Nora Okja Keller

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Nora Okja Keller
BornDecember 22, 1966 (1966-12-22)
Seoul, South Korea
Notable worksComfort Woman, Fox Girl
Notable awardsAmerican Book Award
Elliot Cades Award for Literature[1]
Pushcart Prize
SpouseJames Keller

Nora Okja Keller (born 22 December 1966, in Seoul, South Korea) is a Korean American author. Her 1997 breakthrough work of fiction, Comfort Woman, and her second book (2002), Fox Girl, focus on multigenerational trauma resulting from Korean women's experiences as sex slaves, euphemistically called comfort women, for Japanese and American troops during World War II and the ongoing Korean War.[2][3]

Critical acclaim[edit]

Keller’s first novel was highly praised by critics, including Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, who said that in Comfort Woman, "Keller has written a powerful book about mothers and daughters and the passions that bind generations." Kakutani called it "a lyrical and haunting novel" and "an impressive debut."[4] Comfort Woman won the American Book Award in 1998 and the 1999 Elliot Cades Award; previously, in 1995, Keller won the Pushcart Prize for a short story, "Mother-Tongue", which became the second chapter of Comfort Woman.[5] In 2003, she won the Hawai'i Award for Literature.[6]

Professional background[edit]

Keller is a graduate of the Punahou School in Honolulu.[3] She received her B.A. from the University of Hawaii with a double major in psychology and English[3] and worked in Honolulu as a freelance writer, including at the newspaper Honolulu Star-Bulletin.[7] She earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of California at Santa Cruz.[2] She now works as an English teacher at Punahou School.

Personal background and ethnicity[edit]

Keller was raised primarily by her Korean mother, Tae Im Beane, in Hawaii and identifies her ethnicity as Korean American.[2] Her father, Robert Cobb, however, was a German computer engineer.[8] She has lived in Hawaii from the age of three.[9] Married since 1990 to James Keller, she has two daughters, Tae and Sunhi Keller.[8] Her daughter, Tae Keller, received the 2021 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association for her young adult book When You Trap a Tiger.[10]

Influences on her work[edit]

Keller says she first heard of the term "Asian American" when she took a course in Asian American literature, the first course in this topic offered by the University of Hawaii. The syllabus included Maxine Hong Kingston, Jade Snow Wong, and Joy Kogawa.[2] The genesis of Comfort Woman dated to a 1993 human rights symposium at the University of Hawaii where Keller heard a presentation by Keum Ja Hwang, who had been a comfort woman.[4][5] "Her experience was so extraordinary," Keller has said, "I thought someone should write about it."[7] Keller’s novels explore her own complex ethnic identity in the context of Hawaii’s multi-ethnic society and her relationship with her mother (upon whom "some details"[7] of characters in her fiction are based).

Other writing[edit]

  • Fox Girl
  • Yobo : Korean American Writing in Hawai'i, edited by Keller, Honolulu, HI : Bamboo Ridge Press, 2003
  • Intersecting Circles: The Voices of Hapa Women in Poetry and Prose, edited by Keller & Marie Hara, Bamboo Ridge Press, 1999


  1. ^ "Elliot Cades Award for Literature". Hawai'i Literary Arts Council. Retrieved 17 April 2010.
  2. ^ a b c d Birnbaum, Robert (29 April 2002). "Author of Comfort Woman and Fox Girl talks with Robert Birnbaum". A Literary Website. Retrieved 17 April 2010.
  3. ^ a b c Hong, Terry (2002). "The Dual Lives of Nora Okja Keller, An Interview" (PDF). The Bloomsbury Review. 22 (5).
  4. ^ a b Kakutani, Michiko (25 March 1997). "Repairing Lives Torn by the Past". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 April 2010.
  5. ^ a b Hong, Terry (4–10 April 2002). "The Dual Lives of Nora Okja Keller". AsianWeek. Retrieved 17 April 2010.
  6. ^ List of winners, accessed 16 July 2010
  7. ^ a b c Burlingame, Burl (1 April 1997). "Nora Okja Keller scores big -- her first novel is released by a major publisher". Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Retrieved 17 April 2010.
  8. ^ a b "Nora Okja Keller". Seattle, Washington: University of Washington. n.d. Retrieved 17 April 2010.
  9. ^ Lee, Young-Oak (2003). "Nora Okja Keller and the Silenced Woman: An Interview". MELUS. 28 (4): 145–165. doi:10.2307/3595304. JSTOR 3595304.
  10. ^ Harris, Elizabeth A. (25 January 2021). "Tae Keller Wins Newbery Medal for 'When You Trap a Tiger'". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 January 2021.