Researching for this book was a varied, and sometimes intense, undertaking. The testimonies of the ‘comfort women’ who came forward and told their stories to the public were documented in numerous online articles, essays, books, anthologies, government records and documentary films. It amazed me how much information was out there for anyone to read, and I read as much as I could, searching the sources and bibliographies for further texts. I spent a lot of time at the British Library, Birkbeck College Library and the School of Oriental and Asian Studies Library. This part was easy, finding the information; the difficult part was reading it.
If you’ve read The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang, or any non-fiction book about the Jewish holocaust, then you’ll know exactly what I mean. The atrocities the ‘comfort women’ endured were not easy to read. There were many times I had to put down a book or article mid-sentence and go into my bedroom, away from my young son, to block out the images for a little while. Reading about constant mistreatment, story after story, began to get to me, and I could hardly get through an entire document without breaking down. Reading in cafés, I’m sure there were a few patrons who thought I must be a madwoman crying by myself in the corner. It took a few months, but I got through everything I could find, immersing myself in that terrible world.
Then, I had to step away and try to forget everything, so that I could dream up my own story. Writing fiction based on real events is tricky, and it took a few months for me to get to a point where I felt I had enough distance from the research to begin writing. When I finally found my story, I found myself in a dark place. It was difficult to keep writing Hana’s story.
I had read an article during my research about the haenyeo divers of Jeju Island. This article was a beacon of light for me, and Emi’s character was born. The fact that most of the haenyeo divers were over the age of fifty, and that their way of life was dying with them, mirrored the plight of the ‘comfort women’ who were also dying one by one, their stories disappearing with them. I enjoyed researching and writing the scenes with the haenyeo divers so much that I realised I needed to find more light for Hana’s storyline, too. I didn’t know how I would ever find a way to add light for a kidnapped girl forced into sexual slavery, but it turned out I didn’t have to. It happened in an organic way.
In the beginning, Hana’s travels to Mongolia were supposed to be a mere moment in her storyline, but after researching Mongolia and the history of the Mongol empire, the landscape, the animals, and their nomadic lifestyle, Mongolia found its way into the storyline much more. In the first draft, more than two thirds of the book was spent with Hana in Mongolia, which required much editing in the subsequent drafts! I think when you read those chapters, you can see how much I enjoyed writing those scenes and imagining Hana being in a place free from pain. In a way, it was my escape, too. I left the atrocities behind and dreamed up a better life for these women.
Before writing this book, I never would have expected to walk into a bookstore and head straight for the Second World War section, but that is what happened. I became a WW2 enthusiast. My bookshelves have been transformed and my to-be-read pile now consists of novels set in WW2 along with general history texts. I am also now desperate to ride the Trans-Mongolian Express train from Russia to Beijing, and I hope to dive with the haenyeo of Jeju Island once before I die. The research helped me write White Chrysanthemum, but it also changed me – my heart, my mind and my view of this life. Writing this book brought a bigger world to my attention, and I hope that reading it does the same for you.
Mary Lynn Bracht