Keith Howard (ed): True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women.

True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women(Cassell, 1995).

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Does what it says on the tin. Testimonies by former comfort women. Don’t read this all at once. It’s overwhelming.

Update 9 July 2011. In an email to the members of the British Association for Korean Studies, Keith Howard gave the following background to the publication:

‘True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women’ is no longer available from the publisher, but copies are around on many second-hand sites since it was fairly widely distributed during the 1990s. It won a Virago award for feminist literature, and was used as a source text for a number of TV documentaries, a volume of ‘Index on Censorship’ and the like, despite always having just a single star on Amazon, less denoting quality but because it was not, to put it bluntly, bedtime reading.

In the early 1990s, there were a number of testimonies beginning to circulate in English, usually in very abridged versions and generally in dodgy translations. I was approached to write a book, but refused, on the grounds that what was urgently needed was a set of good and proper testimonies in English – this was as the UN set up its special rapporteur. Korean women’s groups had begun to produce sets of interviews, sometimes a little formulaic in construction, and sometimes avoiding the blunt statements of fact that we would expect in an English oral history account. Clearly, these were far better than a white foreign male researcher would be able to acquire (– Joshua Pilzer, my ethnomusicologist colleague at Toronto U., has since proved me wrong on this, having worked for several years alongside some of the surviving victims of the Japanese military sexual slavery. Although on the music of the victims, I impatiently await the publication of his PhD). And so a deal was done to translate texts collected by the coalition of Korean women’s groups (this was a formal agreement signed by the publisher and the Korean counterpart). I was involved in this, and the publisher asked me to select testimonies, and to edit and adjust them to remove the formulaic elements, so as to create a text that would put the interviews centre stage with the least amount of commentary (or footnotes). ‘True Stories’ added just a couple of chapters of contextualisation.

Now, when we had finished ‘True Stories’ and sent it to press, George Hicks’s volume suddenly appeared. I examined it, and realised that he had used snippets of some of the same interviews we had permission to translate and edit (and which my publisher thought they had signed exclusive rights for the translation of). We decided, though, that since he hadn’t included very extensive interviews, preferring to approach the subject as a journalist – I believe he worked for a number of years at the Far Eastern Economic Review – there was little to worry about. The cover was, to my mind, sensationalist, and some of the chapter titles and the writing verged on the titillating, which again persuaded me that the volume I had worked on still had an important role to play. Anyhow, we pulled the proof copies from the printer and changed the title – hence, why we called our book ‘True Stories’.

Hopefully, I cannot be accused of producing a text like Hicks’s; ‘True Stories’ was, and it remains, straight oral history that doesn’t shy away from the horrendous suffering. Despite this, I have often been criticised, normally for being a white foreigner who can’t possibly sympathise – some of you may be aware of one later book that says just this, and in fact the text was used for two TV documentaries where my name was subsequently carefully excised from the credits because of concerns about how and why I had come to produce the edit the interviews. However, enough people have found ‘True Stories’ sufficiently moving to ensure that I still fairly regularly have email discussions about the whole issue, both as retold through the interviews in the book and in terms of what has transpired since publication in 1995.

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