The language of justice

Donna Miscolta

September 27, 2017

There is a language of rape. The words differ depending on who’s speaking. There are the words used by the perpetrators. There are the words by the deniers and the words by the blamers. There are the words by the victims when they can manage to speak them. While all these words are part of the stories in M. Evelina Galang’s Lolas’ House: Filipino Women Living With War, it is the victims’ words that Galang rightly honors, giving them the pages they deserve. Lolas’ House is a collection of testimonies by seventeen of the more than one thousand Filipina women abducted and imprisoned as sex slaves, so-called “comfort women,” by the Japanese during World War II.

Lolas’ House is the result of a promise Galang made to the women when she first traveled to the Philippines to meet them in 1999. After eight weeks of engaging with the lolas through art, acting, writing, and protesting at the Japanese and American embassies, Galang had earned their trust — even their love — and also their expectations. As she readied to return to the United States, they asked when she would be back, when she would write their stories.

It took multiple trips to the Philippines and hours of interviews that required more hours of transcription and translation. It took the endurance of the lolas to relive their trauma in the telling and retelling of their stories. It took Galang’s devotion to their cause.

Galang had been warned on her arrival that other researchers had disappointed the lolas with their good but failed intentions. Galang vowed that her word was good and returned for four more summers. “I am committed to the fight,” she writes. “Laban! Laban! Laban!”

Galang is a Filipina-American whose family roots lie in a province an hour’s drive northwest from Manila. Yet she reminds herself that she is a “foreigner on these islands. Then again, I am not, considering that World War II did not affect only the lolas, but my lolas and lolo, too, my parents — and through inheritance and attitude, me too.” Her Filipino family has stories of fear and hiding. As does mine. As do many Filipino and Filipino-American families whose members survived the war. Her family’s pain is her pain. One way to ease the pain is to declare its existence, to make it and the need for justice public.

In Lolas’ House, the Filipina “comfort women” tell their own stories, reclaiming the selves they were stripped of in “comfort stations.” Galang puts the words “comfort women” and “comfort stations” in quotation marks to indicate the absurdity of such language to describe rape victims and the rape camps in which they were abused. It’s a common convention when referring to the 400,000 women taken in Korea, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and elsewhere by the Japanese during World War II — quotation marks as commentary on the language of rape used by the perpetrators.

At sixteen, Lola Cristita was abducted by the Japanese as she and her brother walked home from the market on the Visayan island of Leyte. She was held in a “comfort station” by the sea — a ten-foot-diameter, barbed-wire enclosure fishermen had made to store their fish. It was crammed with thirty abducted women and girls. The soldiers would come to the hut, bayonets drawn.

They’d say, “Okay suksok? Patay ka!”

Okay, suksok. Just like it sounds. Suksok. The interminable sound of rape. Okay to have sex with you?

. . . if not, patay ka. Or you’re dead.

Lola Cristita and others spoke openly of their rapes after a University of the Philippines professor submitted a report in 1992 to Cory Aquino’s Presidential Commission on Human Rights, declaring that no large-scale abductions of Filipina women occurred. It’s the language of rape by the deniers: it didn’t happen, not enough evidence. To prove him wrong, over a dozen women’s organizations banded together to create a task force, eventually named LILA Pilipina, which urged Filipina “comfort women” to come forward.

In 1993, the women filed a lawsuit at Tokyo District Court of Japan. The suit and its demands — formal apology, compensation for their suffering, and documentation in official histories — were denied by the Japanese courts. But the fight continues.

The women gather at Lolas’ House, the offices of LILA Pilipina, to support each other and to plan strategies in their campaign for justice. By the time they came forward with their stories, the women had grown old, thus the name “lolas,” the Tagalog word for “grannies.”

For decades, they kept their trauma secret. There was the shame and stain put upon them by their own families and neighbors. Galang writes, “And when some of the women returned to their homes, the doors shut in their faces. The mothers spoke through cracks in the bamboo, old them to go to the city, to live with another family, to carry on without them.” They were taunted as Tira ng Hapones, “Japanese leftovers.”

When Lola Narcisa was contemplating coming forward with her story, her husband warned her against it. He told her, “What will your children think? That you were a prostitute?”

The language of rape that blames the victim is often silence. Here’s part of Lola Cristita’s testimony:

In 1945, I met a man and we were planning to get married. I was pregnant five months when he found I was raped by the Japanese soldiers. He didn’t understand. He left me without a word.

Lola Catalina offers a similar testimony. After the Japanese left, she was found by guerillas who took her to the hospital, where she stayed for a month. The guerillas found her husband and son in the mountains and brought them to her. “I waited for him to embrace me but he did not.”

Her husband told her he thought she had died. “My mister took me home,” she said, “but he did not forgive me.”

Galang provides the testimonies of the lolas in their own words, giving voice to the victims, giving them ownership over the language of rape. But it’s not just a matter of finding the right words to express the horror of what happened to them; it’s also a matter of finding the right language.

The lolas begin their story in English. When the Japanese attackers appear, “Kura, kura” she slips into Tagalog, assigns made up words for the Japanese soldiers. Often the lola will slip into Visayan, Kapampangan, Ilocano and some will speak in a tribal tongue — Waray for example. Some will mix the languages up. The crying swallows much of the story. Then there are moments when she reveals the scars.

When the lolas cannot say rape, they say "ginamit nil ako." "They used me." Lola Violeta recalled, “They did like that to me. You know — day and night — they did like that to me.”

The testimonies are unrelenting in their horror, but there is no turning away. The reader is compelled to give each testimony its due. It’s as if the promise Galang made to the lolas to document their stories obliges us to attend to them deeply and thoroughly, to live the horror alongside them.

Galang gives us some relief from the devastation by interspersing the testimonies with descriptions of the traffic-clogged streets of Manila, the lushness of the provinces, the logistics of her research, a visit to her own relatives (living and dead) in nearby Macabebe, and the young Filipina-Americans she has brought with her to help on the project. These bits of narrative are not just respites from the ugliness of the lolas’ suffering, they give further dimension to the book. They connect the lolas’ once-hidden past to the physical surroundings — the grasses, the sand, the rivers, the huts — which have absorbed the stories. They give context to the present struggle for justice for the lolas. They reflect Galang’s personal relationship to these stories.

Galang writes, “Sixteen stories and eight months later, my body rebels.” She was assailed by fever and vomiting for two weeks. “This is what it’s like to hold secrets in the vessel of the heart, in the pores of the skin, in the limbs of the body.”

The stories of the lolas are a part of her. When she and one of the young Filipina-Americans first interviewed the lolas, they listened to story after story for fourteen hours. The experience seemingly emptied them emotionally and physically, but Lola Regina observed the opposite. She remarked, “The stories have entered their bodies.”

They enter the reader’s as well. It’s what they’re meant to do. It’s why Galang made this book.

Books in this review:
  • Lolas' House
    by M. Evelina Galang
    Northwestern University Press
    September 15, 2017
    280 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Donna Miscolta is the author of the story collection Hola and Goodbye (Carolina Wren Press, 2016) and the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Follow her on Facebook or visit her website.

Follow Donna Miscolta on Twitter: @DonnaMiscolta

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