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Comfort in Two Acts

A Filipino and a Chinese girl, both comfort women, find friendship in a piece of critical fabulation

This essay is part of Transpacific Literary Project’s monthly column, with art by Mit Jai Inn.

Act One

Researchers studying the field of epigenetics have found that intergenerational trauma can manifest in the body of descendants, changing how genes function. In this way, historical trauma becomes a very real present. But for those of us who are the children of reticent Asian immigrants, we know little and hear less about that historical trauma. How do we excavate the biography of our ancestors, especially when violence is involved? And how do we redress that violence without recreating it in the narrative? 

Saidiya Hartman asks such questions in her 2008 essay, “Venus in Two Acts,” in which she interrogates the archive’s depiction of African lives during the Middle Passage—a portrayal confined to the context of their capture, enslavement, and deaths, told from the point of view of their captors and killers. Hartman discusses attempting to reconstruct these lives beyond the violence enacted upon them when such accounts are scarce. What emerges is critical fabulation, a method that combines the archive’s contents and the subjunctive mood. 

“Critical fabulation” takes its name from the critical reading of the archive and the act of fabulation, or invention, of a story—which is, in this case, the story presented by the archive. By using the subjunctive mood, a grammatical mood that expresses wishes, suggestions, demands, or desires, Hartman can take the archive’s account and imagine what could have been, “re-presenting,” as she describes, the account with a different sequence of events and from a different point of view. By simultaneously recognizing the limits of the archive and using the archive as a foundation for imagination, Hartman can “tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling.” 

In discussing critical fabulation, we must reemphasize that Hartman conceived this theory in relation to African narratives of captivity and enslavement. Hartman’s work has been cited as part of the body of Afropessimism, a critical theory that posits anti-Blackness and Black suffering as the framework upon which human society was built on. In Afropessimism, the social and civic deaths that define the subjugation endured by Black people—and which continue to affect the Black experience—contribute to a narrative aporia, or a logical contradiction, within other movements that necessitate Black participation but ultimately exclude Black liberation. We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that immigrant and postcolonial struggles are not the same as Black struggles. 

For “Comfort in Two Acts,” we turned to critical fabulation to imagine an interaction between two comfort women during World War II. From 1931 to 1945, the Japanese government, along with the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, coerced, abducted, and sexually enslaved hundreds of thousands of women and girls. These women and girls were as young as ten years old and were from Japanese-occupied countries and territories, including the Philippines, Malaysia, East Timor, Korea, China, Taiwan, and Indonesia. Comfort women, an English translation of the Japanese euphemism “ianfu”—so named for the sexual “comfort” that they were forced to provide to Japanese military personnel—were scattered in military comfort stations, or ianjo, across these countries and territories. These comfort stations were heavily guarded and isolated, ensuring that escape would be unlikely.

Less than 30 percent of comfort women survived the end of World War II. Their causes of death included deplorable living conditions, poor medical treatment, violence, abuse, proximity to the frontlines, and, upon Japan’s surrender, abandonment, murder, and forced suicides. And of that 30 percent, fewer still were able to cope with the lasting effects of the physical trauma, psychological trauma, and shame that they experienced upon their return home.

Nearly eighty years have passed since the end of that war; over ninety since the Japanese government first set up comfort stations. Despite the successful prosecution of Japanese military officers and comfort station operators during the Batavia Trials of 1946, in which they were convicted for the war crime of enforced prostitution against Dutch women, there is, disappointingly, a lack of justice for the other surviving comfort women. Although several former Japanese-occupied countries have brought lawsuits against the Japanese government—with demands of an official apology and compensation—a number of these lawsuits are still ongoing decades after their first filing, while others have been dismissed by the Japanese government, citing insufficient evidence. 

After Japanese war crime historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi uncovered documents proving the government’s role in maintaining comfort stations for its military in 1992, the Japanese government pivoted from insufficient evidence to sovereign immunity as the new basis of dismissal for these suits. Under international law, the principle of sovereign immunity dictates that sovereign states have no authority to use their own courts to sue other sovereign states without the latter’s consent; thus, the Japanese government’s refusal to participate renders the suits ineffective. Comparatively, the United States has a Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), which stipulates that cases in commercial activities are an exception from sovereign immunity. In a class action lawsuit filed against Japan by fifteen comfort women through the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the court granted Japan’s motion for dismissal due to the argument that sexual slavery did not qualify as a commercial activity.

