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White Chrysanthemum

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht
Hardcover
Jan 30, 2018 | 320 Pages
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Praise

“A suspenseful and eye-opening historical work reminiscent of Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train, Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost, and Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours.Library Journal (starred)

“I read Hana and Emi’s story with my heart in my mouth. A bold, devastating, important novel shot through with hope and beauty.”—Rachel Joyce, New York Times bestselling author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

“Masterfully crafted, Bracht’s mesmerizing debut novel is rich with historical detail and depth of emotion. This is a memorable story about the courage of Korean women during the Second World War.”—Publishers Weekly

“A debut novel about the Korean ‘comfort women’ prostituted by Japanese soldiers in World War II—and the strong bond between two sisters separated by the conflict. … The book’s author, an American of Korean descent, writes well—the passages describing the sisters’ early lives are quite lyrical—and she’s adept at weaving in historical material about Korea and its fraught relationship with Japan.” — Kirkus Reviews  

“This captivating and heartbreaking debut novel honors the many thousands of women who were enslaved through WWII.”—Booklist

“Elegantly written, emotionally shattering, and historically accurate, White Chrysanthemum is a feat of literary alchemy. Mary Lynn Bracht reveals the unfathomable cruelty of Japanese sex slavery during World War II through the unbreakable love of Korean sisters.”—Blaine Harden, New York Times bestselling author of Escape from Camp 14

“A captivating, controlled and devastating book about the lives of two Korean sisters during the Second World War…Allows us to look at the immediate travesty of the so-called ‘comfort women’ and the unresolved consequences of sexual slavery for the victims’ families. Brave, bold, important, this book is beautifully written with characters that will stay with you long after the final, unforgettable paragraph.”—Jackie Copleton, Bailey’s longlisted author of A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

White Chrysanthemum is a powerful account of a little discussed subject about the Second World War—comfort women enslaved by the Japanese army—but it’s also about the courage of the women involved who want to speak about their suffering and their cry for justice, peace and love. Hana’s tragic life is just one of an estimated 200,000 Korean comfort women’s stories. Beautifully written, it’s an impressive debut novel from a writer with a sensitive heart and gifted mind.”—Xiaolu Guo, author of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Author Q&A

1. What inspired you to write this story, and what is the significance of its title?
 
The first time I read about Kim Hak-Sun, the first so called “comfort woman” to come forward and reveal her story in 1991, I was shocked by what I learned about the fate of Korean women during WWII. The more I learned about the tragic lives of the so-called “comfort women” who managed to survive the war, and how society treated them, the more emotionally invested I became in their stories and worried about how history would remember them. I knew I had to tell their story.
 
The title refers to the Korean mourning flower, as white chrysanthemums are typically brought to graves and used for burial ceremonies. It was interesting for me to learn that the yellow chrysanthemum flower is also used in the Imperial Seal of Japan for the Japanese Emperor and the Imperial Family. 
 
2. Korea is a fascinating country and its full history might not be familiar to many American readers. Tell us about your connection to Korea, and why you decided to set the novel there.
 
My mother is South Korean and a vivid storyteller. I grew up in a small Texas suburb listening to her as she told me stories about her childhood and the struggles she endured simply because she was female. She was the firstborn daughter in a patriarchal, historically Confucian society that prized male heirs, and she often said that if she had been born a male, her entire life would have turned out differently. I was fascinated by her struggles, and I always felt a compulsion to tell the story of women in Korea, especially women who suffered simply for being female, so that we can celebrate the lives they led and the strong people they eventually became despite the odds against them.
 
 
3. The novel alternates between the voices of two sisters, Hana and Emi. Did you always know you wanted to tell both of their stories? Was one storyline easier to write than the other?
 
In the beginning, Hana’s was the only voice in my head. I always envisioned her with a sister, but I had not planned on giving Emi a voice. Her voice grew through my need to distance myself from Hana’s difficult scenes. Over the course of writing the book, I began to loathe waking up in the morning knowing that today I would have to write about Hana’s captivity. In order to look forward to the day’s writing, I began to write with Emi’s voice as a sort of motivator, and I could then transition to Hana’s voice. Soon Emi became my favorite character and I decided she had to stay. She was the light in the dark, and I think her chapters give the reader the same feeling of distance that I needed when I was writing.

