During the first decades of the 20th century, Japan developed an aggressive imperialist policy in Southeast Asia, which led to the forced occupation of Korea from 1910 until its defeat by the United States in 1945, which ended World War II. During that period, the Japanese troops carried out all kinds of human rights violations, including the sexual slavery to which they subjected many young women, euphemistically called "comfort women". Cartoonist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim (Goehung, South Korea, 1971) has captured the life of one of them in Grass (Reservoir Books, 2022, translation by Joo Hasun), as a way of preserving memory and denouncing the facts.
With a degree in Fine Arts, her relationship with comics began as a translator of some Korean works into French, after which she published her first books directly written in that language. Herb is her most ambitious graphic novel yet, and has become an international phenomenon that many compare to Art Spiegelman's Maus or Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. It has been considered comic of the year by media such as Guardian or The New York Times, in addition to being nominated for the Eisner Awards and obtaining a Harvey Award. Grass strikes the reader with its deceptive simplicity, which hides a sophisticated formal framework to tell a crude story, full of suffering, that Gendry-Kim takes pains to treat with respect and delicacy, a secret, without a doubt, of the success it is reaping among the public.
How did the possibility of interviewing the protagonist of Grass arise?
Before doing this work, around 2012 or 2013, I made a short comic about 'comfort women', which I wrote without having testimonies from the victims. But, later, I thought that this topic required more reflection and deepening and that short comic was not enough. And then it occurred to me to meet with some of the victims, to give it that depth.
How was your relationship with Lee Ok-Sun? In the comic you can see how her conversations with her were, but surely dealing with her with a person with those experiences left a mark on her.
After my first visit, I decided that it was best to keep a certain distance from the life of the protagonist. If I had been too carried away by emotions, it would have been very difficult to write the play. I wanted to keep a very objective perspective.
In Grass it is seen that Ok-Sun's life was very hard, even before she was a comfort woman. In a way, she is an example of the lives that women have led in the 20th century in many parts of the globe. Does she believe that this story can be universal and serve as a denunciation of the situation of women as victims of this type of armed conflict?
Yes, I decided to portray that life from a comprehensive perspective because, in my opinion, women, from childhood, face this type of problem. For example, lack of access to education, social discrimination, rape, being treated as objects. There are many women who live with trauma, especially in times of war. For me, Ok-Sun's life is a representation of all women.
In the West, it is understood that Japan's role in World War II was above all that of being an ally of Hitler, but not everyone knows that, previously, it developed a very aggressive imperialist policy in Southeast Asia and, specifically, in Corea. Given the success that Grass is having, do you think he can serve to spread these facts?
In the early 1990s, another female victim gave her first testimony as a sex slave during World War II. That testimony served to publicize this problem in Korean society, and was also the reason for raising the problem of the violation of women's rights in a general way. I think it was very important in our recent history. With regard to relations between Korea and Japan, at the end of the 19th century, Japan was forced to open up to the Western world, in an unfair situation for them. At that time, Japan began to receive the influence of Western civilization and became a power in its geographical area, which projected the invasion of Korea and other Asian countries. And that imperialism was to blame for many civilian massacres and the forced recruitment of many women to serve as sexual slaves for Japanese soldiers during the Pacific War. I think that is why it is important for Japan to offer a sincere apology, but also to educate its young people to know their past, including it in their school textbooks. However, I did not want to tell all this directly in my work, because I believe that readers should draw their own conclusions.
On this question, do you think that the reluctance to recognize and repair these facts may be related, in some way, to an intention to preserve the kind and inoffensive image that Japan has made an effort to offer the world since the end of the Second World War? ?
Yes I think so.
Regarding the need to recover memory, in Spain there is a movement of people who ask for reparation for the crimes committed during the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. But there are also many people who believe that these facts should be forgotten and not stir up the past. What vision do you have about the need to recover that memory? Are there people in South Korea who are in favor of forgetting and not repairing the victims?
In Korea, the right is in favor of forgetting the past, but I think that in society in general there are more voices that support the claims related to sexual slavery, including the younger ones, many students, who want to recognize that past and support the victims. But I think this is not a matter for Korean society to decide. First of all, there is the need for an apology on the part of the aggressors. When we have that sincere apology, we can move forward. Just as the Germans did, the Japanese must take that step. And at that time, South Korea will be able to advance its relations with Japan, on the basis of sincere friendship. But today, Japan is following a very different path than Germany.
In Grass, you use drawing in a very interesting way. For example, he chooses to omit the protagonist's rape, which she does not directly represent. What value do you think drawing has to show these kinds of stories?
Violence and, more specifically, sexual violence, leaves traumas and wounds for life. Not just the victims, but the people around them. More than resorting to realistic images, he wanted to represent her in a symbolic way, using metaphors. And she also wanted to prevent the explicit images from being a second rape for Mrs. Ok-Sun. From the point of view of the readers, I think that many, today, are already exposed to such violence, so that violent images are consumed almost as a game. If we intensify that violence, it has no effect. I prefer to play with his imagination, so that he could have a greater impact. I am thinking of Picasso's Guernica... Writers and artists have to address historical issues to open a space for reflection on these events, and to denounce them.
Herb has been compared to Art Spiegelman's Maus. Has it been an influence on his work? Do you think that comparison makes sense?
Maus is an internationally famous masterpiece, which I think has influenced most graphic novel authors. It opened up the possibilities for us to address many social issues through this medium. For me, the comparison between Maus and Grass is an honor. I didn't train to draw comics, I didn't even have, at first, the idea of doing this type of book, but thanks to Maus and certain works that portray the history of Korea in the seventies and eighties, which had a great impact on me when translated for the French market, I realized the potential that the graphic novel had.
Until very recently, the Korean comic published in Spain was mainly youth manwa. Only now is other types of works beginning to arrive, graphic novels aimed at an adult audience like Grass. How is the comic scene in South Korea, is it a good moment in this medium?
Unfortunately, in Korea we don't have much of a graphic novel tradition. The reader also has a preference for works from the Western world, such as Maus. There is also a widespread perception that comics are for children and are not good for their education, although in recent years there has been a boom in comics on the internet, the so-called webtoons. But that's a far cry from the graphic novel. However, Hierba has received many international awards, which I think has increased the interest in this type of work in my country.