Kim Sun-woo
Kim Sun-woo
Muja (The Dancer) Fourteen Years Old

Kim Sun-woo







Translated by Sam Cha





Shed your iron shoes and shake your bells of bronze sky high,
hemp smell, moon-close, wet hair drinks of wind –
sap flutters strand by strand. Girl, you have dug your well
deep in your body and from it you draw the water. Look, the red river overflows.
Throw away your gourd, it wheels and flows over the long dead moonlight’s
milkflower areola. Whiter than the white blood shed by the moon, night
full on the edge of the knife. Tear your wet linen and row
your soulboat. With the spirits of the young women inside your body.


And so this is an old story (a story about a very old today, it is).


That dancing child was born in a dragon year, lived in Masan since she was ten . . . The rumours were that they were taking the maidens, and on the twentieth day she hid in the cremation tent and heard it for the first time, the sound of a cremated belly bursting, the sound of bone burning . . . and the girl was fourteen . . .


. . . Father snatched up the kitchen knife but the gun barrel hit his forehead red first. Blood. As if it had been dyed with hollyhock. Mother cried: “Let her dress at least before you take her.” Swoon and hollyhock. Choking up. And torn. The brocade jacket smeared with red dye. Dragged out in my black skirt, I was fourteen . . .


Busan. Shimonoseki. Hiroshima . . . The military police turned us over to the army and left and then . . .


. . . and there was the day the actors came on tour for the troops with the smell of face powder coming off them in waves and they twirled their umbrellas and sang, they did, like a dream that didn’t end, and those little rounded umbrellas were so pretty, I dreamt that night of twirling umbrellas, I did, in the cremation tent filled with the smell of burning flesh like a thick white fog. A dream of twirling little round umbrellas jumping from one cadaver’s chest cavity to another . . .


At the base they gave the women names, they did, and mine was Muja [which means dancer] they pronounced it Maiko, though up till then I’d never danced.


And in Hiroshima I picked clementines and figs all day. When the soldiers poked at our backs with the ends of their guns, the yellow of the clementines dangled in my cravings for meat, and I’d retch . . .


. . . the ship came, they said. We were going as nurses and the name of the ship was Midomaru. The ship was very big and on it we even learned army songs from a white-whiskered grandpa of an officer. Like we were riding the waves with our hands on our hips, we shook the waves and sang, we did.


Parao of the South Pacific islands. Off to Parao, like the inside of the mouth of a burning animal. That child she was fourteen.





The full moon has risen, come out of the basket.
The body naked like the full moon. Under the moon, the moon greeting flower,
the evening primroses have bloomed.
And if you pick the moon greeting flowers and put them in a basket, the inside
of the basket will be a hell for eighty-four thousand. Shake your bronze bells
and cross the thresholds of water. The spirits of the girls
await you. Decapitate the flowers. In one flower throw your papa
and the flower shadow. In one flower throw your mama. Offer them
as food for the dead. Those children will chew them and swallow
and they will see the road for ghosts.


. . . where they dragged us was the comfort station behind the Koror Hospital
. . . and this is a story about long ago (a story about a very old today, it is).


Each room had a name and number pasted onto it and in Parao also
my name was Maiko. Maiko the dancer. With clothes ripped off.
Thrown into a narrow room. And it was: Dance, Maiko,
deeper than death. And I was fourteen . . .


. . . one two three four five six . . . from mouth and nose
and from down there, till the blood came exploding from every hole in my body . . .
Dance, Maiko. Paralysed all over I saw the Yellow Spring otherworld, I did.
The dark sky tearing black and the Yellow Spring water falling . . .


If you cross the river it’s the ghost road . . . Ancestors mine ancestors mine dead and gone ancestors mine grab my umbilical cord and hold on to it please. I touched the Yellow Springs and held on to the side of life.





