to survive the frustration, sadness, misery, pain, and limitation of their lives in the face of harsh realities” (439). The “strong will of common people” reflected in the river song is vividly represented, not by the song itself, but by the implication of a mother’s womb through the river and water imagery, the maternal place where life is conceived, cared for, born, and reborn. Therefore, the deaths carried away by the river are “nestled in the crook of the river’s elbow, nursing at its breast” (Keller, Comfort41), and Akiko’s attempts to take her own life at the river reflect her wish to be reborn like Induk through her death. Sung by mothers to their daughters, the river song transmits these women’s stories and genealogies through the meandering river and water from generation to generation.
In this sense, when Beccah in her dream is asked by Induk to cross the “running water,” it is an invitation to a world where she lets her spirit fly and “follow the water back to its source” (191). The “running water” is an invisible, spiritual channel that will eventually connect Beccah to where she belongs, that is, to her mother, without getting lost. Led by her shamanic mother the next day, Beccah crosses the shallow water of Manoa Stream, which flows through the woods not far from Akiko’s Manoa house. This is the ritual Akiko offers for Beccah’s spirit to “fly with the river, then follow it back home” (191). Soaking “the running water” through her body and washing her blood in the river, Beccah becomes part of the river, rooted in her lineage, and is reborn as a woman who can share what the river speaks to her, the secrets and memories contained in the flowing water.
It is not until Beccah opens her mother’s jewelry box that she ultimately comes to know her mother and her mother’s Korean name. Akiko’s jewelry box preserves newspaper articles concerning World War II, two official letters from Korea, and a cassette tape marked “Beccah” by her mother. Akiko had learned from her mother to keep treasures in a box, and those that she preserves in the jewelry box not only serve as treasures saved for future generations, but also as clues that reveal her past. Thinking of the box as a generational bridge, Akiko herself archives for Beccah all the materials that reveal her unspoken lineage and histories. Beccah finally comes to know that her mother’s Korean name is Soon Hyo Kim and that her mother “once belonged to a name, to a life,” and had a bond to her family members (173). Beccah only then realizes that her mother has lived with a Japanese name, Akiko, that had replaced her true, Korean name Soon Hyo ever since her imprisonment in the comfort station. As expected, Akiko’s jewelry box as an archive allows Beccah to reconfigure her mother’s life through reading the letters and newspaper scraps and recording the names that Akiko cries for in the cassette tape. This is how Beccah starts to reconstruct her deceased mother as a whole person. This is also how Beccah starts to mourn for and remember her mother.
Now, Beccah knows her mother’s life, and her understanding of her mother’s tragic story leads her to prepare her mother’s body by herself. And through this preparation, Beccah finally plays the role of Princess Pari, as she had earlier promised her mother to do. Remembering how Akiko bathed her on her first day of menstruation, Beccah prepares a bowl of water and floats flowers she picks from her mother’s garden. The perfumed water will wash away all sorrows, frustration, shame, and suffering as sung in the river song. It will also guide her mother safely to where she belongs without getting lost and wandering. Beccah prepares “strips of linen cut from the bedsheet . . . [she] had written on when . . . [she] listened to her [mother’s] tapes” (208). Recorded words on the strips of linen include Akiko’s name, her family members’ names, and other comfort women’s names and their lives, which had not been acknowledged in their lifetimes. Dipping the strips into the fragrant water and washing her mother’s body with them, Beccah talks to her mother: “This is for your name, Omoni, so you can speak it true: Soon Hyo. Soon Hyo. Soon Hyo” (209).
After washing, Beccah drapes the damp strips over her mother’s body and conceives of a hope: “Her words, coiled tightly in my script, tied her spirit to her body and bound her to this life. When they burned, they would travel with her across the waters, free” (209). Much as Akiko in her role of shaman had prepared the road for the wandering spirits to take on their way to the next world, their conflicts and tensions resolved, Beccah assumes the role of shaman performed earlier by her mother in order to help her mother fly safely to the next world without being lost. In addition, what Beccah does to her mother’s body is a ritual to heal, purify, and liberate her mother from the traumatic memories of the comfort stations. It is a ritual to restore her mother’s name and her true self. Through this ritual, Beccah attempts to connect her mother’s separated worlds: the spiritual and the material, her lost name Soon Hyo and pseudo-name Akiko, and her present in Hawaii and her traumatic past in Korea and in the camp stations, in order to make her mother a whole person.
Interestingly, by offering this bathing ritual in order for her mother to be reborn and reconciled with her lost life and identity, Beccah fully accepts her mother’s legacies and restores their motherdaughter relationship through melancholic identification. Mirroring the performance that Akiko did for Beccah in the runoff to Manoa Stream, Beccah brings her mother’s ashes to the place where both of them stood together years before and sprinkles them over the water.
