Why you should care

Because when tens of thousands of women have been forced into sexual slavery, it can’t be forgotten.

As author Mary Lynn Bracht recites the opening lines from her critically acclaimed debut novel, White Chrysanthemum, in the basement of the Curzon arthouse cinema, we’re transported half a world away from London’s Soho neighborhood. “It is nearly dawn, and the semi-darkness casts strange shadows along the footpath. Hana distracts her mind so that she doesn’t imagine creatures reaching for her ankles.”

It’s a discomforting read about an issue — forced prostitution of “comfort women” during World War II — that roils East Asia to this day, and it emerges from an unlikely source: a Texas-born writer who once aspired to be a soldier herself.

The novel explores the harrowing history of comfort women — the tens of thousands of women subjected to forced prostitution by the imperial Japanese army between 1932 and 1945. In response to mass rapes by Japanese troops, Emperor Hirohito, according to historians, ordered the expansion of comfort stations, a euphemism for military brothels, with the idea it would reduce those atrocities while servicing the soldiers’ sexual appetites.

When you write a character, people can relate to that character and it lasts longer. I’m trying to make them human.

Mary Lynn Bracht

White Chrysanthemum is the story of two Korean sisters, Hana and Emi, who live through the Japanese occupation on Jeju Island, as Hana is forced into a life as a comfort woman. The story is fiction. The political implications are real — and urgent.

Relations between Japan and South Korea remain strained over the episode. In November, South Korean President Moon Jae-in essentially scuttled a three-year-old settlement between the two nations, and there are fears a statue in Seoul commemorating comfort women could be stolen, as happened in the Philippines. Bracht places the continued strife squarely on Japan, where she says the education system frames wartime Japan only as the victim of America’s nuclear bombs. Children “don’t really know how much World War II Japan was [an] aggressor,” Bracht says, and thus the comfort women story rings false.

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South Korean bereaved family members of victims of World War II stage a rally demanding full compensation and an apology from the Japanese government in front of the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, in Dec. 2015.

Source Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press

White Chrysanthemum is resonating for readers across the globe — thanks in part to its South Korean translation. Blogs and East Asian literary publications have taken notice, and South Korean readers have reached out to Bracht, surprised that details about the Korean War and the Jeju uprising, which had not been previously written about in South Korea, made it into the book.

“It has that ring of truth to it,” says Corinne Sweet, chair of the books committee of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, which recently awarded Bracht the Best Debut Novel prize. People following the news might think they know the issue, “but actually the way she’s written about it, we didn’t know about it,” says Sweet.

Now living in London with her 13-year-old son, Bracht, 40, is a long way from her childhood plans of joining the military. That’s just what everyone in Killeen, Texas (home to Fort Hood, the biggest Army base in the country), did. But college at the University of Texas, Austin, steered her away, and she ended up majoring in anthropology and psychology; the first things she published were research papers. In 2008, she decided she would regret not giving herself the chance to pursue writing as a career.

Though her father was a first sergeant in the Army for more than 20 years and her mother was a seamstress and church deacon, Bracht recalls how they were excellent storytellers — with sharply different styles. Her father was from California, her mother from South Korea. In 2002, when planning a trip to South Korea, Mary Lynn started researching comfort women — and was shaken when her mother told her the issue was well-known but little discussed. “The underlying message was that no one really cared,” Bracht says.

More than a decade later, while working on her creative writing master’s degree at Birkbeck, University of London, Bracht came across the story again and did the only thing she could think to do. “When you write a story, when you write a character, people can relate to that character and it lasts longer. I’m trying to make them human,” she explains.

Bracht sold the novel quickly for a six-figure advance at the 2016 London Book Fair after first writing it as a short story. Since it dropped a year ago, it has been lavished with critical praise. Still, Bracht insists she is not an overnight success. “I have five more in my drawer before this,” she says with a soft laugh. “One I found an agent for and she actually shopped it around. Everyone said it was too sad and then eventually she just stopped answering my emails.”

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The novel explores the harrowing history of comfort women — the tens of thousands of women subjected to forced prostitution by the imperial Japanese army between 1932 and 1945.

Source Jack Birns/Time Life Pictures/Getty

Forced prostitution is hardly cheery subject matter, but Dave Wakely, co-organizer of a literary festival in Milton Keynes, outside of London, says White Chrysanthemum has become a hit because of its “arresting topic” and timeliness amid the #MeToo movement. “The book adds a complex structure that she makes work so well in a story that could have taken the easy route of inserting chunks of exposition,” Wakely says.

In her writing process, Bracht draws on her own experiences and uses total immersion techniques, almost dreaming the scenes. “I remember very early on someone describing one of Mary’s pieces as [horror master Stephen] ‘King-esque’: a vivid dark scene where a woman buries afterbirth with her bare hands,” says Lynn Blackadder, a fellow member of Bracht’s writing group, “I chipped in that it was better than King,” Blackadder says, adding that she would speed ahead while she read out loud in order to find out what was going to happen next.

What’s next for Bracht? She plans to explore people and stories from her diverse childhood in Texas. What happens with the second book could depend on pressure from an industry that’s eager to move quickly, Sweet says, constantly looking for the next J.K. Rowling. Writers like Bracht, she adds, should be allowed time to grow.

OZY’s Five Questions With Mary Lynn Bracht

  • What’s the last book you read? Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, poems by Shivanee Ramlochan (for pleasure) and The Glorious Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel (for research). They’re both fantastic reads!
  • What do you worry about? Everything! The state of the world, the polluted environment, my next book, it never ends. So I write to refocus and to feel like I am doing something positive.
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? It used to be a notebook and pen, but now it’s my phone. I email all my notes/thoughts to myself so I won’t forget them!
  • Who’s your hero? My mother. She’s amazing.
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? To take the Trans-Siberian train from Russia through Mongolia all the way to Shanghai.

Read more: This Midwestern beer lover is behind some of the year’s darkest fiction.

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