Trigger Warning: Rape
“Look for your sister after each dive. Never forget, if you see her, you are safe.”
It is usually said that siblings fight a lot but also are each other’s strongest pillars. We all may have several stories about our own siblings as well. However, some sibling stories stand out more than others. ‘White Chrysanthemum‘ by first time author Mary Lynn Bracht tells us the story of two sisters whose love and strength is strong enough to triumph over the evils of war. It shows us that, despite being torn apart by fate, the love between two sisters never dies.
Hana and Emi are the two main protagonists in this book. Both the protagonists have a different story to tell us. Their experiences are different but they are bound by the common thread of love. Hana and Emi’s narratives chart the historical terrain—“Everyone had suffered during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Many had survived the Second World War only to die in the Korean War.” Author Mary Lynn Brachtt, growing up in Texas with a South Korean mother has based ‘White Chrysanthemum‘ on the stories from her mother and her community of expat friends who came of age in post war South Korea.
The story begins in 1943 in Jeju Island in Korea, during World War II. At this time, Korea is under Japanese occupation. We are introduced to a small family comprising a mother, who is also a Haenyeo (or sea diver), fisherman father, and their two daughters Hana and Emi living on Jeju Island in Korea.
Hana is the elder sister and is training to be a Haenyeo (divers of the sea) like her mother. On the other hand, Emi is the younger sister and is waiting for her turn to become a Haenyeo like her mother and sister. Hana was sixteen, had a happy family and was content with her life. However, one hot summer day changed everything for her. She saw a Japanese soldier approaching her sister, Emi, who sat on the beach guarding that day’s catch. Hana knew what her mother said, “Never let them see you. And most of all, never let yourself be caught with one.”
Hana knew what she had to do. She had to save Emi even if it meant sacrificing herself. She successfully saves her sister from the Japanese soldier but was captured herself—the Japanese soldier is General Morimoto who takes her to Manchuria. Morimoto, “stole her from a seaside home, from everything she knows and loves, and then raped her.” She is later sold to a brothel in Manchuria, where she is forced to serve as a ‘comfort woman’ for Japanese soldiers. She no longer remains Hana the Haenyeo. She is given a new identity. She is named ‘White Chrysanthemum.’
“Ten hours a day, six days a week, she “serviced soldiers”. She was raped by twenty men a day.” She begged them to stop but her pleas fell on deaf ears.
Emi, short for Emiko, on the other hand, stayed with her mother and father. She was too young to understand what happened to her elder sister Hana, but she knew her sister had saved her from the Japanese soldier. However, the effects of war also altered her life course as well. At the mere age of fourteen, she watched her father being killed by policemen. She is forced to marry HyunMo, a police officer, much older than her and most importantly someone who she barely knows.
She never comes to terms with this and though she bears the man’s children, she is never emotionally connected with him. She loved her children, but never could come to love him. She also could not accept the notion as why her daughter chose to study instead of becoming a Haenyeo like her. Emi continued to lead her life, as a Haenyeo, as the mother of her children but she always felt a void within herself. A void which could only be filled by her elder sister. Even after sixty odd years of her life she did not give up her hope: meeting her sister one day.
What happens next?
Do Hana and Emi finally meet?
If you seek answers to these questions, you must read the book. What sets this story of two sisters apart is that despite their lives taking drastic turns, their love for one another is strong enough to triumph the evils of war and most importantly to never forget each other. A noteworthy aspect of this book is that the author has also given us a glimpse of a non-hetronormative relationship between Emi’s daughter Yoon Huni and her partner Lane. They are not married and Emi’s acceptance of a her daughter’s sexual orientation as a lesbian and her accepting Lane just like her son’s wife comes as a breath of fresh air, amidst the horrifying realities of war which also forms the main theme of the story.
The novel is multigenerational and provides a deep insight into the complex emotions that reside inside the human heart. The author has used two literary devices, symbolism and imagery to help us understand the book better. “White Chrysanthemum” is symbolic for two reasons in this novel: it becomes Hana’s new identity. Secondly, it is a symbol of mourning. Her new identity is apt for her current state and we as readers mourn her difficulties in life.
Not only the symbols but the images that the author has painted in the minds of the readers by describing immaculate details about how life under the Japanese occupation was, by giving examples, such as how brutally Hana was treated as a ‘comfort women’, or Emi’s longing to meet her sister, helps stimulate the auditory and visual senses of the readers.
Rape as a weapon of war has been and continue to be used. News of femicides in Kashmir, North East India, Turkey, violence against women in South Africa, South Asia, Mexico are something that we keep on hearing. Sadly, despite making several progress, women continued to be targeted for simply being women.
The book is an ode of remembrance to those Korean women, both dead and alive, who had been forced to become ‘comfort women’ by forcefully being taken away from the comfort of their homes. The book draws our attention to a very important yet quite ignored aspect of history: the history of these women and makes us recall Rudyard Kipling’s famous quote from his poem, “Recessional”, “ Lest we forget-lest we forget” reminding us not to forget the sacrifices these women have made and the need to recognise it.
The book also contains a map from 1943, further readings and a notable reading section.
Also read: Book Review: ‘Eating Wasps’ By Anita Nair
Note: It was only in 1993 that Japanese Governement had acknowledged the existence of comfort women, despite the United Nations estimating that over 200,000 women were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese army.
Featured Image Source: Paperback Paris