The Deep Wounds of History

The Second World War has left scars too big to fill in, wounds too deep that time can never fully heal it. Images of the devastation will forever be embedded in the minds of those who witnessed and survived its atrocities. Literary works and history books ensure that their stories are never forgotten. For Westerners, the Holocaust has become the war’s most ubiquitous representation. With the passage of time, Auschwitz, Birkenau and the other concentration camps have turned into the war’s biggest symbols, bleak and haunting memorials to the brutality of the evil side of the human soul. Whilst the German Axis forces managed to engage the Allied forces into a stalemate in continental Europe, their Japanese allies were wreaking their own brand of havoc in the Orient.

The Japanese forces were busy conquering as much piece of the Orient as they can. To implement their grand ambitions, male prisoners of war were forced into labor, working on the Imperial Army’s grand infrastructures. The fate of the women were equally, if not more gruesome. Many women in captured villages were rounded up by the Imperial Army and trucked to brothels, with some even shipped to other Japanese territories. These women met horrendous and shameless treatment from their occupiers, and served one purpose: to accommodate the sexual needs of the horny soldiers after a busy day at the battlefields. The subject of the Japanese soldier’s whim, some managed to survive the ordeal but some were not as lucky as the strangeness of their fate came as a shock to the core.

In her debut novel, How We Disappeared, Jing-jing Lee drew her readers into this bleak phase of history through the story of Wang Di. Wang Di was only 17-years-old when the Japanese artillery found its way into Singapore. The British army abandoned their territory, leaving Singapore defenseless to the machinery that was the Japanese army. The Japanese army marched from village to village, pillaging what they can and leaving destruction in their wake. As the locals scramble to escape, a period of confusion and pandemonium ensued. Wang Di, however, was not as fortunate. In the comfort of her own home, she was abducted by the marauding Japanese army, and trucked to a Japanese brothel. She, along with women trucked from other villages and others that were shipped from different parts of the region, were forced into being sex slaves.

“The more men I’d had to work for that day, the more likely it was that I got no sleep—the ache, dull during the day, shot spikes through me when I was trying to rest. This pain, I couldn’t control. But to keep alive, I made no noise, did nothing, and tried not to exist. Those were the only things I could do.”

~ Jing-Jing Lee, How We Disappeared

Post-World War II and the resounding defeat of the Japanese, details of their atrocities started to surface. The stories of Thailand’s Death Railway and the Philippine’s Bataan Death March are just some demonstrations of these atrocious acts. Interspersed amongst these stories of brutality are the stories of Asia’s comfort women, a euphemism used to allude to women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese soldiers at the height of the Second World War. However, their stories remain a bleak and sensitive subject in the contemporary. Estimates of the victims also vary, from 100,000 to as high as half a million, with roughly 10% managing to survive their ordeal. Those who managed to survive recounted the horrors of their experiences in front of war courts and inquiries, some even became parts of documentaries.

The story of Wang Di is a reflection of the story of thousands of women in Japanese-occupied territories and nations who were forced into these harrowing circumstances. Their story is the story survival with the odds stacked against them. Some were young and were forced into coping with their circumstances away from their families. Lee also vividly captured the horrific environment in which they were forced to live in for years. They were treated inhumanely and, locked in their rooms, they barely had any freedom. They had to deal with the suffocating presence of Japanese soldiers who watched and monitored their every action. This made communications. Refusal to abide by the rules put in place by the Japanese was tantamount to a death wish. Those who did were never seen or heard from again.

For the Japanese soldiers, the comfort women were seen as objects, and were treated as such, and sometimes worse. The acrid smell of blood, death, and excrement permeated these brothels as young women were cruelly beaten and violently raped by Japanese soldiers looking to satisfy their sexual desires. Very little care, however, was extended for the women’s well being. Because of the scarcity of food, most became malnourished. Some also developed venereal diseases as their medical care was never considered a priority. They never received proper medical attention and was either sent away or, worse, killed on the spot. Murdering them was considered an easier option than availing of medical care.

