‘They neither referred to me by name, nor called me Mrs Ng’s daughter, which they used to do. After several days I caught on. I wasn’t Wang Di anymore, not to the neighbours anyway; what they called me instead was this: wei au fu, comfort woman.’Jing-Jing Lee, How We Disappeared
Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared is an incredibly powerful and important book: yes, a work of fiction, but one inspired by the true stories of so many forgotten women that Lee sensitively but unrestrainedly writes back into history.
* Trigger warning: this book deals with themes of sexual violence and abuse.
Set in Singapore, How We Disappeared tells the story of Wang Di, a woman who was abducted from her home during the Japanese occupation of her country in World War II and forced into sexual slavery. At just 17 years old, she is held in a Japanese Military brothel where she (and the other captives) are raped multiple times daily by the soldiers who visit them. They are known as comfort women. A name that’s laced with irony, as if trying to soften the violence inflicted on their bodies. The novel weaves two timelines together – the 1940s and the year 2000 – shifting between Wang Di the teenage girl and Wang Di the old woman, still haunted by painful memories of the war but now finding the courage to process and put her trauma into words.
It’s an emotionally challenging read, particularly the wartime chapters documenting the abuse and captivity of the comfort women, all of whom were abducted or tricked into prostitution. They exist within the context of a world where girls are not valued. Our main character is first born of her family, her name – Wang Di – means hope for a brother… In of itself, being female is shameful. Women are dispensable and treated as such.
Once in the comfort house, the women are dehumanised not only with violence on their bodies but on their very identities. Names are an important part of this. When they arrive, they are given new Japanese names, ripping from them their autonomy, their culture and any concept of family and home.
In a quiet act of rebellion, the women of the house secretly continue to use their real names between themselves. United in the horrors they face, they form a strong bond and sisterhood to survive. While the world takes away their humanity, they continue to love, protect and truly see each other.
This is lost when they leave the house to never see each other again. In the shame that follows her, Wang Di avoids the other girls who are painful reminders of a history rather forgotten. But in doing this, she has no one in her life who understands or is even willing to listen to what happened to her. Looking back on the quote I picked out to begin this review, her name isn’t returned to her when she leaves the house. In the neighbours’ whispers that follow her, she doesn’t hear her name but is instead called ‘wei au fu, comfort woman.’ Her name is gone, she is not even graced with the name daughter. The stigma of “comfort woman” marks her out and takes all that away.
The title How We Disappeared does not just speak for Wang Di, but the thousands of women she represents. The women who were ripped from their homes, many to never come back. Or if they did, they were shunned by their families and communities for the shame of it. The stigma would follow them for life. Their histories wilfully erased; their stories silenced. How We Disappeared speaks for the collective trauma of a country ravaged by war that has been left unspoken.
This is made painfully clear early in the novel. Wang Di in the year 2000, widowed, regrets that she doesn’t know what happened to her late husband, Chia Soon Wei, during the War. The two of them never spoke of it, and now in losing her husband, Wang Di fears that history is gone forever.
It falls to the new generation – a 12-year-old boy named Kevin to be exact – to repair a broken history. Chia Soon Wei’s death is the catalysts that sets the modern-day plot of the book in motion and connects Wang Di and Kevin in uncovering Chia’s story. Together they find the truth, helping not only Wang Di understand what happened to her husband, but also helping Kevin to understand the long-held secrets of his family that have been broken and reshaped by war. Ultimately it is Kevin and Wang Di’s relationship and shared commitment to finding Chia’s story, that gives Wang Di the courage to share her own.
This was an incredibly eye-opening read for me. Educated in the UK, I think we are taught a very Eurocentric view of the War and I have hardly any knowledge of the conflicts across Asia during this time. It is also so rare that we see a wartime book told from the woman’s perspective, when war is seen almost exclusively as a male trauma as though they are the only ones who suffered. It’s for books like this that I love to read. It educated me, it broadened my worldview, and most importantly it is a book with something to say.
If I had one criticism of this book, it would be the pacing. Through most of the novel, I was much more invested in the chapters set in the 1940s while the chapters set in 2000 moved along very slowly for me – particularly ones that focused on young Kevin. I was just willing the book to “get to the point” of Kevin’s character and his connection with Wang Di, which isn’t confirmed to us until quite late on in the book. I wonder however, if this change of pace throughout the book is a purposeful decision and par for the course of the two stories Lee is is weaving together. There is an urgency to the chapters set in wartime, because danger and fear are a constant, whereas the chapters set in 2000 are documenting the slow and painful process of reconstructing memory and coming to terms with trauma. You can really feel the struggle to reclaim this lost history.
The greatest tragedy of How We Disappeared is that its story is not confined to the past as we would like to think. Sexual violence continues to be used as warfare in conflicts around the world and the victims continue to be the forgotten casualties of war.
A lack of documentation means it is almost impossible to conclude how many comfort women existed in Asia during World War II; studies have estimated between 200,000 to 400,000. We may never be sure. We do not have the data. But while there are survivors brave enough to share it, we have their stories.
Jing-Jing Lee’s dedication at the beginning of the novel beautifully sums it up: For the grandmas (balmonies, lolas and amas) who told their stories, so that I could tell this one.
These women deserve to be remembered. Their bodies abused, their voices shamed into submissive silence, and their very existence erased. We owe it to these women – and to the victims who continue to suffer at the hands of sexual warfare even today – to remember them.