Novelist Nora Okja Keller was born in Seoul, Korea. Her father was a German computer engineer and her mother, a Korean “jack of all trades.” Keller grew up in Hawaii and attended the University of Hawaii. In 1995 she received the Pushcart Prize for a short story, “Mother Tongue,” which later became a part of Comfort Woman, her first novel and winner of the 1998 American Book Award.
Her recently published second novel, Fox Girl, is set in Korea in the mid ’60s and is the story of three young Koreans who are marginalized by their society and abused by American GIs. It is a harrowing tale told unflinchingly and yet with lyricism. Nora Keller continues to tap into the reservoirs of historical relevance. In a statement that applies equally to Fox Girl, Keller relates, “While I was working on the novel [Comfort Woman], I’d type in ‘comfort women’ into a search engine and come up with Martha Stewart articles about how to make the home more comfortable. When I came back from my book tour, I could find actual articles about comfort women and my book. You know we all wonder what effect any of our written words can have on the real world, so for me, it was incredible to be tied into that whole history and growing awareness.”
Nora Okja Keller lives in Hawaii with her husband and two daughters.
Robert Birnbaum: You’re a long way from home. From here, Hawaii seems like another country.
Nora Keller: In some ways. We have our definite culture that’s grown up from a mixture of many different peoples.
RB: How separated from or connected to mainstream American culture do you feel in Hawaii?
NK: I’m trying to separate how I grew up. It’s hard for me to splinter off the pieces. When you grow up you don’t see the different strands. To have to sit and consciously pick out and say…
RB: Let me put it this way. What happens when you visit New England?
NK: Growing up in Hawaii was great in the sense that I never felt singled out and looked as a mixed-race hapa girl. I was never looked as “Oh, you know, that’s very strange, that was very odd.” It was so commonplace. Most of my friends were mixed race. That was the norm. And more than the norm by the time of my generation, being of mixed race was considered almost an elite thing. Coming to mainland USA, visiting my own family (my father has family in Ohio), it was a culture shock in the sense that I was looked at as “exotic.” And these were my own family members. So there is definitely a complete, different feeling of who I am as a person.
RB: Would you have written Comfort Woman if you lived in Ohio or New Hampshire?
NK: Eventually [growing up in] Hawaii had a lot to do with it. Growing up as a teenager, there was point where I rejected anything Korean. It was like, “No, I’m not Korean. I’m an American girl.” I liked American foods and I really rejected my mother’s heritage. Part of that is rejection of the parents and rebellion that any teen goes through. Ethnicity was so closely tied to my mother that I rejected [her] food, culture and language. There did come a point — and it had a lot to do with having children of my own — where reclaiming or re-understanding what it meant to be a Korean American woman became very important. In the sense of what do I want to pass on to my children and how do I want them to see themselves.
RB: Why don’t you see yourself as German American?
NK: Part of it is that I was raised primarily by my mother.
RB: How do you feel about the term ‘Asian American’?
NK: For me labels…I don’t see them as affecting my writing one way or the other. They can be useful in giving a structure to studies. I don’t identify with it one way or the other. To say Asian American does erase some differences and conflicts. And there is such a conflict with Japanese and Koreans…
RB: Does it strike you that anti-Asian racism is perhaps more virulent than the anti-Black kind?
NK: When I was growing up we had one day we called “Slap a Jap” day. It was because it was after WWII and growing up with Pearl Harbor. That was when I was in elementary school.
RB: People could distinguish who was Japanese?
NK: Oh yeah. And mixtures, easily.
RB: You won a significant award for Comfort Woman, your first novel. And then you returned to Hawaii and continued to write, and the product of that work is your new book, Fox Girl. Did you have much contact with the publishing world while you worked?
NK: Actually, no. I write in isolation. I don’t think too much in terms of publishing. When I went back after the Comfort Woman [book] tour and people would ask me what I was working on, I would tell them the whole plot line. What actually happened when I got home and I started writing what I thought would be my second novel was I realized I told everyone what it was going to be. And in so telling lost that enjoyment of discovery you have when you are writing. In my research for what I thought would be my second novel I kept coming across these references to the camp towns in Korea, the America Towns. The more I came across it, the more intrigued I became with the women living in these towns, wondering who they were.
RB: So the original idea was discarded?
NK: Oh yeah, gone.
RB: After you wrote Comfort Woman did you know you were going to continue along the same vein?
RB: And you are working on the third book that completes a trilogy. Did you always intend that?
NK: I did. I thought there would be something in between Comfort Woman and Fox Girl. Instead I became more and more drawn to the story of the camptowns. The third story — not to talk it all out — will be a more of a direct sequel with Fox Girl. And pick up in Hawaii with those characters. Somehow when I work it through, there will be some kind of twist, either in narrative or structure. Something will change.
