Book review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

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Image source: Waterstones

How We Disappeared talks about the Japanese occupation of Singapore during WW2, but it’s so much more than a historically inspired novel. It’s not just about the history of a part of the world that we don’t learn enough about in Europe, but also about the traumas of the past haunting the present and the need to break the silence around its guilt and shame in order to accept our future.

Without revealing too much of the fascinating yet difficult plot, the most memorable story is that of central character Wang Di who is brutally removed from her village as a 17-year old and forced to become one of the many “comfort women” for the Japanese army during the war. While the character is purely fictional, the inspiration for her shocking story comes from real victims’ accounts of rape, violence and inhumane treatment endured during this period. In Korea, some of the victims of sexual slavery have been fighting to make public the facts kept secret for decades and demanding reparations for the past. There are still countless controversies regarding the status of “comfort women” (this article in The New Yorker is a fascinating read on this theme) and a long time will pass before true accountability will be established.

How We Disappeared caught my eye in an instant when I saw it displayed on a Waterstones’ shelf. It was November 2020, the evening before Lockdown 2.0 when the whole of London left their houses to enjoy a few last minutes of browsing through non-essential shops. Who even came up with the ludicrous idea that bookstores are non-essential?! In High Street Kensington, Waterstones were just about to close their doors for a month when I spotted the colourful cover, deceivingly joyful I must add, which reminded me of one of my favourite books from a couple of years ago – Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko.

Yet in places like Singapore, there are still very few victims that came forward to share their experiences, and these risk being forgotten as time passes by and the last survivors are slowly dying. Being a woman in a traditional society, as Singapore used to be and as many still remain, is difficult by definition, but what I found the hardest to tolerate is how doomed you must feel as a victim of sexual violence. There is an unbearable double burden of surviving rape and living with the shame of it, with your own family and community rejecting and even punishing you for being a victim.

As uncomfortable and heavy the topic is, Jing-Jing Lee made it nevertheless a beautiful read in her novel that is wonderfully written, thoughtfully paced and a memorable lesson in the intricacies of human connection, acceptance and optimism. As it turns the story of tragedy into one of survival and resilience, How We Disappeared remains a cautionary tale about a history that mustn’t be forgotten so it doesn’t keep repeating itself.

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