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Nora Okja Keller's Comfort Woman and the Ethics of Literary Trauma

Published inStudies in English literature and linguistics, vol. 33, no. 2, no. 33.2, p. 81-97
Publication date2007

Nora Okja Keller's 1997 novel Comfort Woman has come to prominence recently as one of the key texts of Asian American literature, representing in literary form a silenced historical trauma: the enforced sexual servitude of Korean women and girls under the Japanese military occupation. In contrast to the numerous volumes of testimony and autobiography that have been published since the mid-1990s, Keller's text is a novel, a work of fiction written by someone with no personal experience of this historical trauma. The text therefore raises questions related to the ethics of using trauma as a literary subject, questions concerning the purpose of the fiction, the role of the author, and the status of the traumatized fictional protagonist. The difficulty and pain involved in the speaking of traumatic memory is described by many former comfort women who in the course of their testimony confess that the recollection of their ordeal makes them physically ill. As each of these women testify, to be known as a trauma victim places a woman in a specific subject position that ensures her further trauma through its representation. Why then relive such trauma? Why is the testimony of survivors important? Trauma narratives seek both validation and catharsis for the survivor; they are motivated by the desire to make the traumatic experience real both to the survivor and to the witness by uniting fragments of traumatic memory and by taking control of the meaning of the experience through the retelling. The difficulty of such testimony lies, however, not so much in the telling but in the appropriation of survivor discourses by dominant gender paradigms and ideologies that re-script such discourse. In Comfort Woman, Akiko's experience of rape and torture is rescripted by the American missionary who becomes her husband. His interest in her past is motivated by a sexual desire that is described in terms of paedophilia by Akiko and the only terms in which he can conceptualize and articulate her experience is as prostitution. But the question remains whether the novel offers the opportunity for validation and catharsis (and, if so, on whose behalf Keller offers such strategies of “working through” the historical trauma) or whether the fiction offers primarily entertainment with a measure of education.

  • Nora Okja Keller
  • Korean Comfort Women
  • Trauma
  • Trauma narrative
  • Testimony
  • Survivor discourse
  • Literary ethics
  • Korean-American Literature
NoteConcentric, special issue: "Ethics and Ethnicity"
Citation (ISO format)
MADSEN, Deborah Lea. Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman and the Ethics of Literary Trauma. In: Studies in English literature and linguistics, 2007, vol. 33, n° 2, p. 81–97.
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Article (Accepted version)
  • PID : unige:87862
ISSN of the journal1021-6006

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