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. She is the author of How We Disappeared, If I Could Tell You, and And Other Rivers. She currently lives in Amsterdam.
How We Disappeared
The heart-rending story of survival and endurance in Japanese-occupied Singapore
Singapore, 1942. As Japanese troops sweep down Malaysia and into Singapore, a village is ransacked, leaving only three survivors, 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. After sixty years of silence, what she saw and experienced there still haunts her.
And in the year 2000, twelve-year-old Kevin is sitting beside his ailing grandmother when he overhears a mumbled confession. He sets out to discover the truth, wherever it might lead, setting in motion a chain of events he could never have foreseen.
Weaving together two timelines and two very big secrets, this evocative, profoundly moving and utterly dazzling debut opens a window on a little-known period of history, and heralds the arrival of a thrilling new literary star.
Published by Oneworld
Released March 2020
A rather sombre and heavy themed session to finish my Sunday MWF, but this was also one of my most anticipated and it didn’t disappoint. After outlining the historical context of the novel – the invasion of Singapore by Japanese forces in the second world war – and introducing the topic of ‘comfort women’ – local women taken captive by the Japanese and forced into military brothels – the author gave a short reading. A second reading came later on in the session, from a different character perspective.
Trauma is the key theme within How We Disappeared. Jing wanted to demonstrate the after effects of what war does to a person, not just immediately after, but decades on, the cumulative trauma and ongoing psychological injury. Through fragmented storytelling, she has tried to replicate the experience of repressed memory trauma.
The experience of women is in the foreground of the novel. A Singaporean herself, Jing says that Singapore has a long history of reverence for boys. Men are considered better, and women are leftovers. This cultural belief is ingrained and intergenerational. The shame associated with rape is heavy within Asian women. The majority of those who were captive comfort women didn’t want to return home after the war. Shame for their family was matched with the reactions from the family, where more concern was given to perceptions and community standing than actually helping the woman deal with their trauma. Jing was very emotional throughout this part of the interview, pressing the point that to force a woman into not talking about their trauma is to force a kind of death onto them. The repression causes part of them to disappear. Trying, for the rest of your life, to not remind people of your existence is a repeated death. The title of the novel, How We Disappeared, is directly related to this process.
A few other interesting things popped up in the discussion as well. Ghosts. Apparently, for people of Chinese descent, August is ghost month. I kind of love the idea of a whole month dedicated to ghosts. On a somewhat sadder note, finding out what a cardboard lady is was sobering. There are a lot of elderly women in Singapore who are hovering around the poverty line. Too old to work, they either don’t qualify for welfare or the welfare they get is far too little to live on. So they roam around malls and markets and just collect cardboard for recycling and live off the recycling money. I find this desperately sad and in total contrast to my perceptions of the wealth within Singapore. Which segues nicely into the next topic.
One of the characters is a twelve-year-old boy named Kevin. His place within the story is to provide relief from all the trauma and heavy storylines. And not just for the reader. Initially, he offered Jing a much needed breather whilst writing. The other reason she wrote in Kevin, was to show Singapore from a child’s perspective, which actually mirrors the world view, and is a contrast to the Singapore that is depicted via the main character’s trauma.
Jing concluded the interview with what she hopes is the takeaway message of the novel. She wants readers to see Singapore as more than what it is now. That it is a place with its own history. This left me pondering deeply. I’ve been to Singapore, and the majority of it is shiny and new. You have to look for the history. It is there, it’s just more hidden than what we’re used to. I really loved this session and the emotion Jing displayed throughout was moving. She is clearly very attached to the history that she has written about. It’s this kind of passion that infuses itself into the writing. I’ve had a review copy of this novel for quite some time, but have held off, knowing that this novel would not be easy to read. From attending this session though, I am now compelled to read it for that very reason.