RB: Comfort Woman was somewhat unorthodox in structure, and Fox Girl is a more straightforward narrative, and the next book will be…?
NK: I don’t know yet. I have a sense of the voice, of who will be the main narrator. But other than that, I am still trying to figure it out, how it will be different. Now the challenge is how to link it with the other books and yet differentiate it.
RB: When did you become interested in writing?
NK: I always was, from a very young age. [In] Fourth or fifth grade I began keeping a journal, writing short stories and poems and illustrating them. I thought I was going to be a visual artist, drawing and painting. The words at that time just explained what I was sketching and painting.
RB: You studied psychology in school.
NK: I studied psychology and when I was a junior I realized I needed just five more credits to get a major in English. So I ended up with a double major. About that time I took this course — it was the first course offered in Asian American Literature at the University of Hawaii — I thought, “Wow, people are interested in reading an ethnic experience.” That was an eye-opening class.
RB: Before that, you didn’t think of writing because you weren’t aware of that body of literature?
NK: No, I was writing, but the stuff I was writing was very whitewashed. It had no ethnicity, no specific culture. I tried to really blur the edges of where the story took place. So you had generic characters floating through without any ties to specific culture…
RB: So there weren’t any — for lack of a better phrase — Asian American models?
NK: When I grew up, I didn’t even hear the term ‘Asian American’ …not until I took that literature course. Before that we were Orientals.
RB: Whom did you read in that course?
NK: Maxine Hong Kingston. Jade Snow Wong. Joy Kugawa. She’s actually Canadian…
RB: That makes her Asian-Canadian…
NK: …Readings that were being written in Hawaii from Bamboo Ridge Press. That was the first time that I realized that Hawaii had a press that was looking for local literature and local writers. I went, “Whoa, there’s a place that I could write, that would actually want someone who writes specifically about Asian or Korean Americans.” So all those things kind of came together. And still I didn’t think I was going to be a writer.
RB: What did you study at the University of California at Santa Cruz?
NK: I got a Ph.D. in American Literature. I really didn’t think I was going to be a writer. Creative writing was something that I did as a hobby, in whatever free time I could find.
RB: No writing programs of workshops for you?
NK: No. Part of it is, growing up with my mother coming from Korea; her big goal for her children was higher education. Becoming a doctor would be the ultimate thing. To see us set professionally so that she wouldn’t have to worry about us. Any career in the arts was just too risky. I remember telling her I wanted to be a painter and go to art school. She went, “No, how would you ever support yourself in the arts?” Because of that I never considered a career in writing.
RB: That seems to be universal in the immigrant experience. Immigrants want their kids to have financial security above and beyond other things like quality of life…
NK: Yeah, happiness is a luxury. After you put food on the table, after you have a roof over your head. Those were some of the things that my mom didn’t have growing up.
RB: I read some reference to your mother as a jack of all trades.
NK: She is. She has never been afraid to try new things or start a new business from nothing. As a mother I want to shelter my children. I want them to be secure and safe. But now I also add happiness and a passion for what they do. Whereas my mom would say that was frivolous and to make sure that they have a steady income with benefits. She came from a place where she had to be scratching for a living to make a place for herself. For her, the ultimate thing was to be financially set so you don’t have to worry where your next meal is coming from. I come from the luxury that she made that cushion that let me go off and explore. We have blanketed our children. We become their support, too. So we can say, “Go and find your happiness and follow your heart and that will lead you to where you want to be.”
RB: Does Hawaii feel like paradise?
NK: I feel so blessed, but not just because of where I live. My family and now that the writing is taking off and it’s not something I had planned for. With Comfort Woman I had to trick myself into writing a novel. It was too overwhelming to think about it.
RB: You wrote it in pieces and because of this one woman who had come forward and gave testimony. I know it’s the writer’s job to imagine things which are not part of their own lives, but when you felt compelled to write this horrific, harrowing story, how difficult was it?
NK: There were some sections that were almost torture even to sit at the computer knowing I would have to write this upcoming scene. In both books, knowing a bad scene was coming up, I would have to mentally prepare myself. In some part, we all have this darkness that we draw from. We all have this darkness inside. I’m lucky that I have an outlet for this darkness. Through the novels that I write, I explore dark themes and situations of despair. That lets me pull out this darkness. It’s also balanced by my wonderful “real” life. All the characters and situations don’t just come from inside. I try to do a lot of research for it and that’s where they come from, too. Comfort Woman came from actually testimony and also whatever I could gather up. With Fox Girl I did a lot of reading on the American military presence in Korea and watched documentaries. So it’s not just all this stuff inside of me that I’m imagining and projecting.
