Review of Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared (USA: Hanover Square Press, 2019)
by Samantha Neugebauer
How do you make a woman disappear? Perhaps, when she is an infant, leave her in the rubbish skip, or take her to the pond where the water spinach grows. Place her small body among the kong xin cai and let her drown. Or else, never let her learn to read or write. Name her Wang Di, meaning “to hope for a brother,” so that the girl knows her place. Is she less than physically perfect? Banish her to where she can’t be seen. Otherwise, abduct her from her family in broad daylight. Enslave her in a brothel. Shoot her when she tries to escape. Starve her. Pirate her across the South China Sea to another continent with another language. Change her name. Don’t let her tell her story. Most cruelly, shame her. Tell her it is all her fault.
In Jing-Jing Lee’s debut novel How We Disappeared, it is shame that inflicts the most lasting harm on Wang Di, a former wei an fu (euphemistically, “comfort woman”). Lee’s young protagonist is forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during the invasion of Singapore in 1942. Lee writes of Wang Di, “Even after her marriage, she had felt the shame of it clinging to her. The way a fishmonger never fully got the stench of scales and sea out from under his fingernails.” Lee’s story is told through multiple perspectives: Wang Di during the war, Wang Di today as an elderly widow, and Kevin, a modern-day Chinese Singaporean child connected to Wang Di. The triptych raises poignant questions regarding multi-generational trauma, accelerated modernization, and changing identity. The narrative highlights, and the most elegant prose, are found in the younger Wang Di’s portions. Here, Lee vibrantly describes life in pre-occupation Singapore, managing to cinch both the particularity and the universality of oppression.
By focusing on why and how women disappear, Lee’s book forces attention on the thousands of girls who disappeared throughout Asia during the war, and, poignantly, on the countless stories of sexual violence not told due to shame. The first “comfort woman” to come forward publicly with her story was Korean human rights activist Kim Hak-sun in 1991, nearly fifty years after the surrender of Imperial Japan. Today, there are fewer than fifty “comfort women” still alive. With so few of the victims able to tell their stories, Lee’s novel asks us to reflect on how we memorialise and confront the past. The novel complicates the Euro-centric view of the tragedy of World War II by expanding our sense of the collateral damage to the arena of Southeast Asia.
In the novel, Wang Di spends most of her life silent about what has been done to her. One of the most heartbreaking scenes takes place inside her family’s attap hut. She has returned home to her small kampong after the war. She and her mother have not spoken about what happened to Wang Di. When she asks her mother about Huay, another girl from the village who was enslaved, she is hastily shushed. Her mother warns her never to tell anyone what happened to her, not even her future husband.
It proves impossible for Wang Di’s family and the neighbors to live with her, as Wang Di is living evidence of the misery of war. Not only do Wang Di’s neighbors shun and slander her, but her own family let her know they wish she had never returned. Although experiences of historic oppression are idiosyncratic, this resentment against returnees is reminiscent of many Holocaust survivors’ postwar experiences. In K.E. Fleming’s book Greece: A Jewish History (2007), she writes, “Jews from the camps were poorly treated by Jews who had survived the war in hiding, who could neither believe nor understand what had happened in the concentration camps.” Like many Greek Jewish women who survived the camps, Wang Di is quickly married off to an older man from outside her kampong. Thus, she becomes someone else’s burden, and the community tries to heal by avoiding any mention of war.
In the novel’s modern portions, we follow Kevin, a thoughtful twelve-year-old who is constantly bullied by the other boys in his class. Through this character, Lee models a different kind of masculinity, one that responds to cruelty without resorting to violence. Through Kevin’s story, Lee seems to propose a parallel between the motives of boys who bully others and men who commit mass violence. Kevin’s compassion and curiosity unveil a hidden story within his own family, as well as the story of his main tormentor in school. Earlier, the young Wang Di reflects on Yan Ling, a friend who shares a similar nature to Kevin’s, “Some people, treated poorly, grabbed any chance they could to lash out at anyone within touching distance. Yan Ling wasn’t one of them.” Hence, we can read this novel as an exploration of how to respond to trauma and violence on both micro and macro scales. Kevin and Yan Ling represent individual responses, while on the macro scale, Lee gives us the Old One, Wang’s Di’s husband. Through his story, we learn fleetingly of community and national efforts to understand and record the past. An avid newspaper reader, the Old One collects clips about the “comfort women,” showing us that a tragedy once not discussed can have a place in today’s international headlines.
