How We Disappeared: An Interview with Jing-Jing Lee
On 15 February 1942, the island of Singapore in Southeast Asia surrendered to a Japanese invasion force. The Allied forces were twice the strength of the Japanese, but a badly organised and badly commanded defence condemned the people of Singapore to three and a half years of brutal occupation.
Jing-Jing Lee’s first novel, How We Disappeared (OneWorld UK / Hanover US, 2019; reviewed this issue), begins in 2000 and flashes back to episodes in this terrible time for her birthplace (which is also mine).
Bullied, nerdish Singaporean Chinese schoolboy Kevin starts a personal research project to try to make sense of the mutterings of his dying grandmother. His chain of discoveries leads him to revelations that he would never have imagined, and to facts about his family that even his parents did not know. In a parallel narrative, starting in 1942, a teenaged girl called Wang Di is carried off by Japanese soldiers from her home village and put to work as a “comfort woman” in an official military brothel.
I asked Lee whether she thought that the issue of “comfort women” is being more openly discussed in Singapore now, as it is in Korea and China, for instance.
“It depends on how you define ‘openly discussed,’” she says. “The general population is very much aware of the issue; ask any Singaporean if they think that local women were taken during the Japanese occupation and, young or old, they would likely say ‘yes.’ In the 90s, there was even a Chinese TV drama serial set during the Occupation and one of the strands showed how young local girls were taken by the Japanese troops to be used as sex slaves. The government, however, is reluctant to touch upon this issue. In the 1960s, Singapore received 25 million Singapore dollars from Japan as a loan. The Singaporean government tried to have the amount officially named as a ‘blood debt,’ but Japan refused. In the end, the two countries called it a ‘bilateral agreement’ instead.
“Although Singaporeans take for granted the fact that local women were abducted during the Occupation, no victims have come forward to give testimony. During my research, I came across several interviews in which war survivors mentioned having seen, or heard about, such events. The women involved, invariably, would be a distant relation or a friend of a neighbour – someone conveniently removed from the interviewees’ own private sphere so that they can remain fairly untouched by the trauma and shame. So no, the issue is not being discussed as openly as in Korea and China. I believe the size of the country is a one factor. Its smallness prohibits any sense of anonymity, so that there’s nowhere to hide from the shame of being a rape victim once you’ve confessed to having been a comfort woman for the Japanese soldiers.”
Although How We Disappeared is in no way a fictionalised account of real people and events, it is heavily influenced by stories that Lee heard from her relatives about events during the Occupation. I asked her whether the fact that this novel is partly based on the history of her own family had made it more emotionally difficult to write.
She explains, “No, as I wasn’t fully conscious of the fact I had written my family history into my novel. It came as a bit of a shock to me when I learned about what happened to my great-grandfather. His village had been set upon by the invading troops and was decimated during the attack. My great-grandfather got away with a stab wound in his torso but lost all of his family (except for two daughters who had married shortly before the invasion and moved out), but he never talked about what happened during the war until he became demented. When the subject came up during one of my visits back to Singapore, I was in the later stages of finishing the book – the story of Soon Wei (the girl around whom the second timeline is based) had already been written. The only way I can explain it is that my father must have told me this story when I was too little to process it, but it remains uncanny to me that the memory resurfaced in this manner.”
Finally, I asked Lee about her own background in writing. She was previously known as a poet and short-story writer.
“My parents are not the literary type by any stretch of the imagination – I’ve never seen my father read a book and my mother only had two years of education and is semi-illiterate. I learned to read in English using audiobooks as I was raised in Chinese by very pragmatic, baby-boomer parents. Even as a child I harboured a secret desire to create, and to write, but this would be tantamount to telling my family that I wanted to join the circus. In an effort to accede to their wishes, I started my college education at a Singaporean university, reading social science while doing a minor in business studies. I soon became depressed because it was clear that what I was doing (and the future this path would lead to) would make me utterly miserable. I applied to the diploma course in creative writing at Oxford and got in, much to the chagrin of my father. After I finished the diploma, I applied to the master’s. This has allowed me to practise writing full-time and, more than anything, to have enough confidence in my abilities as a writer to attempt starting (and finishing) a complete work of fiction.”
The physical relics of the Occupation are much less visible in modern Singapore than when I was a boy in the 1950s, playing in Japanese concrete pillboxes. The emotional scars were also more open; I remember that when the first Japanese trade delegation came to Singapore, they had to be rescued by the police from a furious crowd that was quite literally trying to beat them to death in the street.
How We Disappeared is a powerful, sometimes painful, read, whose characters and incidents will remain with you.
About the contributor: Alan Fisk is a UK reviews editor for HNR.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 89 (August 2019)