Book Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

How We Disappeared v2

Published by Hanover Square Press on May 7, 2019

My Rating: ★★★★

How We Disappeared tells the story of a young Singaporean girl’s experience as a ‘comfort woman’, a euphemism for women forced into sexual slavery to Japanese soldiers during World War II. I was initially cautious about this book because stories about sexual violence (and especially sexual violence during wartime) can slide into the realm of trauma porn, but thankfully this book doesn’t fall into that trap. While Lee does zoom in on her protagonist’s traumatic experiences, she also situates them in the larger context of healing from the trauma, which makes the novel ultimately hopeful in tone rather than oppressively bleak.

Aside from that, Lee also splits the narrative between two main characters and two timelines, which allows readers to ‘breathe’ between the heavier scenes. We first meet Wang Di as a young woman in an occupied Singapore, and then again as an old woman in the present, mourning the loss of her husband. We also meet Kevin, our second protagonist, in the present timeline. Kevin is a young schoolboy who tries to solve a family mystery from the letters that his Ah Ma (paternal grandmother) leaves behind after her death, tracing a path that will eventually lead him to Wang Di. Kevin is more solemn than the boy narrator in Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, but his voice provides a refreshing change of pace from the grimness Wang Di’s story.

Still, I have to admit that I found Wang Di’s past more compelling than either her present or Kevin’s detective work; Lee seems to have invested more effort in depicting Singapore during wartime, so I found the past more immersive than the present. The period details, like the unsentimental practicality of Wang Di’s parents (which reminds me of my own grandparents), the matchmaking process, and the terror of the air raids were also very interesting to me, not only because they were realistic, but also because they fill a gap in my own history education.

I’m going to go into a brief aside here so I hope you’ll bear with me for a bit, but I swear I have a point. I live in the Philippines, and because we were also one of the countries occupied by the Japanese during WWII, I’m already familiar with this period, courtesy of my elementary and high school social studies classes. Despite that, much of what I read here still came as a surprise to me. At first I thought this was because of my patchy memory, but when I checked out one textbook module online, I realized that maybe it’s less a me thing than it is a textbook thing. For example, there were only two sentences about Filipina comfort women in the whole chapter, and one of them reads:

“Many women were disrespected and used by the Japanese as entertainment.”

That’s it. Years of brutality cloaked in appallingly benign words like disrespected and used as entertainment, as if the Japanese soldiers had just called them names and played pranks on them. Our teacher probably explained more beyond that, but I’d still not grasped the extent of the wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese until I read this book. That’s why I really appreciate the historical details in How We Disappeared—while our experience is not exactly the same as Singapore’s, it brings the essence of those years alive in a way that years of primary and secondary education were not able to.

Another thing I appreciate is how Lee makes Wang Di’s wartime struggles concrete without resorting to gratuitous graphic depictions of violence. While Wang Di’s harrowing experiences did make me extremely uncomfortable, I felt that the overarching focus was still her survival of those experiences, rather than the sheet brutality of the experiences themselves:

The more men I’d had to work for that day, the more likely it was that I got no sleep—the ache, dull during the day, shot spikes through me when I was trying to rest. This pain, I couldn’t control. But to keep alive, I made no noise, did nothing, and tried not to exist. Those were the only things I could do.

I also loved Wang Di’s friendship with the two other comfort women, Jeomsun and Huay, and how they look after each other despite the direness of their circumstances. They already have very little to give, so each sacrifice they made for each other ends up meaning so much. This portrayal of genuine female friendship was one of the more moving aspects of the novel.

There were a number of other things that How We Disappeared did well, but I’ll touch briefly on what didn’t work for me. While the events of the present timeline did offer the readers a brief reprieve, I felt that it lacked the narrative force that the past had—everything just moved very slowly, and Kevin seemed to exist as a plot device to allow the past to be told. There was also a filler quality to the present events in first half of the novel, which might be the reason why it took me longer than usual to get through this book.

Overall, though, How We Disappeared is a harrowing, deeply affecting, and ultimately hopeful look at trauma and memory, and an exploration of the power that telling a story has to heal. Similar to works like Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line and Pachinko, How We Disappeared is less remarkable for its style than for the importance of the story it’s trying to tell, and I think it’s a story that’s truly worth reading.

Reviews for the Women’s Prize 2020 Longlist

  1. Weather by Jenny Offill – ★★★★
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – ★★★★
  3. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – ★★★★
  4. Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – ★★★★
  5. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
  6. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – ★★★★
  7. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
  8. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
  9. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – ★★
  10. Dominicana by Angie Cruz – ★★
  11. Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
  12. The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel – Will not read; no rating

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from April 18 - May 1, 2020

32 thoughts on “Book Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

  1. Great review!! I love the connections you made between this novel and the history of the Philippines. I’ve noticed recently that I can get behind books with literary issues (perhaps weak writing, or convoluted framing) if they thoughtfully tell an important story. So I think/hope that I’ll really like this one – can’t wait to get to it soon!

