Sunna Bohlen is a remarkable woman.
I should know – we have been friends for more than 40 years. Her creative energy has always impressed me. Over her long career, Sunna has distinguished herself in the visual arts and in poetry, but she also excels in the culinary arts. I have been fortunate to share many meals with her.
Sunna’s painting and poetry is infused with a strong ener- getic force, reflecting serenity and pathos, as does her life. She is a courageous adventurer, a fearless spirit, using occasional problems as stepping-stones along the path to her destination. She lives and loves passionately. But what I most admire in Sunna is her resilience, her ability to recover from life’s unfortunate turmoil.
Now this unique survivor has written a novel, sharing the motivations and inspirations for her art, her resilience, and her life. Her book will touch your life, and you will never be the same.
Roger Guillemin is a French-born, American neuroscientist.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1977.
every life is a rarity
a unique episode
by virtue of growth.
has no concern,
but is wise enough to see
a cruel reality.
as it seems,
a hopeful dream
is a sign of life.
Sprout shoots up, arouses awe.
For me, Berlin has always been a place of healing. A place to overcome divisions, break down walls. Here, far from the spirits that trouble the sea, I paint my life onto canvas and hang it on the walls of my apartment. At night, my paintings reflect against the window glass as if they’re floating in the air outside. They adorn the sandstone walls of the old church across the square. Berlin is the perfect spiritual haven for anyone who doesn’t believe in spirits.
I paint my internal landscape. I paint raw emotion, but somehow the finished canvases are calming. I don’t paint every day. It all depends on intensity. I gather my experience, my feeling, my need, until it all erupts without warning. Then I sit in my studio for hours, even days, sometimes without food, without speaking. It’s a shamanic experience. My art is my mother’s shadow.
The poetry comes differently. I lift it out of my intellectual life. It rises from events, relationships, nodes I can pinpoint. It is the result of long spools of thought, my own philosophical thread. My principle of resilience. An attitude to life I have reformulated and rebuilt over and over again. The words on the page anchor me, even as the paintings float free in the night.
I have always loved to be deep within myself, discovring. Early on, I learned to like my own company best. But it has taken a lifetime to learn to cultivate solitude. To nurture it and let its roots grow deep, so that it endures the desiccation of drought and the force of flood. In the end, everything feels better when I’m alone. As I am now. Again, or at last. Perhaps not for long.
I’ve spent my life giving myself away. In the process, I’ve learned how to nurture myself as a foundation for loving others. The lessons of love have been painful, and beautiful. The weight of it all grounds me even as new love buoys me up.
In Berlin, I’m finally free of the anxiety the ocean has always called up in me. I feel safe. The sea is the most powerful force in nature. For me it has been a wellspring of trauma and beauty both. Like every experience in life. Someday, I’ll return to the sea.
I was born the morning the Korean War began. Or the war was born the morning I began. There are at least two ways to see everything.
In wartime, you accept without questioning. It’s the only way to survive. From a very early age, I felt suffocated by secrets. There were no explanations, only stories.
My father was the richest man in our town, but I grew up believing I was the daughter of a ghost. From the time I was just a week old, I lived under my father’s tile roof. Five tin roofs separated me from the packed earth floor where my mother slept. As a young child, I would pass her in the street as if she were a stranger. Even though we were both well aware that her womb had been my first home, I was forbidden to speak to her. Feeling the throb of her blood in my veins, I dreaded becoming her.
In my first real memory of her, she is a wandering spirit, her white robes and long black hair floating in the salt wind off the sea. She passes our house on silent feet, a bowl of shadowed fruit balanced on the crown of her head, silhouetted against the round face of the full moon. I sit on the porch, huddled against the chimney for warmth, afraid to go inside, where my father’s anger submerges the rooms and sucks the air from my lungs. I watch as she drifts down to the sand, and when she is just a black emptiness against the sudden shimmer of breaking waves, I follow. I hear her murmur as the waves pull back. She seems to be speaking to someone, her palms pressed together in prayer, words escaping her chapped lips, flung away on the wind. I creep closer, holding my breath, waiting for the moon to open its suggestive mouth and answer. But her entreaties meet with silence from above, while the chaos of the waves swirls around her knees and soaks her thin tunic. She sinks into the wet sand, keening, and I stand off to the side, chilled, feeling nothing at all.
