by Mandakini Arora
How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee, 2019
How We Disappeared opens with three versions of Ng Wang Di’s birth, common to all being that, born a girl, she was unwanted. Wang di means “wishing for a brother.” Her devaluation at birth sets the stage for her life.
In 1942, when Singapore falls to the invading Japanese, Wang Di is sixteen years old, living in a kampong with her parents and two brothers (her name worked). Soon, Chinese men in the city disappear in numbers — “vanished, as if they’d never existed.” Stories circulate of Japanese rapaciousness, for goods as well as young women. Wang Di is abducted and held for three years as a sex slave, or euphemistically a “comfort woman.” Raped by thirty-odd Japanese soldiers every day, she dissociates, imagining the trauma as being visited on Fujiko, her Japanese assigned name.
Jing-Jing Lee describes in wrenching detail the physical brutality and privations to which Wang Di and other captives are subjected.
Wang Di survives, but her return home elicits shame. She marries an older man who has lost his family. “Don’t tell anyone what happened,” her mother warns. “Especially not your husband.” Her husband’s urge to discuss the “lost years” is smothered by Wang Di’s fear — “all the air going out of her, as if she had been punched.” After his death in 2000, she seeks to uncover what happened to him during the war.
Meanwhile, the unrelated Kevin Lim, an endearing, wise twelve-year-old, is on a quest to learn about his own family’s wartime past based on his grandmother’s dying confession. His investigation leads his life to intersect with Wang Di’s. The novel ends with a quiet measure of hope.
The book is structured as three narratives told in parallel — young Wang Di’s in the first person; Wang Di’s after her husband’s death in the third person; and Kevin’s in both the first and third person. Not generally a fan of alternating voices and non-linear narratives, I found that Lee’s skillful writing brings the stories together seamlessly and the different voices seem organic.
Solidly researched and sensitively written, How We Disappeared is an important story of war, gendered trauma, loss, and hope. While much has been written about the Japanese Occupation, little is known about the Singapore women forced into sex slavery.
While reading, I felt anger and sadness for the women who disappeared — physically, socially, and historically — which for me is indicative of the novel’s power.
Mandakini co-chairs the AWA Writers’ Group, which meets on the second and fourth Thursday morning of every month. She is a historian who enjoys reading and writing stories and browsing in secondhand bookstores. Read her book reviews here and on Instagram: @travelling_bookmark.