    1. Thank you!! And same – I read an interview with Adichie recently on the NY Times and she described some novels of precolonial Africa like this: “Many accounts of precolonial Africa are not necessarily paragons of style but their greatness is in the importance of what they document.” Retrospectively, I can say I felt the same way about this one. I hope you’ll like it! 🙂

  2. Your review is amazing. You just made me want to read this book and I will. Though it won’t be soon because I’m avoiding deep serious books right now due to my mental health. Whether I like it or not, COVID_19 is affecting my mental health. I just want to read romances and fantasy books – my 2 favorite genres.

    1. Thanks, Lili! I know what you mean – it took me 2 weeks to get through this because of the heavy subject matter, and in between I also read a lot of romance. Romance & YA fantasy are my go-to genres too, though I’ve been reading more of the former than the latter hehe. I’ve been needing more cuteness over the quarantine.

      1. Same. Romance genre for me is the asiest to read. It’s the genre I read when I don’t feeel like using my brain and emotions so much. But of course, only the cute stories, rom-coms preferrably, and not the heavy romances. 😁

  3. I hadn’t thought to compare Jai and Kevin, but now you mention it I realise that that’s one reason this worked better for me than Djinn Patrol (which I did like) – I thought Kevin was much more convincing and less cliched.

  4. Your experience with only having a sentence about Filipina women reminds me so much of what Malcolm X writes in his autobiography about his childhood education. There were only 1-2 sentences about African Americans in his history book, and his teacher made jokes about black people. This was in the 1930s. I do know that in the present in the U.S., teachers have to be careful because parents may protest what information their children are learning. Because Malcolm X was seen as a man who loved violence (he wasn’t violent as an adult), we’re often taught about the warm-and-fuzzy Martin Luther King, Jr., despite the fact that he was a philanderer and his method of nonviolence was viewed by many as a lot of sitting around and not doing anything.

    1. Yikes, I guess history education can be biased anywhere. It’s very interesting how textbooks pretend to be neutral and factual accounts but actually privilege what stories are told. While we only study a very small portion of US history (well, just the moment it intertwines with ours), I still hear about MLK a lot, and barely know anything about Malcolm X. (I think every time I come across the latter I have to Google him again, and the violet links tell me I’ve been there before.) I also wasn’t aware of the differing opinions on MLK—I thought he was universally revered.

      1. It’s easy to teach MLK in school because he didn’t offend too many people. His speeches were feel-good and non-threatening. That’s why most people still teach him and have warm feelings about him. Malcolm X was for separation and spoke harshly about white people, so he’s still viewed as threatening.

  5. Pingback: The Liebster Award – Lili's Blissful Pages

  6. Great review! I especially appreciate your perspective on the glossing over of this history, even in your own country. Interesting that it’s sort of a worldwide thing – I barely remember learning anything about the Pacific front of World War II in school. Richard Flanagan has an excellent novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, that’s about Australian soldiers in Burma in a Japanese prison camp. Not exactly the same scenario, I know, but it was very eye-opening to me when I read it and realized there was this whole portion of history I’d missed.

    1. Yes, it’s disheartening how these stories aren’t a huge part of history education; they’re almost wholly eclipsed by the holocaust (which is rightfully important, but I think there’s space for both stories in history textbooks). It looks like reading The Narrow Road offered you the same experience that How We Disappeared to me—I’m now interested in checking that one out!

      1. I definitely think there’s room for both in education, especially at higher levels. The Narrow Road is a powerful read but very dark in places.

  7. This is such a fantastic review. I especially appreciate your perspective regarding how this is not even talked about in history books – being a South American, I don’t think the Asian part of the WWII were even talked about, much less about comfort women. I totally agree the present part of the story feels a bit like a filler, but it was also a bit of a break from the bleakness in Wang Di’s past! I’m so glad you liked this book!

  8. Literary Elephant

    Excellent review! I’m so glad you appreciated this one in the end. And I’m so glad you mention learning about this time period and situation in school, and still not having all the information! Part of this book that haunted me the most was adult Wang Di looking at that picture of the two women, whom it seemed were being given a news piece for finally speaking out about the situation when so few people seemed to be doing so (at least that was my interpretation- I had a little trouble being certain about what was going on there since Wang Di couldn’t read the article!). The fact that the use of comfort women was effectively silenced even by those involved is so tragic and frustrating, an added insult to an already horrifying situation.

    1. I remember that scene too, and I think your interpretation’s correct. Last year, there was a news piece circulating here about remembering comfort women—they’re coming forward again because Japan still refuses to atone for the atrocities it committed during the war. We also had a statue of comfort women erected here recently, but a Japanese diplomat expressed displeasure over it, so it was quickly taken down. It’s also happened in South Korea, I think. Maybe that’s why they’re still speaking out, because no one else will tell and honor stories.

      1. Literary Elephant

        I am glad the stories are being told one way or another. This book was the first time I learned about comfort women at all; it’s good to be made aware of it.
        It’s sad that the statue was taken down! Those women really deserved better, both during the war, of course, but especially in the aftermath. Terrible things happen during wars, but the refusal to acknowledge it even in years of peace is just horrendous. I really hope putting a book like this on the longlist is a way to help turn the tide!

  9. Pingback: Book Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – Karissa Reads Books

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