RB: Again, the writer’s task is to provide the emotional coloration and narrative cohesion…I read a review that said Fox Girl is set right after the Korean War. Is that correct? You reference John Kennedy and Martin Luther King…
NK: Way after, closer to Viet Nam. So when they [the two main characters] are very young it’s the mid ’60s. When they are older it’s the late ’60s.
RB: How much have things changed with American military presence in places like Korea?
NK: Sadly, not a lot. There aren’t as many camp towns because there aren’t as many bases, but the ones that exist are still operating business as usual. There isn’t a lot of change and there are still a lot of abandoned children there. The feelings toward the prostitutes who live in the camp towns and the children — they are still really stigmatized and looked down upon, almost erased. One Korean reporter asked me, “Why did you write about this? What are outsiders going to think about Korea now?”
RB: Who are the “outsiders”?
RB: Who is your audience?
NK: The audience is much bigger than I expected. Now I’m finding out that a lot of college kids are reading Comfort Woman. Part of this was that the book came with and maybe helped with this growing national awareness of what comfort women went through. It’s also a coming of age novel and a mother-daughter novel. When I wrote it I thought it would be published locally and maybe with Bamboo Ridge. And maybe a thousand copies printed and my mother would never have to read it.
RB: How many copies are in print?
NK: I try not to think of what the numbers are and who is reading it. If I thought that as I was writing it would paralyze me.
RB: Is Comfort Woman too dark and terrible a story to be made into a movie?
NK: I don’t think so. I’ve had queries. But not any serious activity.
RB: Besides Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s book, I can’t think of a studio film about Asian Americans. The main culture stills seems satisfied to ignore them.
NK: It surprises me how prevalent the stereotypes still are. It makes me so thankful I did grow up in Hawaii.
RB: Hawaii seems to have a Creole culture and be quite a joyous place.
NK: Yes, it is. It’s not the ultimate paradise. It’s got its problems…
RB: Is there still a secessionist movement?
NK: Oh yeah, the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement is still going strong.
RB: Will you always live in Hawaii?
NK: We have family in Seattle, and we think about all our kids growing up together, and yet I can’t see us moving from Hawaii. I have too many roots, and I like my kids growing up in a place where there are so many cultures and meetings of cultures. It’s so different from a place like Seattle or California where you have a lot of ethnic groups, but they are each in their own neighborhoods. In Hawaii you don’t have the space to have separate neighborhoods. I like that.
RB: Truly a melting pot.
NK: More so than any state I have visited. Very accepting of other religions and foods and habits.
RB: They even accepted Christianity.
NK: Yeah (laughs). We’re still fighting that…no, no, no (laughs). My mother is a good example in with religion at least she’s Christian and Buddhist and she practices her own form of animism. I think that’s wonderful. One thing that stops me from going to Seattle is something my sister-in-law told me. One of the other parents in my nephew’s school was saying, “We are so glad that our kid is coming to this school because this school has such multiculturalism.” My sister-in-law looked around wondering what the parent was talking about. All a sudden, a day later she understood the parent meant my nephew. Her kid. That’s her example of multiculturalism my one, half-Korean nephew.
RB: There is something stilted about opting for multiculturalism.
NK: That’s what she realized, that her son was the token multicultural effort of the school.
RB: You have the completion of the trilogy on the table. Do have a plan past that?
NK: Um huh. Not in terms of I know what it’s going to be but I do have a sense there is this topic I want to write about down the road. But I don’t think I can fit it all in one book.
RB: Do you write short stories?
NK: That’s what I started out in. That was how I got to Comfort Woman. I consider each chapter a short story. I like having a long time to work things out and set them up. With the short story you have to go in knowing exactly what the punch is going to be. It has to be very immediate. With novels I know the topic but I don’t really know what is coming. The novel gives me a lot of space to discover exactly what’s happening, exactly what the climax is going to be, exactly what the story is.
RB: How many drafts do you go through to get to what you are happy with?
NK: I revise as I go along, each chapter. So it’s hard to say. I mentioned that I thought I was going to be a painter at one time. That’s how I visualize each chapter as a painting. So I’ll start out with a quick sketch of notes, which I do long hand. Then I’ll type up a sketchy first draft and then going in and adding the background color and adding detail in this corner and that corner and filling in the features of the face or something. So each time I go back in I’ll add a little more to the chapter. What started out as page of notes becomes three pages of a sketch and then it grows and each time I fill in more. I finish one chapter and move on to the next.
RB: And when you are finished with all the chapters you don’t revise?
