Setting the Stories FreeM. Evelina Galang On Honoring Philippine “Comfort Women”

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Every war is a war on women. That’s one of the hard truths Filipina American writer and professor M. Evelina Galang discovered in the 18 years she spent researching and writing her searing new book, Lola’s House: Filipina Women Living with War. During World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army forced more than 400,000 women and girls into sex slave camps or “comfort stations” in Korea, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. For 50 years, the Filipino “Comfort Women” kept quiet, silenced by shame and social pressure. However, after the first Korean “Comfort Woman,” Kim Hak-sun, came forward in 1991, Rosa Maria Henson bravely came forward in the Philippines. She inspired many to follow, risking the ostracization by society and their families. Although they were often seen in the vanguard of public protest, they came to be known as “the Lolas,” the Tagalog word for “granny.”

In the 1990s, the women began demanding reparations and apology from the Japanese government. Galang started collecting testimony of the Lolas in 1998, making multiple trips to the Philippines where she videoed 40 hours of individual testimony. She went with seven of the women to their abduction sites, touched the scars on their bodies, and listened to the unspeakable being spoken. By including the story of her own interactions with the Lolas, Galang places their testimonies into her own journey in meeting and interviewing them, grounding the reader as she goes deeper and deeper into the agonizing reality of what these women experienced. Galang’s graceful, restrained prose, and her own journey into the Lolas’ world, balances what otherwise would be unremitting horror.

To call Galang’s first nonfiction book “a history” is not adequate, though its historical importance is immense. As the granddaughter of a Filipina “Comfort Woman,” I am deeply moved by Lolas’ House. By placing the Lolas’ own words at the heart of the book, Galang brought me into contact with the awful silence my grandmother carried until she died in 2012. My lola raised me, and yet I did not learn she was a “Comfort Woman” until her funeral. “The Lolas told their stories in the hope it would never happen to their granddaughters,” Galang said.

I interviewed Galang about the process of writing Lolas’ House, the ongoing fight for comfort women’s redress, and what we must do to make sure similar atrocities never happen again.

The Filipina “Comfort Women” are not well known outside of the Philippines. Can you tell me more about the Lolas’ history?

The Filipina “Comfort Women” are part of a larger continuum. Their stories are particular to a specific time and place—the Philippines during WWII—but wartime rape and sexual enslavement has happened throughout history. It’s happening now. Just look at the Yazidi women in Iraq, forced to become sex slaves for ISIS, or the kidnapping of young Nigerian girls by Boko Haram. It’s happening in the Congo [and] in Juarez. These stories of abduction and rape will never stop until we as a culture listen and do something to support victims of sexual abuse. That is on us. What are we going to do?

M. Evelina Galang and Lola's House

Why did Lola’s House take so long to write?

It took me almost 20 years to research this book, to transcribe and translate the stories, and to find the right way to tell them. Even as I worked on these 16 testimonies, I saw films about “Comfort Women” in other countries being shot and circulated. But I like to think the difference here is that the stories are not just about that moment of abduction, of continual rape, and escape, but of survival and of social justice. The Lolas and other WWII “Comfort Women” have come forward to claim their stories and demand justice. The written testimonies are deep meditations on the women themselves. This book is another way of understanding what happens to women in war [and] violence. We need to develop a culture of listening, honoring, and being responsible for what we hear. We need to be better listeners.

I love how you centered the Lolas’ testimonies by framing them within your own journey to meet the “Comfort Women” and gain their trust. How did you come to structure the narrative this way?

I thought long and hard about the structure of this particular work. If I simply placed the women’s testimonies one after the other, the reader would never have a moment to reflect, get a chance to breathe, [or] take a moment away from the horrific testimonies. So first, I was looking for a way to separate the women’s stories to give the readers moments to look away and regroup. Secondly, I wanted each woman’s narrative to stand on its own and to show the differences between her narrative and other women’s testimonies.

We call them “lolas” because they are the age of our grandmothers. They are women with full lives. They survived despite what was put on them. What I have come to understand is that they were girls like my nieces, mothers like my stepdaughter, and lolas like my own mother who is lola to 14 grandchildren. They are people, not statistics, not caricatures, not some type. They are people like our own women and girls are people. And still, this happened to them. Too often, the portrayal of survivors is superficial and quick—caricatures. But all victims are full and complicated individuals and no two stories are the same though they may share similar experiences.

Also, the lolas talked a great deal about how the stories enter your body. I found this to be true. The stories affected me and there was nothing I could do, so I wrote. Even as they released their stories from their bodies, I found journaling and writing this book was the best way to relieve the insomnia, the migraines, and the nausea I felt during this project. I realized that in addition to creating space between the testimonies, there was a powerful parallel story here. What do we do as witnesses to these testimonies once they enter our bodies?