Hope was frail. But still, amidst the smell of fear and trauma that embraced the daily existence of comfort women, hope sprang eternal. In a positive light, the readers witness how Wang Di managed to forge friendship with some of her fellow comfort women, in particular with Jeomsun, a Korean, and Huay, a Taiwanese. They found camaraderie in each other, and despite the direness of their situation, they looked after each other. The small sacrifices they made for each was meaningful; lest we forget, they were given the bare minimum to live on. They made things easier for each other, in a period when one can use every support one can avail of. The novel’s portrayal of female camaraderie was one of its finer facets, one of its more poignant elements.

This not-knowing when it came to my parents; things I’d never thought about, even if they were clear as day, clear as the fact that my parents had their own parents, had their own childhoods and histories. And then one day you open a drawer and out come all the secrets that have just been sitting quietly, waiting to be found, even though you never thought about them, never suspected they existed in the first place.

~ Jing-Jing Lee, How We Disappeared

Lee did a commendable job of dealing with the sensitive subject. Heavily traumatic stories, especially involving sexual violence, do tend to veer towards trauma porn but Lee handled the subject skillfully and masterfully. Yes, there were graphic and vivid images of violence but these were necessary because of the subject. Nevertheless, they were handled in a thought-provoking manner and the narrative never deviated from its focus. The violence were only portrayed to zoom in on the theme of survivalism. The novel also portrayed Wang Di’s post-war experience, zooming in on the social stigma comfort women had to endure following the end of the war. In expatiating beyond the war and the comfort women’s traumatic experiences, Lee highlighted the grander theme of healing. This ultimately made the novel resonate with a more hopeful tone rather than a bleak one.

The narrative revolved mainly in the the past, with the story of comfort women on the foreground. To provide the semblance of a reprieve from the harrowing experiences of Wang Di and her fellow comfort women, a second thread started to unveil. As the novel moved forward, it started to split into two voice and two timelines – the wartime Singapore and contemporary Singapore. In contemporary Singapore, the readers again meet Wang Di, but now as a recently widowed woman. In the contemporary, the readers are introduced to 12-year-old Kevin, the novel’s second protagonist. He was a schoolboy who was trying to find the answers to a family mystery he uncovered from the letters that his paternal grandmother left behind following her death. The narrative was then propelled forward by the question of how these two stories of Wang Di and Kevin might be connected.

Kevin’s part of the story zeroes in on how memory is of suppressed, a trope often explored in similar narratives. The vulnerability of memory makes history susceptible to changes. With many refusing to deal with their own trauma, history is always at risk of revisions. But there are still those who endeavor to preserve it. We see Kevin use his grandmother’s tape recorder to secure truths and preserve them like an archive. Through his sleuthing, he managed to create a soundscape of his family’s stories. Despite this, his part of the story lacked the force and power that Wang Di’s past had. With his story taking time to develop, it feels like Kevin was merely a plot device from whose point-of-view the past can be reexamined. His impact to the the grander scheme of things was ephemeral and the narrative would have still been effective had his part of the story been removed.

How We Disappeared flourished with its details of the past. The historical details were vivid and demonstrated the level of research Lee poured into her work. The past was immersive as Lee managed to paint evocative details of Singapore during wartime. Details of the past rendered Wang Di’s story an authentic complexion. The details of the war, from the terror of the air raids to the panic it stirred, fills the gap unanswered by history books and history lessons. However, How We Disappeared will be remembered more for the relevance of the subject it has explored rather than its literary attributes. Lee’s writing was at times bland and inconsistent. She also had the proclivity for long passages filled with unnecessary descriptions and details. Its framework also lent it to repetitive images. The seminal subject made up for the perfunctory storytelling and the novel’s other flaws.