 
4. How did you first learn about the haenyeo? How did this culture come to play a role in White Chrysanthemum?
 
I first learned about the haenyeo divers when I came across an article during my research stage for the novel. When I learned of the haenyeo divers’ unique place in Korean history as the first “working moms” in Korea, and their imminent demise as their profession is now dying out, I knew I had to include their story. As working women who were the breadwinners in their households, haenyeo divers on Jeju Island gained a certain amount of autonomy and position in their society, unlike any other women in Korea. They had the freedom to divorce their husbands if they were abusive, and the island had the highest divorce rate in all of Korea. When the war ended, the haenyeo divers used their profits to build schools to educate their children, and these women continue to work even into their eighties and nineties in order to keep this independence. I admire them and wanted their story to live on in the lives of Hana and Emi. I felt having a working mother (and in their case a father who was a “not very good fisherman”) empowered the sisters and gave them a focus in their lives and strength to keep going.
 
5. Are any of the characters based on real historical figures? 
 
I tried very hard not to base the characters on any particular historical figure. Hana is an amalgamation of all the testimonies I read given by women who came forward and allowed their stories to be published. I wanted her to represent all of them instead of any one in particular. Emi is a figment of my imagination, a beloved sister left behind in a war-torn country. I have two sisters, and writing Emi and the bond between sisters came very easily to me. Morimoto is all the soldiers who raped these women. He is every man who decided his own needs were worth more than anyone else’s. He is the ultimate villain, and it was so easy to imagine his demise at the end. 
 
6. What kind of research did you do for the book?
 
I love to research new topics. I used to work in psychology research after graduating from college, and the best time for me was spent in university libraries pulling books off shelves. For this novel, I began my research as soon as I contemplated writing about the “comfort women” and didn’t really stop researching until I finished the final draft. I did four months of solid reading on the “comfort women,” finding everything from books to online articles to documentaries and poems, so that I could learn all that I possibly could before I ever began to write. Once I was finished with that, I needed to distance myself so that their stories could become a fictional storyline, so I threw myself into researching WWII, the Japanese colonization of Korea and their invasion of Manchuria and then China. After that I began to research the haenyeo divers, Jeju Island, the Jeju Uprising, and then the Korean War. And finally I began to research Mongolia and their way of life and their portable homes and beautiful animals. In all, the research took more than a year, but I still find articles and books to read and purchase. I don’t think my desire to learn more about any of these topics will ever cease.
 
7.  Without giving anything away, did you always know how the story would end? Or did the ending change as you followed the sisters?
 
I originally planned for the ending to be darker, but as the novel progressed and as I fell more in love with both sisters, I realized I couldn’t leave them without some sort of resolution. Unlike the remaining “comfort women” still fighting for a resolution, I wanted the sisters to have a better fate.
 
8. What was your process for writing this book? How long did it take you?
 
I didn’t have a regimented writing process. Once I had all of the research and background stories settled in my mind, I wrote every day for as long as I could. This meant that I only stopped writing when my vision began to blur, and I could no longer view the computer screen! The first draft took about six months to write. I had suffered a back injury and couldn’t sit for very long in a chair, so most of the first draft was written with the laptop on my chest as I laid flat on the floor! I’m much better now, but in those moments I really connected with Emi and her painful leg. The final draft took another year of revisions with the help of my amazing agent, Rowan Lawton. She gave me helpful criticism and absolute freedom to write the book that I wanted to write.
 
9. When did you decide to become a writer? Was it something you always aspired to? What writers have inspired or influenced your work?
 
I had decided to become a writer in high school, until my mother convinced me I would be a pauper and that getting a “real” job would be more sensible. In my small town, no one “became” a writer or anything else creative, so it was impossible to believe that I could become one. So I wrote my little stories in the margins of my notes all through college and even throughout my first jobs post-graduation. It wasn’t until I turned thirty that I looked back on my life and realized that the only thing I had ever wanted to be, and would regret if I never tried, was to become a writer. So I took my first writing class and started the long journey of “becoming a writer.” It took a very long nine years to realize this dream.
 
The writers who most influenced me as I wrote my novel are Toni Morrison, Kyung-Sook Shin, Annie Proulx, Muriel Barbery, Marilynne Robinson, Maya Angelou, Michael Ondaatje, George Orwell, Helen Dunmore, Kimiko Hahn, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I either read them before I began writing, after completing a draft, or during the editing phase. Reading after each “stage” of the book-writing process kept me sane, as well as helped me to “see” where I wanted my book to go and also how to get there. Anytime I’m stuck, I pick up a book and read. I recently finished a book by Claudia Rankine, and the moment I finished it, I began writing my next novel. Good writing inspires creativity. If you want to be a writer, read everything!

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