As I grew older, my mother terrified me in all her absurdity. Where others in our windswept town saw a liturgy, an appeal to the ancestors who inhabited the salty air all around us, I saw only celestial psychosis.
Sunyi, our housekeeper, had come with my father when he left my grandfather’s household to start his own family. One night, drifting high on too much rice wine from her secret stash, she told me my first story.
“Your parents were teenage lovers. You should have seen your mother then. A bamboo stick, thin and hollow, with a wild spirit trapped inside. Your father was bewitched. Just before his twenty-first birthday, he asked your grandfather to arrange the marriage. But your grandfather abhorred her restless spirit. A girl like that will never breed stability. There’s too much of the sea in her. I stood outside the door while your father waited for his father’s answer. Your grandfather stared at his bent head and folded hands for the time it takes to boil tea. He left the room without a word. The next day, we were ordered to give your father nothing but plain rice to eat. To teach his son the simple realities of life, he said. But I heard your father say that each grain reminded him of your mother, dressed all in white, feeding the whole town.”
My mother went around town proclaiming her sightings of gods and the messages they gave her. Even then, when she was just a girl, the townspeople looked to her for guidance. She helped them navigate the spirit world, and in return they called her shaman. She made up for her wild behavior with predictions sharp as arrows, hitting her targets with precision and truth. She could tell a mother when her daughter would marry. A son whether his father would recover from cancer. She could see fate, whether suffering or reward, and the townspeople trusted her to tell the truth without blinking. The world was small then, and people needed something immediate to believe in. They gave her their last pennies in exchange for the authentic vision of themselves they saw in her steady gaze. But my grandfather saw something different. He looked into her wide, bright eyes and saw illness and disgrace.
“Your father was always as stubborn and brutal as he is now. He ate almost nothing for weeks. Many thick foggy mornings, when I went to fetch water, I saw him sneaking back into the house through the window of his room. But his father’s judgment poisoned them, as happens to so many. One morning, when the sun had just painted a bloody line on the wall over the bed, he finally saw in her sleeping face everything his father had seen: an affliction where there had been a gift, frenzy mistaken for beauty. And it’s like that for all of us. Clouds scuttle across the night sky and it seems the stars themselves are moving. But once you see it’s the clouds flying and the stars are fixed, you can’t ever convince the stars to move again.”
As my mother cleaved to her visions, wound tighter in the shrouds of the spirits, my father began to unravel. He needed a wife who would nourish him. In his mind, the sea, the pine trees, and the moon were all competitors for her love. So he returned to my grandfather’s house and humbly declared his willingness to marry whomever his father chose for him. He rushed down the beaten path of an arranged marriage.
I have no idea whether my father and stepmother were ever happy. By the time I was old enough to weigh their love, whatever joy may once have lit their life together had been battered and dragged under by the waves of fate. Their first child, a girl, brought shame on the family in a world where only boys were valued. Only boys were worthy of education or inheritance. Only boys carried on the family name. A year later, another little girl was born. She lived a few fragile days, and died of a mysterious illness. No one mourned for her. She was not what was desired.
My grandfather blamed my stepmother. Not for his granddaughter’s death, which didn’t concern him, but for her failure to produce a son. He was a patient man. He waited ten years, but the boy he longed for never came. Finally, as was common in such cases in those days, he arranged a surrogate for my father. A single girl in the village, young and vital, who would provide the desired heir. For reasons of his own, he chose the village shaman.
I’ve often wondered what my father felt as my mother’s expanding belly rounded out her white tunic like a waxing moon. Hope, perhaps. The sense of having come full circle. If fate had given him a son, he might have lived a different life. He might have been a different man.
But fate gave my father another girl, born into the world through the tunnel of a fierce, inquisitive spirit. A girl with the shaman’s eyes. Resentment reached in and squeezed my father’s heart, and it never let him go.
