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[Essay] The Backmasking Historian

by Jang Soohee March 10, 2022

Kim Soom

Kim Soom has published thirteen novels, most recently When Has a Soldier Wanted to Be an Angel? (2018) and Sublime is Looking Inward (2018), the third and fourth novels in her Comfort Women series, and six short story collections. She has received the Yi Sang Literary Award, Hyundae Literary Award, Daesan Literary Award, Heo Gyun Literary Award, and the Tong-ni Literature Prize. One Left (2016), the first novel in her Comfort Woman series, was translated and published in Japan in 2018. Her story “Divorce” is out from Strangers Press, UK as part of their Yeoyu Korean Literature series (2019)

My mother never told me about whales. She never told me about camels, giraffes, or elephants either. She didn’t tell me about ships. If I hated my mother, perhaps it was because she never told me any stories about ships.

—“The Ulsan Period: Spirit and Fire”

The above passage in Kim Soom’s autobiographical essay “The Ulsan Period: Spirit and Fire” (Munye Joongang Spring 2007) feels rather displaced from the rest of the piece. It crops up among her questions about why her father, who used to work at a shipyard, left Ulsan and how the heavy industry company he used to work for was able to grow into the world’s largest shipbuilding powerhouse even without her hardworking father, and her explanation of the process in which over two hundred blocks are assembled in fire to build a ship. To trace the whereabouts of her mother’s stories—the stories of whales, camels, giraffes, and elephants—that disappeared because they were foreign to her father’s shipyard, made up of iron, water, and fire, we need to walk into the shipyard of Kim Soom’s mind. 

In Cheol (Iron), which tells the story of shipyard workers, all the men have a wife in the village. Unmarried men who come to work at the shipyard wish to marry a village girl. However, no worker’s wife is ever registered as a shipyard worker. Only the sons can become the next generation of workers in the shipyard, and so all the villagers wish for a son. Fathers are the only ones who can seek and receive work, and it is also only the working fathers that the shipyard deprives of or alienates from work. In Cheol, a worker is someone who has been officially granted work or whose work is acknowledged. They are not workers of an era in which labor itself was regarded as great, nor workers who are considered great because of their labor. Instead, they are workers of an era in which one could “become a great worker” only “when the iron ship is completed.” But it is still the wives who manage the day-to-day lives. It is also the wives’ responsibility to accept the loss of employment of their husbands and react materially—by changing the type of side dishes at meals and such. 

Fathers can be registered with the shipyard as workers and are allowed to have work. Therefore, they can also be deprived of the work they have. They can also look forward to the day the “iron ship is completed” and they “become great workers.” However, mothers cannot become workers registered with the shipyard and therefore are denied the hope of becoming great workers from the outset; they have no labor to be deprived of from the beginning. What Kim Soom says about her mother—how she “hated” her mother who “didn’t tell her any stories” in the aforementioned essay—is not placed in the fore the way she talks about her “father’s labor” because she has no choice but to draw out words this way; because nothing about mothers can be officially deprived or alienated from them. Kim Soom has been writing about people who are already deprived. If fiction takes on the task of revealing the insidious desires and the excluded and alienated things that are invisible in reality, Kim’s works, which show the state and circumstance of those desires and things, faithfully perform that task.

Empty Spaces in Line Breaks 

While the father is granted work and goes to the shipyard of water, fire, and iron, the mother is not granted work and is even alienated from the deprivation of work. Then how should this story of alienation from the outset be written? The father’s story is assembled by putting together two hundred blocks of iron with water and fire, but whales, camels, giraffes, and elephants cannot be assembled. That is why Kim Soom’s stories are not constructed by stacking paragraphs that resemble well-honed blocks but are constantly unraveled into sentences, lines, and phrases. 

The repetition of disconnect not only within a single work but also between different works makes Kim Soom’s fiction read like poetry. Just as poems have breaks between stanzas, her novel creates empty spaces through line breaks. Kim’s attempt to “reach a little closer to [her] desire to write poetry,”which Kim mentions herself, is also a way to communicate the language and history of women.

1  Kim Soom, “Author’s Note,” Baekchideul (Idiots), Random House Korea, 2006.

One Left was an attempt to write women’s history by attaching footnotes to the testimonies of the victims of the Japanese military sex slavery, or “comfort women,” in the novel. In the dominant structure inherent in everyday language, women are unable to make the language their own, as the language is the dominant structure itself. This is the reason that many women’s experiences are shaped in the language of the perpetrators. The records are written in the perpetrators’ language.

The Japanese military comfort women who do not know how to read or write in Kim Soom’s Heureuneun pyeonji (Flowing letters) write with their fingers on flowing water by the river to tell their experiences and history. This was the women’s way of writing history that could communicate their experiences without having to learn the language and grammar of the perpetrators and pass them on to the places where the river reaches. And a comfort station was a place where Japanese-speaking soldiers, a Chinese-speaking workman, and Korean-speaking women crossed paths in violence without being able to communicate with each other.

Suddenly the door opens and a soldier pokes in his head.

“Eiko, I’m here.” 

He enters the room while pulling down his pants but suddenly pauses and says, “You’re not Eiko. Who are you?”

“Eiko’s dead,” I say, glaring at his face.

“Where is Eiko?”

“You killed her.”

“Did she go somewhere else?”

You guys killed her. Don’t you see the blood on my hands? Can’t you see the bloodied rag I used to wipe her blood?”

But even before I finish speaking, he shuts the door in a huff.2

The Japanese soldier speaks, but his words are not communicated to the comfort woman, and neither can the comfort woman communicate her words and intentions to the soldier. Violence is perpetrated in a space where words cannot be understood between people, and the women’s pain cannot be communicated to the outside. Kim Soom’s task of retrieving the words and stories of the Japanese military comfort women from this system of violence is about confronting the fact that the people of a nation, patriarchy, and colonialism are woven together in the grammar and language of our daily lives. When the language of this tightly-knit system, the language of the perpetrators, is removed, the narrative becomes a form of poetry. It is for this reason that Kim Soom’s “testimony novels” do not follow the traditional form of fiction. 

The Backmasking Historian

Backmasking in music is a recording technique in which sounds or voices are recorded backward onto a track that is meant to be played forward. It involves the reversal and rearrangement of units of phonemes, not syllables.3 The result is a collection of completely new arrangement of phonemes, which is not delivered as an accurate, unified sound. In this sense, the way Kim Soom writes fiction is similar to the backmasking technique—her works pick up the histories of people who did not have a voice, were not recorded, and as a result, even had their existence questioned in the modern history that was written clearly in a familiar grammar. By reversing the direction of modern history and reproducing the same sounds backward, those histories can be rewritten. 

Therefore, what Kim Soom has been doing from her initial works—re-recording the history of the Japanese military comfort women using their testimonies, criticizing the oppressive patriarchal system, and restoring fragmented memories and records—is no different from backmasking history.

2. Kim Soom, Heureuneun pyeonji (Flowing letters), p. 271.

3. Park So-jin, “A Study on the Correlation between Music and Subconsciousness: Based on Backmasking of Music,” MA thesis, Sangmyung University, 2012, p. 27.

Translated by Stella Kim

Jang Soohee

Literary Critic

Dong-A University 

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