The history of comfort women and their stories continue to make headlines. These include articles about the dismissal of lawsuits, the removal of statues and memorials dedicated to them amidst international political pressures, and the continued denial of Japan’s role in the comfort women system. And the dwindling numbers: how the last of the women are dying, having never seen justice served on their behalf

In “Comfort in Two Acts,” we return to the women. We are lucky that some of the survivors have published their own stories, and that there are online resources and organizations dedicated to maintaining a record of their history. These sources, along with the survivors’ personal accounts, have helped shape our own process of critical fabulation as we imagine the interactions that may have occurred between them during their enslavement. 

We watch Pangatlong Babae and Èr Gū’niáng—Woman Number Three and Woman Number Two, respectively—as they navigate their first and only meeting in an unnamed comfort station, where they reveal their identities to one another—a simple freedom comfort women were deprived of as a part of their enslavement. They traverse the language barriers and take advantage of what little time they have left together to narrate the stories of their lives—a simultaneous act of unburdening and receiving—before making the joint decision to jump into a well, holding hands. Amid this fate, we imagine the friendships that might have been, and the comfort that the women and girls might have found in one another in their attempts to survive.


Picture them: The relics of two girls, one cradling the other, plundered innocents; a sailor caught sight of them and later said they were friends. Two world-less girls found a country in each other’s arms. Beside the defeat and the terror, there would be this too: the glimpse of beauty, the instant of possibility. 

Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts”

She wonders if her eyes have soured into a milky blue. She has spent so long in this dark sliver of a room— alone except for when the soldiers pay for her company. She is starting to forget about sunlight. How it burns an orange-red on the backs of her eyelids, how it feels when it meets her skin. They boarded up the windows. Less chances for them to wriggle out. Layers of boards. Not a single slat for her to stretch a fingertip through and feel the daylight. 

She does not know how long it has been since she was taken from her hometown. She does not know where she is. She had been knocked unconscious, and when she woke, she was blindfolded, rattling around in a wagon filled with the homesick cries of other women. They took away her name and called her Èr Gū’niáng. Èr Gū’niáng spends her days in the station, floating between tasks for the soldiers: mending, washing, cleaning. An hour on her back for three yen, a night for ten. She counts. Yī, èr, sān, sì. She counts and tallies and thinks that enough seconds have passed that her brother must be twelve now. He was freshly eleven when she was taken. 

She hears the door unlock and she braces herself. Three yen or ten? A pair of hands push another woman into the room before quickly shutting the door. Another number on their menu with no other room to go to.

Pangatlong Babae (Number Three)

After being shoved into the room, she looks around and sees the other woman, who remains on the floor. Pangatlong Babae looks at the door, looks at the sitting woman, and walks toward her. She studies the sitting woman’s face to make sure that she’s not misremembering her own sister’s face. She says, “Isa?” The sitting woman doesn’t react. “Isa? Nasaan si Isa? Nakita mo ba siya?”

Frantic, now: “Si Isa. Isa! Isabela! Ang kapatid ko. Ang bunsong kapatid ko.” When the sitting woman shakes her head, only repeats, “Isa,” Pangatlong Babae stands up, puts a hand, palm down, to her waist, like she’s measuring something. “I-SA,” she says, hitting the side of her waist with each syllable. Again, the sitting woman shakes her head. Pangatlong Babae cradles an empty space with her arms, shakes her head when the sitting woman puts her hand on her own stomach. “Hindi. Hindi ako buntis. Hinahanap ko ang kapatid ko. Si Isa. Isabela. Bunso namin.” 

Realizing, for the first time, that they don’t understand each other, Pangatlong Babae says, “Ako si Maria.” She says, “Pilipino ako.” She places her hand on her chest, says, “Ako si Maria de los Reyes. Taga Pilipinas ako. Pilipinas.” 

