KL: There are few bonds deeper and stronger than those that exist between siblings. Sometimes, though, they can be stretched to the limit by horrifying historical events; and that’s what this debut novel, White Chrysanthemum, is about. It follows two Korean sisters, who are suddenly and violently separated by the Second World War. It’s a riveting and immersive read to be ranked alongside The Kite Runner and Memoirs of a Geisha. White Chrysanthemum takes us into a dark, devastating corner of history, but pulling us back into the light are these two central characters, these two sisters, whose love for one another is strong enough to triumph over the evils of war. I’d like to welcome onto the stage the author, Mary Lynn Bracht.
This is a wonderful story, incredibly moving and partly inspired by your family history. Can you give us some context?
MLB: Yes, my mother’s from South Korea, she grew up there, and my father is an American from California. He was drafted for the Vietnam War, but instead of going to war he was sent to Korea, where he met my mother. And so when I was growing up she told me many stories about her life, what it was like. She lived in a rural village, no running water, no real heat, she bathed in a pond... and I’m living in a suburban home with two cars and a garage. So for me these were amazing, sort of epic stories and I couldn’t believe where she came from. All of her friends were the same as her – they were from South Korea as well, they all married American military men, and they ended up coming to Texas of all places. It was post the Korean War, and so they underwent tragic circumstances that sort of forced them out of these villages, into big cities, put them in the path of foreigners and they found love and moved away. I always admired her, I admired kind of the strength that had her come out of hardship into this brand new life.
It sort of carried me back. I had a chance to go to Korea with her when I was in my twenties. I don’t have many relatives in America, it’s just my father and mother and two sisters, that’s it. When I went with her, to Korea, there was this massive family there.
KL: Who you hadn’t met before?
MLB: No, I met them when I was a very small baby, but I don’t remember them. I don’t have any recollection besides pictures, and so when I went back with her, it was like this homecoming. I hadn’t had extended family so I never knew what it was like to go home to family and then to immediately be loved, and immediately have this bond that connected them. With my mother, she went home sort of every four years to keep that alive, her friends always did the same, and so that’s how I got the idea for the story. I mean, you have two sisters who are separated but there’s always that bond, and you’re always hoping for that homecoming, that love that always remains. I never experienced that until that moment.
KL: So what about the setting? Because these two sisters come from this little island, off the Korean coast. On this island, it’s a very particular culture because the women all deep sea dive for abalone and it’s almost like a sort of matriarchal society. Is it real?
MLB: Yes, it is. They’re called haenyeo, they’re free divers, they don’t dive with any apparatus, like breathing apparatuses, and they’ve been doing this for four hundred years. For some reason, women’s bodies can take the cold temperature of the water and they can hold their breath for very long periods of time. Because they can work – they can bring all of their food, they’re the breadwinners – they are sort of in charge of their homes, so they’re a very strong female community. They’re still here today except they’re all ageing, like the comfort women in the book.
KL: So let’s just explain – in the story, there’s these two sisters and their mother. They dive for abalone. It’s the Second World War, and Korea’s been occupied for some time by the Japanese. One of the sisters, Hana, is snatched by a Japanese soldier, and becomes what they call a comfort woman – i.e., a sex slave – and separated from her sister.
MLB: Yes, and so there’s kind of a parallel in their lives because the comfort women are all in their eighties and nineties today: the haenyeo are also the same, and the daughters are not following their mothers’ existing profession. The culture and tradition of haenyeo divers is dying out; they think in maybe twenty years, there won’t be any left.
KL: So was part of your impulse in writing this book to sort of actually preserve that culture – which is disappearing – in the pages of your novel?
MLB: For me, I loved everything about Korea, so every time I go back, it’s amazing to learn new things. I just thought it fit the story to have very strong women – because when you think about it, two hundred thousand women were sent into sex slavery during the war. In 1991, when the first comfort woman came forward, only about two hundred and fifty survived, and registered, and were still alive at the time, and now there’s only about thirty. So they’re also dying, they’re not having any kind of resolution to the injustice that happened to them.
‘I cried a lot – because I had to put myself in the place of what these women went through, what they must have felt, what could have gone through their minds’
KL: It’s an incredibly sad story – I mean it’s very uplifting as well, because it’s about sisters, but it is very sad – it’s a tearjerker, really, isn’t it, this book? I mean, I wondered whether you ever cried when you were writing it?
MLB: Yes, sadly, I cried a lot – because I had to put myself in the place of what these women went through, what they must have felt, what could have gone through their minds, being trapped in a brothel in the middle of Manchuria. I mean, what do you do, how do you survive, what do you think? But then also missing home, because they’re girls, you know, they’ve never left their villages. Hana’s missing her sister, but then wondering, how are they getting by, how is Emi doing… I was quite low, I think, in trying to think of this book.
KL: I suppose the thing about this war is that it puts ordinary people in extreme, extraordinary circumstances, which is why, I guess, there is such a rich tradition of war novels. Was that part of the attraction for you as a novelist – because it is inherently dramatic, this situation, isn’t it?
MLB: I think part of it is because I grew up near a military base, I grew up with soldiers, and wives of soldiers. When the Kuwait war broke out, my friends’ dads went to the war, and some of them didn’t come back. So for me war is always on my mind, and with the continuation of wars, always a new one coming up – I gravitate towards them and, I think, I feel a lot about what survivors of war must go through, especially with these women, the comfort women. They were not allowed to talk about what happened to them, for years, because it was against the law and they could be put in prison.
KL: We didn’t really know about them, did we, until the nineties? North Korea is obviously in the headlines a lot at the moment – do you think literature can promote understanding between countries and cultures?
MLB: I think it can. I think that when we hear news stories we hear the facts, we hear kind of the bare facts of what’s going on, but literature has this chance to sort of ‘zone in’ on an experience, a life, and something that someone lived through. And so as a reader of any nation, it’s translated – we get the chance to read it. We can sort of live it – see it, and feel it, hopefully: and come out the other side with different thoughts, new ideas, a different way to look at things.
KL: Well I’m sure that many people will come out with different ideas and a different way of thinking having read White Chrysanthemum. Many congratulations, and thank you very much.
More about the author
'Look for your sister after each dive. Never forget. If you see her, you are safe.'
Hana and her little sister Emi are part of an island community of haenyeo, women who make their living from diving deep into the sea off the southernmost tip of Korea.
One day Hana sees a Japanese soldier heading for where Emi is guarding the day’s catch on the beach. Her mother has told her again and again never to be caught alone with one. Terrified for her sister, Hana swims as hard as she can for the shore.
So begins the story of two sisters suddenly and violently separated by war. Switch-backing between Hana in 1943 and Emi as an old woman today, White Chrysanthemum takes us into a dark and devastating corner of history. But pulling us back into the light are two women whose love for one another is strong enough to triumph over the evils of war.
A riveting, immersive read in the vein of The Kite Runner and Memoirs of a Geisha.
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