Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim from Drawn+Quarterly gives the biography of Okseon Lee, a Korean woman who was forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Empire during World War II. As discussed in the foreword, the term “comfort women” is usually used for what Lee went through, although it is a controversial phrase reflecting the downplaying of those who suffered. Instead of changing the wording, the book instead uses it because of its commonality, which will inspire the reader to reflect on the true story of what happened whenever that word is used by anyone.
The story of Grass unfolds out of direct chronology, drawing the reader in with seemingly disconnected moments of a grandmother going on a journey in 1996 and a young girl struggling in poverty, yearning to go to school when the parents are focusing their concern on getting enough to eat. The story flashes forward to Gendry-Kim’s first-person interview of the older woman, Okseon Lee, whom we now see from both the outward perspective as something of a news item as a kidnapping victim returning home for the first time in 55 years as well as the inward of a human who experienced a life that is charged with poignant, quiet strength. We follow her through her ever-deepening suffering while knowing she will survive.
Grass tells its story so powerfully because it speaks so frankly. The pages hold several graphic images, to be sure, but Gendry-Kim skillfully shows the story in the reader’s mind rather than on the page. Captions carry Lee’s words over images that hint rather than tell, such as the medical tools uses for weekly inspections for venereal disease. The narration gives details, a few places and descriptions, but the majority of the events plays out in the understanding of the reader. There it can be deeper and more gripping than any image or word can convey.
What is so mind-shredding about Grass is how straightforward it all is. It is a nearly universal tale of survival. First Lee is a girl who has a tough childhood, being sold to supposedly adopting parents who are largely looking for free labor. She grows and escapes only to be caught in an even more desperate situation as the Japanese Empire seizes Korea and moves into China, bringing along Korean comfort women to keep the troops entertained. Liberation brings freedom, but that freedom means starvation in war-torn streets. Even at the end of her life, Lee is still struggling, along with the other comfort women, surviving and passed, to get proper apology rather than token reparations.
As with real life, and because it is real life, Lee’s story presents the good in even such terrible situations. She jokes about the time she was caught trying to steal fresh persimmons as a girl. She describes how the women supported one another to survive the station. She shows the love of her step-son that brought joy to an otherwise troubled marriage. Grass is a graphic novel highlighting the spirit of life that finds a way even in the darkest times.