During World War II, an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 women across Asia were kidnapped by Japanese soldiers and kept as sex slaves. They became known as “comfort women,” and some were detained for up three years. For decades, comfort women have demanded an official Japanese apology and reparations. Apologies have been vague and reparations limited.
In “Lolas’ House: Filipino Women Living with War,” author M. Evelina Galang coordinates with activist group LILA Pilipina to tell first-person accounts of 16 Filipino comfort women. Hear Galang talk about her book with Chicago-based author Almira Astudillo Gilles at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 8 at Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark St.
These are important stories that need to be told, but they are not easy to stomach. They involve girls as young as 13, entire families murdered and survivors returning home to husbands and families who, in some cases, shun them. The raw first-person accounts are by far the strongest pieces of the book.
The women are all known as lolas, which, directly translated, means grandmothers and is a term of respect for elder women. The lolas’ wartime accounts are interspersed with other narratives from Galang, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines. Galang returned to her family’s homeland on various occasions between 1999 and 2007 to collect the lolas’ stories and to support their cause.The book becomes a patchwork of Galang’s own story of trying to find her identity as a Filipino-American, her work collecting the lolas’ stories and her processing of their trauma, as well as fragments from the lolas’ lives as old women and their continued work as activists.
Now in their 70s and 80s, many of the lolas attend political events as protesters demanding a Japanese apology and urging their own country to take actions toward social justice. What exactly they are protesting is left vague. For instance, Galang writes that together she and the lolas protested the actions of the ASEAN Summit in 1999, but she doesn’t explain what the summit is or the lolas’ demands.
“Lolas’ House” tries to do too much at once, but as Galang’s near 20-year project, I can understand why she attempts to take on as much as she does. The lolas are Galang’s identity, her grandmothers, and her mission, and “Lola’s House” really is about completing that mission. When one of the lolas dies, Galang dreams about her:
“In my dreams, she is smiling at me, looking at me as if she hasn’t seen me for years … And then I ask her, how are you?
And she says, good, waiting.
I say, what are you waiting for?
For you to write the story.
I’m trying, I tell her. Are you still crying?
Not for me, for the world. We need to tell the story so the Japanese can heal. So everyone can heal.“
The book is a reminder that it is difficult to heal without airing your story of pain and survival, and those stories are not simple. They aren’t just accounts of the events.
“When the lolas tell their story, they do not say, ‘They raped us.’ They say, ‘Ginamit nila kami.’ They say, ‘Ginamit nimal ako.’ They used me.
They took their bodies against their will. They used them. They raped them. Sometimes they say, ‘Binababoy nila kami.’ They made pigs of us. Sometimes the translation of the words does not hold the energy of the action. The sentiment is lost. The translation, lost.
The words cannot stand on their own. They must sit in a nest of context. They must be explained in action. In story. In cultures we enter only through character.”
Each of Galang’s narratives tells the story of who the person was and who they became, their changing values and relationships. They become other people’s stories, as well. Galang explains that she took on the lolas’ pain into her own body. It became her pain, as well.
To read someone’s story is to risk assuming their pain, but you also have the honor of being a part of their healing.
(Author photo by Jenny Abreu)