The ghosts in the stones, they rise out of the stone tied to rock.
Look, moonlight shakes the ghost pole, and when the girls with their wild hair swim
to us on white silk milkrope clang, clang, clang, the sound of rock
breaking, look, they come cross the Western heavens between the gap of earth and sky
on a tightrope over hell look they shake their torches they cry and limp they come


. . . The young girls fell to the officers, Father! Father! When the old officers would throng the door of my room, Father! I shouted, I did, and then sometimes there’d be one who’d buckle his belt back on and turn and I’d walk the black knife’s edge of sleep and when I’d wake like a roof raked by lightning, my feet would hurt . . .


. . . Go ask your mum to do that! Oh Mother, I am sorry. The day a soldier wanted me to do something so unspeakably vile, I couldn’t hold back and screamed and fought back. My teeth broke and I got bruised all over and everywhere I was bruised. I had knots like poisonous snakes in tangled thorn grass and my body was ninety thousand leagues of hell . . . and some who saw this hell settled for just fondling my breasts and leaving . . .


. . . There was a lieutenant by the name of Yamamoto whose mother was a Joseon woman
and he spoke good Korean and sang a good “Arirang” . . . Yamamoto brought me a fork and I sharpened it. I meant to impale an officer I couldn’t stand with it, and die with him, but it didn’t go well. I got dragged off and beaten till my back burst . . . Yamamoto’s “Arirang” sang in my mouth like a red bird, it did . . .


. . . the Korean soldiers who’d been forced into service got us things like aspirin and on the medicine we’d forget that our legs were sore and that we were getting torn up down there . . . and sometimes we’d get assigned to troops on islands without women on sputtering little boats and if you get sent, it’s ten days . . .


. . . injection number 606, the baby prevention injection,
And if you told them it was really hard they’d give you a single sleeping pill each time, they did.
I was fourteen . . . (and so this is an old story),





The girl who dances swallows a peak of firewine. At the end of the ghost pole she hangs a ghostcatcher cloth full of blood and pus, look, the river of redblack petals trickling from the edge of her mouth. Look, the bits of flesh that have managed to survive insult, that have no memory of the blinding furrows. Catch this ghost naked. Ghost. Ghost. Ghost.

Catch it.


The war started about a year after we went to Pa-ra-o. After that there were twenty, thirty, men a day. On weekends the soldiers formed long lines didn’t even have time to take their clothes off took their belts off left them next to gun barrels and they’d unbutton their pants . . .


. . . Both thighs burst and trickled bloody pus. The medic came and swabbed out the wounds and put some gauze on them . . .


Recon planes. Fighter planes. Air raid. Recon planes. Fighter planes. Air raid . . .


Moonless nights when we’d get caught in an air raid on our way to an island we’d wait quiet as the dead with the boat engines off, bullets fire-raining down into the empty sea, and in the morning the ocean would be foaming crimson red . . .


Some of the older girls were hurt below and fought back, refusing to surrender their bodies and got dragged off to a cave, shot in the groin and breasts chopped off . . . Mieko and Yoshiko, names two older girls went by, died in those days . . .


. . . after I turned nineteen the bombing grew even worse. You’d go to sleep and there would be a high-ranking Japanese officer who had committed suicide. Even Yamamoto who had been kind to us, he pushed the hilt of his sword in the ground, fell on it and died even the soldiers who’d pounced on us died in the morning died in the night. It was near the war’s end.





The chilly moon rises over bare feet marked with the innumerable cuts of knives. You come to me splitting the linen you waver, dance on the water mud
on the small of your back, mud that flew here long ago and piled up a river of mud.
The wildflowers are in full bloom. They have pushed through the red, red scales of the water, they ring bronze bells, the girls who tread light so light at the stern of the soul boat.
Look, the gate of the moon opens, it swallows the rocks heavy with sin,
and the ones in the rocks cry out, look, it’s like a snake
has swallowed the white moon. Look, between heaven and earth, hell grows hot.
Heaven upon heaven sobs between the legs of the girls.
The basket you wove with your nakedness with nothing to hide,
the basket opens wide your open gate and all the male beasts
of the mountains have caught the scent
on this night when they swell with dead babies.