“After that night my father disappeared a little more. That was when I learned that it is possible to disappear and still be there. That it is possible to disappear further than he had, to be emptier than empty, blacker than black. It took him half a year to come back again, and when he did, he acted as if it never happened, just came back home one day and told us that he found a new job. ”

~Jing-jing Lee, How We Disappeared

They say time heals all wounds. However, that is not always the case. There are just wounds that are too deep that time will never allow for full healing. The comfort women still seek justice in the contemporary and some national governments were proactive in demanding apologies and reparations from the Japanese government. The Japanese government, however refused to budge and it was only in 1992 that they acknowledged the crime of their men. In 1994, they setup the Asian Women’s Fund to provide additional compensation to victims from South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Indonesia. However, the fund was dissolved in 2007. Some victims are still running for reparations from their former oppressors. Earlier this year, the Seoul Central District Court ordered the Japanese government to pay 100 million won each to 12 Korean comfort women. The Japanese government, however, refused but both governments are still seeking amicable terms. With six of the 12 women have already passed away, one can only hope for the best outcome for the victims.

The comfort women are reminders of the horrors of war and the evils of men. Jing-Jing Lee, in her well-researched debut novel, managed to make their stories echo in the contemporary. In the world of literature, it is unfortunate that it is rare to encounter works that explore their plight. Lee managed to bridge that gap through How We Disappeared. What made the novel beacon is not just because of the sensitive subject it explored but because it resonated with messages of healing. Wang Di’s story, and the stories of her fellow comfort women, holds a relevant subject that needs to be told.

Ratings

76%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 26%
Writing (25%) – 15%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%

It was not my plan to read Jing-Jing Lee’s debut novel, How We Disappeared. I haven’t even heard of her debut novel had it not been for a fellow book blogger who recommended it to me. She had a discussion post about the nominees for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction. How We Disappeared was longlisted for the award but missed the shortlist; the award went to another work of historical fiction, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. Nevertheless, my friend’s recommendation stuck and when I encountered a copy of the book, I didn’t hesitate in purchasing it. It was the book that I made the transition between 2020 and 2021, so basically it is my first book for the year. I didn’t realize that the book was about comfort women, a subject I am a little familiar with for Philippines was occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War. Filipinas were also turned into comfort women and some documentaries were even made about them. However, there is very little literary work I have encountered that explored their stories. I found Wang Di’s story compelling and immersive. I can’t say the same for the story of Kevin. It felt unnecessary. The writing and the storytelling were both bland. Despite its flaws, I realize that the story it holds is too important that it trumps its flaws.

Book Specs

Author: Jing-Jing Lee
Publisher: Oneworld
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 341
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

Singapore, 1942. As Japanese troops sweep down Malaysia and into Singapore, a village is ransacked. Only three survivors remain, one of them a tiny child.

In a neighbouring village, seventeen-year-old Wang Di is bundled into the back of a troop carrier and shipped off to a Japanese military brothel. In the year 2000, her mind is still haunted by her experiences there, but she has long been silent about her memories of that time. It takes twelve-year-old Kevin, and the mumbled confession he overhears from his ailing grandmother, to set in motion a journey into the unknown to discover the truth.

Weaving together two timelines and two life-changing secrets, How We Disappeared is an evocative, profoundly moving and utterly dazzling novel heralding the arrival of a thrilling new literary star.

About the Author

Jing-Jing Lee was born and raised in Singapore. She obtained a master’s degree in Creative Writing from Oxford in 2011, and has since seen her poetry and short stories published in various journals and anthologies. Jing-Jing’s novella, If I Could Tell You, was published by Marshall Cavendish in 2013 and her debut poetry collection, And Other Rivers, was published by Math Paper Press in 2015. How We Disappeared is her first novel. She currently lives in Amsterdam. In 2011, Jing-Jing Lee gained a Masters of Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford and has since released the novella If I Could Tell You and her debut poetry collection And Other Rivers. Her poems and short stories have been published in various journals and anthologies, including Ceriph, Poetry Quarterly, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and Moving Words 2011: A Poetry Anthology.

Jing-Jing Lee currently lives in Amsterdam, where she is working on her second novel.