Kevin exhibits an alternative way of managing loss and pain. A more erudite version of Kevin McCallister and his Talkboy in Home Alone 2, Lee’s Kevin obsessively carries a portable cassette player and records conversations, English translations of his grandmother’s letters, and his own ideas. Kevin values curiosity, truth, and individuality over the relatively inflexible mores of his nation and culture. The recorder, which is also a listening device, is symbolic of Kevin’s fate to listen to the silenced ones tell their stories. Moreover, Kevin is going blind, and like Tiresias of Greek mythology, he is gifted with the power of interpretation, not of augury or birdsong, but the languages of those who have been caged.
The Old One is also a central figure of the modern half of novel, and his story is told by the older Wang Di. The Old One is symbolic of an evolving society and Lee complicates the multi-generational tragedy by having Wang Di be the one who silences her husband. Nearing his death, the Old One tells Wang Di, “People are different now—they talk about things that we never would. You don’t know until you try… Promise me you will try. Even after.” This is a well-marked contrast to Wang Di’s relationship with her own father, a strict man who remains one-dimensional throughout the book, credibly a man of his time who values sons over daughters and refuses his daughter an education or her own story.
Lee is not alone in her technique of telling the story of “comfort women” by employing a multi-generational point of view. In Emily Jungmin Yoon’s debut poetry collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, Yoon investigates the trauma of Korean “comfort women” and how their pain reverberates even today. In her prose poem, “An Ordinary Misfortune,” Yoon writes:
This question by a Canadian girl, a friend: Why don’t you guys just get along? The guys: Japan and Korea. Meaning: move on. How do I answer that? Move on, move on, girls on the train. Destination: comfort stations.
Both Lee and Yoon’s styles, despite the difference in genre, blur past and present. In Yoon’s poem, the destination may be the comfort station, but for the next generation, for grandchildren like Kevin, it is also the point of departure. In an interview with The Paris Review, Yoon stated, “The people who went through the colonial period and the Korean War and everything that came after, the bloody history of Korea, they’re all still alive and their stories are still being found. I’m the one who inherited them.” Correspondingly, in the acknowledgements of the novel, Lee writes, “Thanks to my parents, who generously allowed me to use our family history in this novel.” The point is not to dwell on which parts of How We Disappeared are actual family history, but to reflect on how women writers approach war crimes as an act against generations of women.
Although early parts of How We Disappeared can drag if the reader has prior knowledge of matchmaking practices and historical gender-preference in Asia, ultimately, what works in this novel is how Lee depicts the longevity of shame and the obsession many of us have with the trauma and pain of our ancestors. A quote often attributed to Mark Twain goes, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes,” and our current world of violence, with its ingrained patriarchy and silencing of women’s voices, does seem to rhyme with Wang Di’s girlhood. Just read about Japan’s anger over “comfort women” memorials, even when erected in places as far away as the Bergen County Courthouse in New Jersey. We are still practicing the art of silencing and it would be a mistake to believe silence has no presence, that silence cannot rhyme.
Samantha Neugebauer is an instructor at New York University Abu Dhabi. She is on the editorial board of the Philadelphia literary magazine Painted Bride Quarterly, a staff writer for the Paris-based magazine Postscript, and a contributor to the podcast Slush Pile. Samantha has presented on experiential learning in higher education and first-year student experiences throughout the world, most recently in Utrecht, The Netherlands. You can find Samantha’s stories, poems, and reviews online or connect with her via social media: https://samanthaneugebauer.com/.