Nora Okja Keller and the Silenced Woman: An Interview

Article excerpt

Nora Okja Keller (1965-) is a writer based in Hawaii. She was born in Seoul and her family moved to the United States when she was three. After studying English and Psychology at the University of Hawaii, she earned her master's degree in American literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Her first book, Comfort Woman (1997), is inspired by the testimony of Keum-ja Hwang, who had the courage to break the silence of half a century and talk about what the colonizer did to her and to her country during World War II. In 1941, Hwang, at the age of twenty, was tricked into the Japanese military scheme of mobilizing Korean young girls, as many as 200,000, as sex objects for soldiers. Keller's novel evoked a sensational response from readers in many countries and served as a catalyst for addressing issues of colonialism, patriarchy, sexuality, and gender.

Keller's second novel Fox Girl, was published in April 2002 by Viking and shows Keller's continued interest in the silenced status of women. Using the Korean legend of the fox girl Keller directs our attention to women who struggle to survive at the lowest rung of the social ladder as prostitutes.

This interview is an integration of an email interview with an in-person interview, when Keller came to Berkeley to give a reading of Fox Girl on April 30, 2002. I have merged these parts into a continuous flow of conversation.

Lee: You say that being raised by your Korean mother involved a lot of absorption of Korean sensibilities and culture. Could you be more specific about this? For instance, do you mean that she helped shape the world of your imagination by telling you stories or folktales?

Keller: Not so much my mother, but my older brother and older sister, told me very many folktales and stories before so I grew up with those types of stories in my mind. Of course, there's always food. There's always customs....

Lee: And the way you make a judgment on things, the way you shape up your opinions?

Keller: Perhaps, but that's hard to say if that comes from my mother's Korean upbringing. That's hard to say, because I'm a mixture of very many things, so I cannot say, "Oh, this part is Korean, this part is American, this part is from Hawaii." It's all woven together, so I couldn't pick it apart.

Lee: Where would you call your home?

Keller: Hawaii. Even though I was born in Korea, I left there when I was three, so I started elementary school in Hawaii and grew up there.

Lee: Was it a mixed place when you were growing up?

Keller: One of the best things about Hawaii is that the majority of people are mixed race in some way or another, so I grew up where that was the norm. And I think I would have had a very different experience if I had grown up in either Korea or in the Midwest, say, in the States. It would be very different. In both places I think I would have been noticeably different, whereas in Hawaii I was very much accepted as a local girl.

Lee: So you heard stories mostly from your brothers and sisters?

Keller: Yes, because my mother was working so much, I didn't see her at that time, so my brother and sister would tell us all these stories.

Lee: And when you were listening to those stories, did you think that you would like to tell stories someday yourself?

Keller: No, I just enjoyed listening to the stories; nobody I knew was a writer of any kind.

Lee: When did you find yourself wanting to write?

Keller: Well, I have always loved books. I love to read.

Lee: What kind of books did you read?

Keller: Growing up, I read all sorts of things: from science fiction to the traditional canon. I didn't read very many books written by Asian Americans, however, because they weren't available to me. I only became aware of an Asian American literary tradition in college; it caused me to reflect upon my identity and profoundly changed my writing. …