I thought about how I took care of myself during the interviewing process. After a day of interviews, a story would stay with [me]. So on weekends, I went to [visit] my own families in Quezon City, Macabebe, and Macalelon. I went to church. I worked out. I meditated. I, too, was on a journey in search of my paternal and maternal lolas and their stories. These personal moments in the book become the breath between the women’s stories.

Filipina Comfort Women

One of the things that pushed you to research the “Comfort Women” was the high percentage rate of suicide by Filipino American female teens. What is the connection between the Lolas’ stories and the many Filipinas struggling with mental illness in the diaspora?

You’re talking about the CDC’s study back in the ’90s where they found the highest rate of suicide among teenagers was among Filipino American teens (45.6 percent). That statistic, along with the response from young women to my stories in Her Wild American Self, led me to work on the screenplay DALAGA, which included research on the Lolas. That project never was, but the story stayed with me and ended up being the novel, Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery.

When I met the Lolas and heard their testimonies, they began demanding to know when I was going to write their stories. Women and children who went through these experiences remained silent for more than 50 years. They felt shame and guilt for the things that happened to them. Some of their families turned them away. But something beautiful happened when Lola Maria Rosa Henson stepped forward. She was the first woman to speak her story publicly. She set the story free. She called out what happened to her and eased the pain in her body, memory, and being. And this testimony of kidnap and rape is a memory they relive with each telling, but they tell the stories now not only to set the pain free, but to demonstrate to all of us what happens to women in war. Over the years, many of the lolas came to understand [that] there is no need to feel shame. And now that we know about it, what do we do about it? You can see from their stories that what happened to them is not their fault. They deserve to be honored and lifted up for what they went through. The book is honors them, their lives, and their wish—never again.

What was the difference between writing Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery and Lolas’ House? When you write nonfiction, you are witnessing this trauma, and in fiction, you are filling up the empty spaces. So, it’s a little bit different.

It’s very different, I think. I’m trained as a fiction writer. You think that writing is such a brave act, but it’s also very safe—you write it on a piece of paper, type it up on a screen, and you can leave it. You can say, “Oh, I didn’t do that!” Right?

Writing the novel and the nonfiction book were very different. I feel like there is a responsibility that comes with being a witness to these stories. If somebody is going to be silent for 50 years, and then they speak to you, you want to make sure that you get it right and honor the stories. Also, there’s that part of me that wants to make sure they’re not confused because memory brings revision and subjectivity. I interviewed most of the women at least twice, if not three or four times, going over their testimonies in different ways. So, there was the gathering of the work, and that could be very taxing on the body and the spirit. They go through it, experience the trauma, [and] relive it every time they tell it. Then you start to go through it, and you have to have a kind of distance so you don’t take on their stuff. You’re supposed to be just a witness, but at the same time, when it comes to writing you need to be aware of what you’re doing. Be respectful of it and honor it in a way that does not dramatize it, inflate it, or dismiss it. There’s a fine balance you have to walk.

When I was writing the essays, especially in the initial drafting, my body became easily fatigued. I would get tired in two hours. Everything in my body would turn off. I would literally have to lie down, chill out, go meditate, workout, go see a dumb movie. I would have to step away because I couldn’t take it. But when I write fiction, I could sit down on a Friday night and I could go all the way to Sunday night, barely getting up for bathroom breaks. I would forget to eat.

So, one of the biggest differences was just my physical reaction to the essays versus the novel. And the second, I think, there was a burden of commitment. I felt so committed and devoted not just to the Lolas and their stories, but I’d grown attached to their movement and their fight for justice. There’s this constant balance and responsibility as a writer, and it is a burden. But writing the novel was quite freeing, it was liberating, and even though it was about painful stuff, it was joyful. It was getting at the same material but not having that burden I feel with the essays. The novel did not have the same kind of responsibility, and yet it does many of the same things that the essays are trying to do: to get at the essence of the experiences of the Comfort Women and to talk about the struggle for social justice.

What’s one of the stories that stayed most with you?

All the stories are with me all the time. But the one story I love is the story of Josefa, Dolor, and Piedad—their friendship and the freedom they found in one another. The way organizing a campaign of justice became a bonding experience for the women. The way they found each other and in doing so, found strength.

Comfort Women memorial

Yes, I was incredibly moved by their friendship too. Especially the part in the book when you visit the “Comfort Women” memorial in the Philippines with the lolas. Lola Josefa asks: “It’s just a plaque. Who cares? […] We are dying na.” I felt so much pain—memorials can only do so much. Yet, they help us remember. What are your thoughts about the new memorial for the “Comfort Women” in San Francisco, which the Comfort Women Justice League fought to install in public land for years?