Pangatlong Babae says again, “Ang pangalan ko ay Maria.” She’s frantic. “Maria de los Reyes. Ate ako ni Isa—” She kneels, grabs the sitting woman’s hands and says, “Hindi ako pii; hindi ako preso; hindi ako ‘pangatlong babae.’ Ako ay labintatlong taong gulang. Anak ako ni Manuela; anak ako ni Alejandro. Ate ako ni Isabela. Nais kong magkolehiyo sa Unibersidad ng Pilipinas. Nais kong magpakasal. Nais kong magkaroon ng mga anak. Maraming mga anak.”  

“Anong pangalan mo? Ilang taon ka? Nasaan ang pamilya mo?”

Èr Gū’niáng (Number Two)

Lately, she has been living in a world of silence, punctuated by the scrubbing of dirty clothes; the small cry when a needle pricks a woman’s hand during mending hours; and of course, the rhythmic riot of blood while the men coo, pii, pii, pii—

She has weathered whole tragedies in silence, and then a rush of words, pulling her into an undertow of narrative that she bù zhīdào, bù míngbái. The other woman uses gestures, mimes rocking a babe, and so Èr Gū’niáng pats the concave space where her belly once was, asks if she’s with háizi. She wishes she understood. If she could, she’d tell her what the women had taught her when she first came: how to lance an infection, how to ask for opium, how to weaponize intimacy. 

Pilipinas, the woman keeps on repeating. “Pilipinas,” Èr Gū’niáng repeats dumbly. Recognition dawns behind her eyes. “Fēilǜbīn,” she says softly, “Fēilǜbīn?” 

The woman—no, girl, yātou, she can see it now, that presence of pre-adolescence everywhere in her—grabs her hands. It has been so long since someone touched her without ill intent. The kindness in the gesture announces itself like thirst. Her throat is dry. 

“Wǒ bùshì Èr Gū’niáng. Yě bùshì wèi’ān fù. Wǒ de míngzì shì Wáng Xià Huā. Wáng Xià Huā,” she repeats her name, the words feeling hard on her tongue. “Wǒ shíliù suì. Wǒ yǒu yīgè dìdì. Tā de míngzì shì Wáng Jūn. Tā xiànzài shí’èr suì. Wǒ hěn xiǎng tā. Wǒ shì dōngběi rén. Wǒ shì cóng dōngběi bèi bǎngjià de. Dōngběi hěn lěng. Fēilǜbīn lěng ma?”

On the floor, the women—no, the girls—look at each other. Their hands have become intertwined; with every revelation, every life story, one had squeezed the other’s until their fingers became numb. 

They are lightheaded, feverish from talking. They have never spoken this much since they got here, and each is ecstatic at having found the other. Maria de los Reyes smiles and Wáng Xià Huā does the same; Wáng Xià Huā laughs and Maria de los Reyes does the same. It goes like this for a while; no more counting, no more bracing. Then, they hear the door unlock. They hear its hinges creak—

Out they go, no time even to blink, to adjust their nocturnal eyes to the searing light of winter. A pair of hands, surprised, lunged forward—frenzied attempts to grab at their bodies, their clothes. To take them back into that room or perhaps to another, where punishment would be waiting for their insolence. Too late. They are tearing across the foreign landscape, laughs ripping out of their girlish throats, followed by a shush from the other that dissolves into more laughs—their joy a shared language. Behind them booms the sound of rifles, the men’s metal frustration whizzing by them. No mind, because up ahead the well, the balon, the shuǐjǐng appears, presents itself like a sanctuary, and they are nodding yes, yes, yes and launching themselves without hesitation down to the moment where death is suspended—

Act Two

Forgive us for the elementary Chinese and Tagalog in our textual experiment. We are children of the diaspora. Our mother tongues have been lost to us, now a remnant of a remnant, a ghost of a ghost in our throats. Like the language of historical trauma, it is not native to us, but perhaps lies within us: a code switch in our genetic makeup. It is our parents’ language. Our grandparents’ language. Nonetheless, we wade into its brutal words. 

Ours is not a new project. We are not intrepid, windburnt pioneers approaching this frontier of history and hybridity, this art form of palimpsest and pastiche. We come from a long line of other Asian female scholars and writers. In particular, we think of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée (Tanam Press, 1982) and Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony (Wave Books, 2020). 

