The Necessity of Reading that Hurts

Sad Peninsula, by Mark Sampson, (Dundurn), 352 pages

Mark Sampson’s novel Sad Peninsula is a painful read, not because of any failings on his part, but because of the subject the novel deals with: rape and sexual violence. The chapters alternate between past and present. In the past, we follow the story of a Korean girl, Eun-young, abducted by the Japanese to serve as a “comfort woman” during World War II. In the present we move among the community of expatriate ESL teachers in Korea. Within this (primarily male) community status is accorded based on sexual conquests—who can seduce and sleep with the most Korean women? There are exceptions, one of whom is Michael, who falls in love with a Korean woman and is committed to understanding and learning to function in Korean society.

While this is a painful novel to read, it is also a very worthwhile read. The history of the “comfort women” needs to be told and retold precisely because it is a painful history, the sort that societies attempt to wish away through forgetting. Eun-young, the former comfort woman, describes her experience tersely: she was raped thirty-five times a day for two years. At the war’s end, she finds herself on the periphery of society because of what’s perceived as her participation in sexual activity, never mind that Eun-young never consented to this endless barrage of abuse.

The author, who lived in Seoul from 2003 to 2005 describes in the foreword  the “many young men in the expatriate teaching community who behaved in ways they wouldn’t back in their home countries…. While most of these [sexual] interactions were, technically, consensual, there was an aspect to the way these young women were seen and treated by the teachers, that awakened something in my imagination.” That something was the parallels between this predatory present-day activity and the story of the comfort women, whom he didn’t begin to learn about until after his return to his home country, Canada.

In many ways it seems audacious for a man—and a Canadian man at that—to try to represent the experiences of the comfort women. On the other hand, this kind of cross-cultural understanding, the placing of one’s self into the experiences of others, is essential to a world in which sexual violence may someday be eradicated. Within the novel, Sampson seems to be acknowledging the freighted nature of the task he is undertaking by showing his central present-day character, Michael, researching the comfort women’s lives despite objections from Koreans. Michael’s behavior is seen as  both genuine and insensitive, which is just how readers might view Sampson’s fiction.

As I said at the start, this book is a painful read; however, the pain of this reading is what makes the reading necessary. If the reader feels uneasy about this fictionalized treatment of the subject, there are a number of non-fictional resources to turn to, many of which Sampson lists in a substantial afterword. By reading both fiction and non-fiction accounts the reader will have an opportunity to understand this horrible moment in history (and horrible moments in the present day) both intellectually and emotionally.