NK: Oh, I do. Each chapter that I’m done with I bring to my writing group. And then someone will comment and I will write in their comments and put it away and start on the next chapter. And then when I am done with what I think is the first draft of the entire novel, I go back and look at the comments on each chapter and see if they work, and then I read it through as a whole to see if things tie together, if I didn’t lose one character … and I’ll go back that way and revise it once. Then I’ll send it to a reader. I have two very good friends that read my complete drafts.
RB: What a luxury.
NK: They’re wonderful. They are wonderful readers. What a gift that is. To be able to trust somebody that much…to get feedback with the intention of improving the work, that is a gift. They send their comments back and I revise it one more time. And then I send it to my editor. By that time it’s pretty much finished. With Fox Girl I ended up fussing with that ending three times. The first time I sent it to my editor she said, “No, go back and rewrite it, it’s too dark.” So I had to go through the novel and pick out places where I could inject some hope and light in certain areas so that the ending was not totally dismal.
RB: Were you at all concerned about the translation issues? That is, you are writing in English to represent young Koreans who barely spoke or thought in English.
NK: Right. Then there’s a mixture of Korean English around the base. I was concerned. I tried my best without making the Korean part sound stilted, like accented Korean. That’s where my writing group came in. When it seemed like the language didn’t mesh, they would point out those places to me. At some point I had to let those worries go and say, “The reader will get it without me having to point out, ‘Now they are talking Korean.'”
RB: Was Comfort Woman translated into Korean?
NK: Yes. That was big for me. At that point I knew…I had this big worry that my mother was going to read it. When I thought it was just going to be locally published I didn’t have those worries because I thought no one I knew would really read it. I had this fear of being unmasked. As being identified as a writer I felt really nervous about that. And then it got picked up by a big publisher…
RB: How did that happen?
NK: My friend Lois-Ann Yamanako has an agent she said, “Try for an agent. Here’s the number of my agent. See if she can sell it.” And her agent [Susan Bergholz] who became my agent was able to sell it. She’s great. She’s very special. I did talk to a couple of other agents before signing with Susan. A couple of the agents were like, ” I can get you the most money.” They didn’t focus on the work. The attention seemed wrong to me and the things they were going after. I really wanted to work with an editor and with people who were interested in the work and improving me as a writer and helping me grow. Susan said, “We’ll find the best editor for you…”
RB: Is writing hard?
NK: Thinking that you are going to have to write something is really hard. I have a lot more anxiety about it. When I actually start writing the anxiety seems to fall away.
RB: Do you write everyday?
NK: (laughs) No. All the writing books say, “Pick a time of day. You must write two hours everyday. Make that your habit for life.” I always feel semi-guilty for saying no.
RB: You have two children.
NK: That’s my thing. My first priority, I’m going to live my life and make sure my kids are taken care of. I try to write everyday but sometimes I’m too tired or the kids have a special school function. Or if my Mom needs me. You know, life interrupts and you have to go with that. The writing will come eventually…
RB: Would you like to write more, all the time? Sell a book, make a lot of money, hire a nanny or something like that?
NK: Nah. Sometimes I fantasize all this free time for myself and then I imagine, “Oh, I’ll be doing all this writing then. Just wait till then. When they are in school for 6 hours a day.” What actually happened when I had one child and she was in school, I wasted a lot of time. I found myself going to the movies a lot and the mall and still writing in the middle of the night. That habit didn’t change. So I was really just fooling myself. I never thought about hiring a nanny…hiring a housecleaner. I would like that (laughs).
RB: You are cognizant of the earmarks of a writing life. But that’s not you?
NK: Yeah, like keeping the journal. I used to lie and say I was keeping a journal. I found that journal writing was unsatisfactory to me. Maybe I just didn’t do it right. It didn’t have the form. I really enjoy working with a form…like a short essay. I have been doing this column for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, a personal essay. It has a completion to it. With journals it would be random thoughts that didn’t connect with one another. When I work with a short story, a novel or a column it forces me to follow a thought out. And by following that thought I come to a place that I wouldn’t have guessed that I was going. I love that. To me, that’s the enjoyment of writing, the process of discovery. Without that it became very tedious to say, “Okay now it’s my time to write in a journal.”
RB: Do you still paint?
NK: No, most of my creative outlet is writing. I do fuss around with pastels with my kids. I did try it at one point and found that I just didn’t have any skill. Something was gone from me there. Something elementary was gone when I tried it again. There wasn’t a spark. Maybe that’s transferred into writing for me. Before, I used to paint first and use the words to explain my painting. Now maybe it’s reversed. That the writing has become first.
RB: Good. Well, thanks.
NK: Thank you.