How We Disappeared, by Jing-Jing Lee

Trigger warning for rape.

The exact number of “comfort women“—women who were enslaved by the Imperial Japanese Army and forced into prostitution between 1932 and the end of World War II—is not known. Some of the surviving women, now very elderly, are still protesting for recognition and reparations from the Japanese government. Many, like the protagonist of Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared, never spoke of their rapes and servitude. Like Wang Di, they were shamed and shunned by family and neighbors. And like Wang Di, they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of their lives. Lee’s novel is a troubling, uncomfortable read that documents atrocities that are still rarely spoken of.

We first meet Wang Di at age 75, when she has just lost her husband of more than fifty years and is in the process of moving to elder housing. Without her husband, Wang Di is somewhat lost. She has no one to order her day around anymore. There is nothing to fill up her time to keep her from thinking about what happened to Soon Wei and herself during the war. Soon Wei, who Wang Di calls the “Old One,” lost his first family in a massacre by Japanese soldiers. Wang Di endured three years of forced sexual slavery before the war ended and she was able to make her way back to the kampong where her family live. The mental scars are visible in the way that Wang Di hordes junk that might be useful, to hide herself away from others. Two thirds of How We Disappeared recount Wang Di’s widowhood and the harrowing years she spent in the “black-and-white house” in Singapore.

The remaining third of How We Disappeared is narrated by Kevin Lim, a young, bullied boy who may be losing his sight. Just before she passes away, Kevin’s grandmother reveals a startling secret: she found a baby boy who survived a massacre and who she kept, even after she found out who the real child’s father was. Kevin digs into his grandmother’s belongings and papers to find out what really happened—and perhaps help his father heal by giving him another family connection.

Singapore at the end of World War II (Image via Wikicommons)

A lot of How We Disappeared is hard to read. I pushed myself to read the sections narrated by Wang Di in the first person about her war years. I felt like I had to shut my imagination down from its normal job of coloring in the lines, so to speak. I couldn’t bear to do more than take in the words of those sections and look forward to the parts set in Wang Di and Kevin’s present. A suspect a lot of readers may turn away from this book because of its content. I can barely handle the subject of comfort women in fiction; I know I wouldn’t be able to handle nonfiction accounts like The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang, which was part of the source material for How We Disappeared. A large part of my motivation to read Wang Di’s stories came from my realization that comfort women’s history should not be allowed to fade away. Like any crime against humanity, the story must be told so that it never happens again. The women who were forced into sexual slavery should be remembered for their courage and their will to survive one of the worst things that can ever happen to a person.

How We Disappeared is a novel of profound loss, but its ending offers hope that even the most damaged of us can learn to reach out again to other humans and take comfort in connecting. In thinking about Wang Di, I imagine a plant that has been nearly destroyed by fire and the elements that, after years of dormancy, is now reaching out with new growth. As Wang Di finds the bravery to finally tell her story, I mentally cheered for her. I was so happy that she found peace and redemption at last.

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