I am going to visit the memorial this week. I have been to the “Comfort Women” memorials in Atlanta, New Jersey, and Manila. I shared my interviews with public artist Johanna Poethig, and she in turn gathered a number of artists and curated Songs for Women Living with War, born of the Lolas’ testimonies, but not limited to their experiences. The Lolas are the entry point to this important conversation. It’s important to know the women and their stories. It’s important that their testimonies are a part of the historical record of WWII.

The Mayor of Osaka is threatening to cancel a 60-year sister city relationship with San Francisco because of the memorial. Why do you believe Japan is adamant on erasing what happened to the “Comfort Women”?

It is too bad that the Japanese government cannot reconcile with the past. Through the years, I have heard from private citizens who know and understand this history and they are sorry. Why is the Japanese government bent on erasing this history? I don’t know. Why does any bully deny the wrong they do? But it is important for us to rise above that. Name the history. Document the testimonies. That’s why the memorials are significant, why the documentation of their experiences in textbooks are essential, and why we can not turn away.

Refusing to turn away is so strong in this book. It is almost an act of purification, this refusal to not look away from the atrocities.

How [else] do we become better persons? Do we not learn from our mistakes? Is it not imperative that we understand not only what we’ve done, but why we’ve done it? And when a child says sorry, don’t we often ask them, why are you sorry? So it is with nations and people and our collective memories. When you have administration’s revising history, doing their best to forget the past, and denying the stories of the survivors, then we—as nations—need to make sure someone is documenting the events of our time. We writers and artists must be the witness. Write it down. Make a figure. Name it. If there is nothing to read, you can forget. If no vision exists of the girls taken during WWII, we can forget. So we must be the witness. Not only so we don’t forget, but also because we have to learn to be better persons, better nations.

There is so much love throughout the book, too. Your relationship with the Lolas, your love for them—did the love help you write through the pain of their stories?

It’s the only reason to tell the stories, you know? The “Comfort Women” themselves say the reason they go through the trauma of telling and retelling their stories is for the next generation. It’s so that it won’t ever happen again. It’s for the love of the girls who are coming.

Love is the only reason to tell these stories, and the only way that these stories can make any sense is if they are told in the context of love. Out of context, it would just be one violent act after another, and also there would be no way to redeem anything if there was not love. And love comes from different places, at different levels, and for different reasons. It’s also, again, part of that research I’ve been doing and this understanding that I’ve been coming to as I’ve worked with the survivors, who were first victims, then survivors, then heroines, and now teachers. It’s all part of that healing process. You can’t heal unless you open up your heart and you’re vulnerable and you allow love to take place. You allow yourself to feel loss.

What is next for the Lolas’ fight? As many are unfortunately passing away, what does the younger generation need to do to keep their fight alive?

Almost all of them have passed away. Some families have not had enough money to bury their lolas properly. Or if they are still with us, their illnesses go untreated because they are living in poverty. So one thing young people might do is contact the Lolas’ Center run by LILA Pilipina (movementforthelolas@gmail.com) and donate funds to the lolas and their families.

Second, the lolas and other surviving “Comfort Women” are waiting for the Japanese government to formally acknowledge and apologize to the 400,000 women. Are there ways to organize and write to the government? I’m not sure, but an apology from the Japanese government would go a long way to begin healing. Perhaps the next generation can think of a creative way to get these government officials to own up to this atrocity.

Third, we need to read and teach the lolas’ stories. Not just the Filipina women, but the women of Korea, China, Indonesia, and Japan too. We need to keep their experiences alive in historical text books, in documents about WWII, in history lessons. So read about it, teach it, write about it. Make it a part of the lessons you teach your children. The experiences of “comfort women” need to be an integral part of the story of WWII.

Finally, can we make sure it never happens again? Perhaps we begin with the living monuments like Johanna Poethig’s Songs for Women Living with War, or the “Comfort Women” memorials in Atlanta, New Jersey, Glendale, and South Korea. We need to memorialize the women and honor them because they are war heroines. We need to remember and make sure it never happens again.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

by Melissa Sipin
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Melissa R. Sipin is a writer from Carson, CA. Her work has been published in Prairie Schooner, Salon, Slice Literary Magazine, Guernica Magazine, and Black Warrior Review, among others. She’s won fellowships at the MacDowell Colony, Kundiman Fiction Retreat, and VONA/Voices Workshop. More at: www.msipin.com

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