In Dictée, Cha—through a piecemeal polyvocal and multimedia form that echoes and resists easy narrative contextualization—wrestles with the same questions of documentary, historical trauma, and spectator violence that Hartman raises. Musing about a Japanese act of atrocity in Suwon in 1907, cited from The Tragedy of Korea, Cha writes: 

Unfathomable the words, the terminology: enemy, atrocities, conquest, betrayal, invasion, destruction. They exist only in the larger perception of History’s recording, that affirmed, admittedly and unmistakably, one enemy nation has disregarded the humanity of another. Not physical enough. Not to the very flesh and bone, to the core, to the mark. 

Choi in DMZ Colony echoes Cha’s language, creating a forty-year dialogue between the two women, one dead, one alive: “The language of capture, torture, and massacre is difficult to decipher. It’s practically a foreign language.” Indeed, DMZ Colony as a project reflects and converses with Cha’s project, employing a collage of oral history, theory, memoir, illustrations, and photographs with an emphasis on translation as a mode of writing. Perhaps this similarity is not a coincidence. In a 2020 interview with Words Without Borders, Choi conceives of the “translator as an incubator” with the work living inside the body—changing and developing before hatching—not unlike “the voices of the dead that are channeled through the vocal cords of a shaman.” We, too, are channeling and invoking the work of the scholars, writers, and activists that came before us: a ritual of recall and response, an uncanny mirroring.

Translation, Choi says in the same interview, is a “doubled act.” Not a parroting, but a duplicative device for resistance. Choi articulates this idea in DMZ Colony in her conception of “mirror words”: 

I obsess about “order words that are given in our society” . . . Order words compel division, war, and obedience around the world. But other words are possible. Translation as an anti-neocolonial mode can create other words. I call mine mirror words. Mirror words are meant to compel disobedience, resistance. Mirror words defy neocolonial borders, blockades. 

She elaborates on this theory in her 2020 pamphlet, Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020), whose very title is a set of mirror words: the addition of “anti-neocolonial” radically shifts the meaning of the original sentence, transmuting it into something new. 

We propose a new lens of understanding: that critical fabulation is a mode of translation. An anti-neocolonial mode. We use the term neocolonial rather than postcolonial, because we are not post colonialism; it has only shapeshifted, taken new forms and names. We live in the seat of the neocolonizer: the United States of America. Right now, the colonizer is, in the words of Choi, “bombing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Libya” and its “Special Operations forces carry out countless missions on a daily basis in 135 nations.” Even now, the United States pledges billions in funds and weapons to Israel, condoning Israel’s war crimes and its recent killing of 11,078 Palestinians and the displacement of 1.7 million, as latest numbers show. History, like narrative, repeats, echoes. 

We use a doubled polyvocal narrative to translate our ancestors’ language for the atrocity they lived through. We transmute the silences of history’s archive into narrative, fleshing out the lives of the colonized, enslaved, and erased: the subaltern. As in the tradition of critical fabulation, we examine the space after the two women’s “social deaths” up to their “corporeal deaths.” Hartman borrows the notion of “social death” from sociologist Orlando Patterson, who coined it in his Slavery and Social Death (Harvard University Press, 1982); Patterson defines it as a violent uprooting and alienation from society, in which the slave is stripped of their identity and dehumanized. In this sliver of space we have carved out between their two deaths, we allow our subalterns to speak, to be named, to experience joy, connection, and a corporeal death on their own terms—together. This is not an act of redemption but an act of transcription and translation, repetition and relation. 

We hope it is not a fruitless act. We do not wish “to confess to relive the same folly,” to borrow from Cha. We think of the epithet from the section “The Orphans” in Choi’s  DMZ Colony from Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation (University of Michigan Press, 1997), translated by Betsy Wing: “No imagination helps avert destitution in reality, none can oppose oppressions or sustain those who ‘withstand’ in body or spirit. But imagination changes mentalities, however slowly it may go about this.” We hold up a mirror. In one mirror, the yawning chasm of a silenced history. In the other, our rendition. Like two mirrors facing one another, the reflections duplicate, a line of double after double, doubles of a double—the possibilities infinite.