Author: Mary Lynn Bracht
Publisher: Chato and Windus
Publishing Date: 5 March 2018
Country: South Korea
“Look for your sister after each dive. Never forget, if you see her, you are safe.”
I read Pachinko last year and it got me thinking about the struggle and oppression of Koreans by the Japanese. I wanted to know more and it got me looking for books on this particular theme. I came across White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht and I knew I had to read it. White Chrysanthemum memorializes the comfort women of Korean who were forced into military sexual slavery by the Japanese forces during the second World War.
White Chrysanthemum is the story of Hana and Emi, two sisters belonging to the Haenyo community- female free divers of Jeju Island. They are a strong, independent community who make their living from diving and catching sea creatures to sell in the market. The novel starts in 1943. Hana is sixteen and diving with her mother. Emi is too young to dive and they leave her on the beach to guard their catch. While diving Hana sees a Japanese soldier heading for where Emi is waiting. Their mother has instructed them several times never to be caught alone with one. Terrified for her sister, Hana swims as quickly as she can, for the shore. She quickly hides Emi in small cave and sacrifices herself to save her younger sister. Corporal Morimoto abducts Hana and so begins the story of two sisters violently separated by war.
The story of Hana is not for the faint-hearted. The issue of comfort women is seldom discussed, their suffering not given much importance. White Chrysanthemum throws light upon the conditions and the ordeal these women had to go through. Bracht writes poignantly and with a lot of sensitivity. She explores the effects of Hana’s abduction on her family, especially her sister Emi. The story alternates between two timelines- the chapters set in 1943 tell Hana’s harrowing story and the chapters set in 2011 is about Emi and how she still hasn’t come to terms with her loss and the hope that Hana is alive somewhere.
White Chrysanthemum is about a dark chapter in the history of the world. It comes across as a well-researched book. While reading this novel I read quite a few articles on comfort women and it left me with a heavy feeling in my heart. It sounds cliched when I use the word devastating or heartbreaking but I don’t know what other words to use. The plight of the Koreans was gut-wrenching. Their sons where forced to fight for Japanese, their daughters used as comfort women, they were not allowed to read, write or speak in Korean. They were made to forget their identity, forced to reject their culture. They were not allowed to be themselves.
The descriptions of the Haenyo way of life are interspersed in the chapters of Hana and Emi. The sensation of swimming beneath the sea forms a crucial part of Hana’s pysche. After her abduction, Hana is taken to a brothel in Manchuria. In these harrowing circumstances, the memories of diving are like a gift to Hana. She imagines herself diving with her mother and running on the beach with Emi. White Chrysanthemum represents mourning in the Korean culture. Emi and Hana mourn the loss of their childhood, their family, their world. Despite the devastation of war, the frightening circumstances, the atrocities the sisters never stop thinking about each other. They are alive in each other’s memories.
After the abduction of Hana, Emi is left with a heavy sense of guilt and shame. She feels guilty because she couldn’t save Hana and she is ashamed because she hid like a coward when her sister was abducted. The Japanese burn their home and kill their father. Emi is trapped in a loveless marriage. Inspite of all this there is hope. Hope that one day they will find each other. White Chrysanthemum celebrates the power of women, their indomitable spirit that they can overcome their horrifying situations and survive.
The world will never know the actual story of these women. Mary Lynn Bracht writes (in a note) that only forty-four South Korean comfort women are alive at the time White Chrysanthemum was being written. Their story should be written, the voices should be heard. The world must know the truth. We must remember the sacrifices of these women and make sure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.