I came out of Parao. 1946. And so this is an old story,


It was the first day of the new year when I got home. My mother had drawn three bowls of water. She’d placed them on top of a big earthenware jar and she was bowing to them. Weeping, she’d been making offerings to my spirit because it was New Year’s Day,


and so this is a story about a very old today.


I’ve never spoken a word about anything that happened to me in Parao. Never in my whole life did I go to the baths with anyone. I was born in the year of the dragon, 1928, in Hikone City, I was, the name was Soon-ae, I lived in Masan the year I turned ten . . .


Author Notes:

– Parao is now called Palau.

– Elder Kang Soon-ae was a comfort woman (sex slave), a victim of the Japanese army. In 1993, the year she turned 65, she participated in a Wednesday demonstration, a gathering of former comfort women, and made a clean breast of her sorrow-filled life. She said it felt good, getting these stories off her chest, where they had been her entire life, and out into the open. In 2005, at the age of 78, she passed away.

– The gathered findings Forcibly Impressed Army ‘Comfort Women’ from Chosun, published by the Korean Society for Chongshindae Research, served as a reference.






– What did you look like before your mother was born?


I sent you off and because of you I hurt

you went before me because you worried about my hurt and you hurt

and so Emile*  – suffering around Yeonji for a thousand leagues

and so I hurt


I spring from a place where I am not

and so I hang from your clenched bronze hand

and you hang from my cold palm


I am shaped by the things that are not me

and so I love you who are shaped from what is not-you


Regard me regard me, while across the river a love full of tribulations blooms and fades

while the flowers, now acquainted with parting reach the graves, while the roots of the stars

close the ecliptic


Emile – O, sinews of the other self, mother and father

with ragged thighs



Translator’s note:
* Emile is an ancient Korean word meaning “mother”. Pronounced not like the French name but more along the lines of “Eh-meel-leh”. 





A long-necked dead branch of a quaking aspen has jumped

out of my body. I was small and barefoot, playing with summer light

like the strong pollen of pigweed, oblivious even to my underwear

getting wet. I’d reached this place with such difficulty, clinging

to the sweat glands near my mother’s follicles and meanwhile

mother was hoeing goosefoot, whiteman’s foot, water pepper,

all uprooted, tossed away from the cabbage patch on the ridge

around the field those sorrows, grown too thick to distribute,

bowed now and then in the jangling sunlight.


I pick up a dead branch and I look long into your stump,

the navel that cries from the centre of you. When I walk

into the navel where tears, grown mushy like well-soaked

grains of rice, have stuck one by one, Mother trembles far

away at the end of the waterfall. Why did Mother have to jump

from such a high place? They say she had growing in her belly

a single green sprout.


I see myself playing in the dirt of the old embankment,

picking out yellowed cabbage to dip in bean paste and eat,

the faint smell of mother’s milk wafting from goosefoot and whiteman’s foot

and water pepper, from the strange names of sundry weeds . . . Why did

the inside of the cabbage blanch so yellow while the weeds

were uprooted and thrown on the embankment? Why can’t a tree

grow another branch from the place where a dead branch has fallen?

The twilight that makes itself known without need for hard

questioning comes.


I no longer tell Mother to live a long, long time. On those

evenings when I pick up a dead branch I merely

think of things like a deep and bright cave, and the snake of disappointed

love inside it. When one dies after a long unrequited love, they say the snake

of disappointed love enters into the navel of the beloved and lives there,

and the fragrant snakes inside the stump and the green snake inside mother’s

belly twist together in a beautiful pattern like that snake, and I just gaze

calmly at it, I do, merely joyfully worrying if your navel might be too narrow

for me to enter and dwell also.



The first of the above poems was published in Banipal 43 – Celebrating Denys Johnson-Davies, Spring 2012 in the Guest Literature Korea feature