Shortly before I was born, when war loomed like a tanker on the horizon, my father took several precautions to ensure a safe escape to Japan in case the worst should happen. He hired laborers to cut a steep staircase into the cliffs behind the house, hired fishermen to build a dock, and anchored a large boat in the cove. As my mother’s birth screams ended and my first cry filled the air, he watched with satisfaction as his builders bolted a thick metal door over a concrete bunker next to his house. From the time I came under his roof until the war ended, I slept there every night. Sunyi carried me down into the earth as the light faded from the sky. My infant dreams were weighted down by the heavy drone of American bombers. The bunker was heated by a single stove, and we slept around it like a cold spiral galaxy clustered around the sun. The warmest places next to the stove went to my father and stepmother. My older sister curled up nearby. The servants slept at a respectful distance, swaddled in rough wool blankets.
My stepmother’s distaste for me was never a secret. It could have been different. She had lost one of her own daughters, and here was another baby to fill her empty arms. But the wound in her heart had scabbed over, and she was not willing to tear it open for me. When I arrived at the house, there was no one to nurse me. Sunyi gave me rice milk and honey to drink and expected me to die within a few weeks. Another lost girl pressed into the earth under a tombstone of expectation and disappointment. On my first night down in the bunker, unwilling to coddle me herself, my stepmother sent me to sleep with the maids, far from the warmth of the stove.
In the morning, wakened by my cries, Sunyi was shocked to find my face frozen where my cheek had rested on the cold tile floor. She brought me to the stove, chaffed my face with her coarse blanket, and heated rice milk to give me. But my lips remained frozen, unable to suck from the bottle. Even when I screamed with the pain, my left eye stayed open, demanding an explanation from the world.
Reluctantly, my father sent for the town herbalist. As a remedy, the healer boiled medicinal herbs and seared them into my skin to bring it back to life. He pricked my cheeks with needles to block the nerve paths and prevent the damage from spreading. The feeling returned to my face, but the treatment left me with permanent nerve damage.
As long as I can remember, I’ve had a constant pain behind my left ear. I don’t hear well, smiling is nearly impossible, and my left eyelid doesn’t close all the way, leaving me hypersensitive to air and light. On that day, I became not merely a burden, an unwanted girl, the daughter of a crazy woman. I was damaged goods.
But I survived. I grew. My sister and I bore the brunt of my father’s disappointment. Miha was ten years old when I was born. Already she carried the scars of abuse, on her skin and in her heart. Whatever affection my stepmother may have felt for her daughter was no match for the shame my grandfather heaped over her. Miha needed me as much as I needed her. From the time I could walk, it was clear that she would be the only one to guide me.
I never saw my father cry. I imagine many children can say the same. But I never saw him laugh, either. The only familiar emotion was anger. In our house, I had no reflection. All the mirrors had been destroyed in fits of rage, shattered by flying furniture. The shards of glass ringing across the floor seemed to satisfy my father even as they prodded the rest of us to imagine what more he might be capable of. After one of his rages, when he’d scattered shredded furniture through the house like matchsticks, he would go to the attic with several packs of cigarettes and a chamber pot and wouldn’t come down for days. The smell of cigarette smoke leaking down through the floorboards was a comfort, an assurance that we were safe for the time being. After days without sustenance, he would emerge, serene, and Sunyi would go up to empty the chamber pot and sweep up the cigarette butts.
Outside of our house, he was a different man. The neighbors knew him to be generous and dignified. He always gave to anyone in need, even strangers. He never touched a drop of alcohol. He abhorred any public loss of control. Standing at the window after dinner, he would watch the fishermen, drunk after a day on the shivering sea, fighting and rolling in the dusty street. “Dogs,” he’d spit at the glass.
In those days, we lived at the edge of the world. Beyond our windows, nothing but waves upon waves separated us from Japan. Two roads converged at our front door, awash in sunshine, sea breezes, and refugees from the North. They slept by the side of the road, wrapped in blankets, waiting for their chance. The boats in the harbor ferried fish, passengers, and black market goods all bundled together in rotting holds. There was no lock on our door, and my father made a point of inviting anyone who was hungry to eat with us. As the largest landowner in town, his storerooms were full of food, and his maids fed the laborers, the farmers, and any hungry refugees who happened to be crowded onto our porch. Many of these women spent the night in my father’s room, exchanging what they could for his generosity to them and their children. They drifted through our house like ghosts, haunting the blank spaces between my father’s public persona and his private rage. Years later, as each new year broke over the old one, I would marvel at the crates of crisp apples, baskets of persimmons, and boxes of exotic pastries that arrived at our door to thank my father for his time-worn hospitality.
