Ghosts Calling Home
Kalliope Lee’s debut novel, Sunday Girl, channels the souls and unresolved wounds of the Korean “comfort women.”
This story originally published in KoreAm Journal September 2013.
Kalliope Lee is summoning spirits—and she wants you to listen. Lee’s novel Sunday Girl is a kind of literary séance, a book that explores tragedy, sexuality, death and healing through the story of the “comfort women.”
Over 20 years ago, when Kim Haksoon—the first former “comfort woman” to come forward publicly—accused the Japanese of abducting young women and forcing them into sexual slavery, Lee was deeply disturbed by the revelation. How could such atrocities be kept secret for so long? The silence that was imposed on these women weighed heavily on Lee, and she felt compelled to speak out. Or, more accurately, to write.
“I felt very connected to the plight of the comfort women and a lot of the oppression of Korean women throughout history,” Lee said during a phone interview in early August. “I felt like it was still very much a part of me and my soul, and that the writing of Sunday Girl was sort of—I hate using this word, but it’s exactly how it felt— an exorcism. [I felt] that I needed to really connect with these voices in me of my ancestors who were never heard.”
Lee explained that throughout the process of researching, writing, editing and rewriting, she felt a sense of obligation to tell the story of these women whom history has continually tried to hush and erase.
“I felt a tremendous sense of calling, and I had a large perspective on things and, no matter what happened, no matter if I had to work on this novel for 30 years or 50 years, I would do it,” Lee said. “That’s how insistent I felt, weirdly enough.”
Far from a standard horror story filled with specters and hauntings, Sunday Girl is a modern gothic thriller. Written in dark and fluid prose, Lee tells the story of Jang-mee and Sybil, outsiders who find themselves searching Seoul for stories of their past, after abandoning their studies at the University of Chicago in lieu of one-way-tickets to their ancestral homeland.
Themes of personal and communal history and the interconnectedness of experience between people across generational lines weave throughout this novel by the first-time author. Lee’s book recalls the epical—not surprising, given the author’s academic background in Greek and Roman classics.
“My huge inspiration for Sunday Girl was the template of the epic, and the journey to the underworld and going back to find a part of your soul,” she said. “I was profoundly influenced by Greek tragedy and the notion of blood guilt, where someone does something way back in your ancestry, and the guilt is passed through the blood, until a figure like Orestes has to sacrifice himself and resolve that guilt for the lineage to go on.”
But the story of Jang-mee and Sybil is not quite like the stories of Orestes or Odysseus or Orpheus. Jang-mee is not attempting to enter the underworld to retrieve the soul of a beloved; instead, she is diving into the underbelly of Seoul, which pushes her to the limits in search of a ghost that, she believes, has the answers she has been seeking.
Jang-mee’s search throughout the novel echoes Lee’s personal sentiment that our experiences are not individualistic.
“Who we are as individuals is not just ‘we ourselves,’ as discreet bodies with one identity,” she explained. “If our ancestors have done something and gone through something, it’s going to influence us in our actions, in our present day. We are all connected, not only to history and our lineage, but the lineage of humanity. It’s through wounding we are all connected … as people, and that makes us more compassionate.”
Sunday Girl has been whirling and churning in Lee’s mind since 1991, but it wasn’t really until she left her “comfortable, coddled” place in academia that she was really able to do the kind of work she was passionate about.
A second-generation Korean American, raised in New York by her entrepreneur parents and cultivated at prestigious American universities (the University of Chicago and Columbia), Lee was well on her way to earning a Ph.D. in the classics. But while the dramas of the ancient Greeks and Romans inspired her, she began to feel “stifled” in her ivory tower.
Abandoning the world of pomp and circumstance, Lee has since received an MFA from New York University and begun focusing on her creative endeavors. Sunday Girl was the first publication in what appears to be a very promising career for the young novelist, who has become a frequent culture blogger with the Huffington Post.
Despite being a self-published book—Lee didn’t find a publisher and opted instead to pave her own road (it seems her parents’ entrepreneurial spirit has rubbed off)—Sunday Girl is creating quite a buzz with readers. The author, currently residing in London, is now in talks with publishers in South Korea to translate and publish her novel there.
She describes the act of writing it as one of healing. “Healing rifts and healing conflicts,” she said, “and not only for myself as a Korean American who never felt like I had a homeland … but healing for the comfort women, healing for the ancestors who never got a voice, who never had a say.”