James Naughtie talks with Mary Lynn Bracht about her new book White Chrysanthemum.
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That is one thing that has
Now its time for Meet the Author.
Mary Lynn Bracht's first novel is a
journey into her career and
heritage. Two sisters separated in a
country that has for their whole
lives been occupied by Japan. White
Chrysanthemum takes its name from
the traditional flow of warning in
Korea. The book is an evocative
version of loss and an account of
how one of the deepest human bonds
can survive almost anything.
For your first venture into fiction,
you choose to go back to the country
of your mother's birth to a period
long before you were born. To what
extent was it for you personally a
voyage of discovery?
It was very
much a voyage of discovery, I had to
do a lot of research into history I
had never heard of. I grew up in
America so history of Korea is very
minimal. I started with stories my
mother had told me, my grandmother
had mentioned and I went from there.
Many people picking up the book in
this country will be startled to
realise that anybody going into the
Second World War as a Korean had
been living under what we might call
Japanese occupation for 25 years.
Definitely. My grandfather was a boy
during the Japanese occupation so he
grew up speaking Japanese and had a
Japanese name. This is he couldn't
express anything in Korean and had
to hide that.
The two sisters at the
centre of this book who live by the
sea and do all the things you do to
keep yourself going, to find things
that can be sold and make a living,
they are in a sense holding onto a
culture which they feel inside
themselves as permanently under
It actually was. They are
really the only divers on the island
and the Japanese prise them, so they
would take a lot of them to Japan to
dive, so to stay in that small area
they were lucky and to be able to do
Lucky but we have to
see what happens to them on this
story cannot be described as lucky,
they undergo appalling deprivation
and are taken effectively to a
brothel for Japanese soldiers. We
see what happens to one of them
there and it is a very seeding
expedients for a young girl. Your
call theme is the relationship
between these two can triumph over
I feel like the bonds
between the two, one taken to a
brothel, keeps her going and gives
her hope, whereas for her sister,
being left behind and having to go
through the Korean War without her
sister, give said a lot of survivors
guilt, so that wine is the story
And we should see that the
sister you speak of, we meet in the
21st-century looking back on this
experience, and thinking about it
and reflecting on it, although a
tragic story with elements of hope.
I hope so. I am glad you say that,
because the comfort women's story is
very dark. A lot of these women
didn't survive, 200,000 I think were
sent away to these brothels.
is a story most evil here want now.
You didn't even know.
I didn't, I
was in my 20s by the time I heard
this. I was very confused and spoke
to my mother.
Effectively a couple
of hundred thousand women who were
used as sex slaves.
And didn't make
it back home. There were only around
250 registered voter at large
It is curious timing that
this because a at the moment when
people are trying to find out more
about the Korean Peninsula for
obvious reasons to do with
contemporary politics. It is a
curious accident of timing. Korea is
on more people's let's than it has
for a long time.
Which for me is
great because I grew up in a small
suburb of Texas and people saw me
and thought Japanese, Chinese. This
I always thought one day I will
write about Korea and people will
know where it is and who looks
Korean! It is a story of truth that
occurs that there is still some
question about. For me, it is very
important to remember these women
who are now in their 80s.
forgotten tribe, almost.
are not in the history books. Before
the last one passes away it would be
wonderful if all these books have
that in there.
You talk about your
mother being born just at the end of
the Korean War in the 1950s. How
much did she know and when did she
know it about what happened to match
this I don't think she's ever talked
When I found out I asked
and she said well everybody knows
about that, it is not news.
known but not spoken of?
the dictatorships, they were not
allowed to speak about the
atrocities of the past whether the
Second World War of the Korean War.
It was frowned upon, you could get
into trouble and sent to jail and it
wasn't until the 1980s when you had
democracy and freedom that it
started coming out and you had one
in's groups coming forward.
families must have known and they
must have had to imagine, a very
cruel thing to imagine, they must
have had to picture what happened to
their children for example but
without really knowing.
A lot of
them also had to ignore it. They
couldn't think about it, so taboo.
What sort of Germany was it for you
yourself, we talked about the
exploration into Korean history.
What about the emotional feeling,
when you had written this story and
try to imagine how Emi felt, looking
back to innocent days with her
sister and then what had happened,
emotionally what to do you?
It was a
bit course, at Lansdowne, because
customer happy moments. Also just
the melancholy and sadness. As a
writer I have to pretend like I am
looking through it in order to get
-- but down. That is also
the potential of guilt and feeling I
have never had to experience
anything like this. How can I
presume to picture the emotional
state of people who have gone
through something I cannot even
imagine, it is quite a tricky thing
to do, doing it for the first time.
Very much so. This I was a unique
situation. I got to listen to them
tell their stories and see how they
reacted and how they felt and the
emotion they went through.
entire childhood. We should see the
title of the book, White
Chrysanthemum, is a reference to the
traditional flower of morning in
Korea. If you see any funerals they
have a picture of the deceased,
chrysanthemums left next to the
Mary Lynn Bracht, thank you very