I was four years old and the listless refugees were long gone when I saw my first American soldier. All my life, they had colonized our imaginations and fleshed the specters of our dreams: stories of tall broad men with eyes like the sea and hair like standing wheat. One afternoon Sunyi came rushing into my room, flung all the linen from my futon cabinet onto the floor, and used her teeth and fingernails to tear my oldest sheet into long strips. I couldn’t catch my breath in time to ask what she was doing. The wailing from our neighbor’s house was my first clue. The woman had been shot as she was gathering mushrooms in the forest. As Sunyi wound the makeshift bandages tight around her shoulder and one of the other maids ran to fetch the healer, the women wailed out a strange word over and over again, like a mantra: “Yanqui! Yanqui!” I rained questions down on Sunyi, but she just pressed her lips together and wiped the peppery blood from her hands.
The next day, the tallest man I had ever seen arrived at the edge of town. The neighbor children clustered on the pine-dark hill overlooking the intersection in front of my father’s house. As the golden-haired giant drew nearer, I could see the sun glinting off a long black metal tube strapped across his chest.
“Yanqui! Yanqui!” shrieked the children on the ridge. Panic stricken, I lunged up from the porch and tore into the house, tripping over a rug and struggling back to my feet as the screams pushed louder through the walls. I rushed to my room and, as I’d seen Sunyi do, I tore the sheets and blankets from the futon cabinet and hid myself inside. I stayed there, listening to the sound of my own breath, while Korean whispers filtered through the dusty air and the sound of foreign words, bright and clear as temple bells, pierced my hiding place like bullets. My sister found me there. She coaxed me out, and together we crept on bare, silent feet to the porch. There, next to my father and Mr. Kim, one of the teachers at the school, the Yanqui sat cross-legged and slouching. His gun lay next to him on the ground. I gasped so loud the whole group turned to us, and the soldier grinned with all his teeth.
Mr. Kim nodded at the Yanqui’s words and stumbled through his own replies. My father waved an imperious hand to shush Sunyi and a few of the other women who were hissing quiet questions in Korean. The soldier reached into his backpack and produced a bag of something that clacked like the seashell anklet my mother wore when she danced through town. I drew back as he held it out to me. He looked into my eyes and said something, shaking the bag, but I clasped my hands behind my back and shook my head. My father squinted and made a sound low in his throat, and my knees started to quake. Mr. Kim let out something between a laugh and a sigh and reached for the bag, ripping off a corner and pouring the contents into his palm. Little round jewels emerged in bright red, green, and yellow, along with others the color of mud. The soldier reached for Mr. Kim’s hand and popped one of these gems into his mouth, crunching away behind his big white teeth. Mr. Kim took one himself, smiling and nodding at the blond giant. My sister, braver than I was, took an emerald pebble from her teacher’s palm and popped it into her mouth. Then Mr. Kim held his hand out to me. My father prodded me with one long finger. The candy tasted like sugar and butter and sand, and it crunched like raw peas. I wrinkled my nose, and the ocean-eyed soldier laughed.
Mr. Kim explained to us later that the man was the leader of the Yanqui soldiers, that one of his men had been hunting in the forest above the town and had mistaken our neighbor for a deer. The American had explained this mistake as though it was obvious, since the differences between us were so great. They seemed to think we looked like forest fauna. The soldier brought the M&Ms as a peace offering. To me, they looked like another kind of weapon. Bullets dressed in beautiful colors.
From then on, soldiers appeared frequently in our small town. News of their presence always carried on the wind in their ringing words and their machine-gun laughter. The other children learned to anticipate the candy they always received from their big rough hands, hands like those of the farmers on my father’s land. Even my sister learned to like their sugary treats. But I rushed to hide whenever I heard them. It was as if I could already see my future coming down the street after them, the barrel of its gun snaking between their broad shoulders, aimed squarely at my heart.