As Kun Jong Lee points out, “Incorporation is fantasized as a kind of eucharist in which the remains of the loved one are transubstantiated into food and drink that bind the dead to and inside of the living” (290). Swallowing her mother’s ashes, the shadow of her lost mother, inside herself, Beccah incorporates her lost mother and narrates; “Your body in mine” (212). This incorporation or melancholic identification means that Beccah denies her mother’s death and allows her to live inside herself. As Induk is dead but not entirely dead to Akiko through their melancholic identification, Akiko lives as the lost-but-not-entirely-lost love object in Beccah through their melancholic or Eucharistic identification. Taking her mother deep inside herself also signifies Beccah’s acceptance of the legacies and inheritances of her mother, and these transmitted genealogies and histories open up a new space where Beccah comes to know about herself as well as her mother.
On the night that she mourns and remembers her mother through the identification process, Beccah dreams a dream that has haunted her since her childhood. In the repeated dreams, she has been always almost drowning in water with something pulling her down. However, this time she finally sees who pulls her down is her mother (she has been connected by the umbilical cord to her mother) and gives herself to her mother’s guidance. Beccah expects to be drowned by “[sucking] in heavy water,” but instead she breathes “with the freedom of light and air” (213). From the sky, she sees herself lying in the blue river, “coiled tight around a small seed planted by my mother, waiting to be born” (213). As this ending of
Comfort Womanshows, the metaphor of Beccah’s waiting to be born in her mother’s womb can be read in terms of her self-awareness of who she is, what composes her, and where she belongs. Beccah is now charged with her mother’s revealed secrets; her mother’s traumatic past as a comfort woman, the historical issue of comfort women, the names her mother cried for in trances, her mother’s family relations, her mother’s Korean identity, her mother’s efforts to find her lost family members, and much more. Her mother’s past comes to be present in Beccah’s present life. Beccah now stands on these revealed traces and the memories of her mother’s and the comfort women’s past. As Freud acknowledges that melancholy is central to the process of ego formation, all of these genealogies incorporated and preserved in Beccah’s mind by taking in her lost mother will reshape her present identity as a female descendent of a former Korean comfort woman.
The wandering ghosts and spirits that Akiko as a shaman performs tasks for are not just missing or dead people. According to Gordon, the ghost, as “a social figure,” is “one form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well-trained eyes, makes itself known or apparent to us” (8). The ghosts haunting Akiko’s shamanism are loved objects like her mother or the ideal figures like Induk, whom Akiko had loved or idealized, but lost in reality. The love objects are so important that Akiko rejects the loss of them and revives them within her psyche even at the risk of her own self. Preserving the spirits of Induk and her mother, Akiko restores what she has lost, such as her own voice, dignity, and agency enough to serve as a spiritual medium for various wandering ghosts.
What Akiko narrates by way of the spirits claiming her body signifies the return of the past that has been repressed in national or personal histories like Akiko’s traumatic past as a comfort woman, Akiko’s and her mother’s abortions and childbirths, women’s lives in poverty and during war, women’s married lives determined by duties and responsibilities as a wife and mother, jealousies between sisters, experiences of compulsory displacement, and the like. The return of these repressed make their unacknowledged stories and unfulfilled wishes heard and known through Akiko’s shamanism, and Akiko mediates for them by offering testimonies to the spirits’ previously unrecognized lives and existences. Therefore, Akiko’s shamanism metaphorically represents the psychological space where the past lingers unresolved and/or unsettled. What is incorporated and revived within Akiko’s psyche eventually functions as the genealogical knowledge of the dead unnamed and unmourned.
The reconciliation process of Beccah with her lost mother takes place as a form of the process of melancholic identification. The tensions and conflicts caused by Akiko’s secret and shamanic transformation are reconciled as Beccah performs the mourning ritual for her mother, in the same way Akiko did for anonymous ghosts while she was alive. Remembering and copying her mother’s shamanic performance in order to mourn her own mother’s death, Beccah takes on the role of shaman, a filial duty she has promised her mother since her childhood. With all of her mother’s secrets revealed, Beccah actively participates in understanding her mother’s traumatic past, revives her lost mother inside herself, and rebuilds her filial relationship with her mother. As a descendant not only of her mother but also of the comfort women, Beccah soothes her mother’s decadeslong wound and mourns her mother’s unacknowledged life and death. Beccah’s incorporation of her mother is crucial because through the process, Beccah is led to the world of her mothers’ genealogies and histories. With her mother’s pasts now present in her life, Beccah is waiting to be reborn.