Novel beginnings: MA Creative Writing graduate Mary Lynn Bracht makes her literary debut

Mary Lynn Bracht discusses the impact of Birkbeck’s MA Creative Writing in the publication of her first novel, White Chrysanthemum, after submitting the first five chapters as her dissertation.

Photo credit: Tim Hall photography

There are survivors of WWII alive today who are still protesting war crimes committed against them over seventy years ago. They are Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery in military brothels by Japanese soldiers and euphemistically called ‘comfort women’, which means ‘prostitutes’ in Japanese. These women prefer to call themselves ‘halmoni’, meaning ‘grandmothers’, which is a deeply respected position in Korean society; one that was denied to most of them because of their captivity. The first ‘comfort woman’, Kim Hak-Sun, came forward in 1991 to testify what she endured during WWII. Over 200,000 women and girls were enslaved, but less than 260 were registered with the Korean government.  Over twenty years after Kim’s testimony, the grandmothers’ plight for reparations, recognition and dignity were still largely unanswered. This injustice and their stories affected me deeply; moreso because these women were disappearing – dying from illness and old age.

In 2014 I wrote a short story about a young girl, Hana, who is kidnapped by a Japanese soldier and sent to a military brothel in Manchuria. The story, called Escaping Time, followed her as she struggled with the decision to attempt an escape, even though being caught would mean death. I submitted the story to my writing workshop module for the MA in Creative Writing programme at Birkbeck, University of London, and my course tutor, Courttia Newland, encouraged me to continue working on the story. It was subsequently published in the Mechanics’ Institute Review Anthology, and I wrote the first five chapters of the novel it would become that summer as my MA dissertation. After reading the story in the Anthology, an agent contacted me and I signed with her before the year ended.

Support: that is what a new writer needs most when starting out in this long and lonely profession. The writing programme at Birkbeck introduced me to so many wonderful writers who, like me, aspired to a literary career. I learned many valuable lessons about writing, reading, critiquing, and most of all, supporting one another. Who else but a fellow writer knows just how difficult it is to write? Writing is both joyful and insufferable, like many other professions out there. But a writer wields a powerful tool – words. Words are the vehicle for transferring thoughts from one mind to the next, and they can mean the difference between being labelled forever in history as prostitute or grandmother. The ability to define themselves in their own words – that is what the grandmothers are still fighting for today, and that is why I chose to write about them.

With the support of my agent, fellow writers, and family, I finished my novel, White Chrysanthemum, in time for the London Book Fair in 2016, and it was sold by my amazing agent, Rowan Lawton at Furniss Lawton Agency, to my wonderful editors Tara Singh Carlson at Putnam US and Becky Hardie at Chatto & Windus UK, as well as to 16 international publishers.

White Chrysanthemum will be published in January 2018 and can be pre-ordered from Penguin Random House

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