Written By Guest Contributor “This Korean Woman Reads” – Anna Song
“This Korean Woman Reads” is a book review series by Anna Song, who will be writing for the site reviewing books written by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) writers in Australia and from other parts of the world.
Headlines: In this faithfully researched novel about “comfort women” (women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army during World War II), you will discover that the act of storytelling is an act of power. This story also discovers Singapore’s survivors of war who needn’t ‘disappear’ into silence anymore.
Mood: Wise beyond our years.
Pair with: Green tea, bitter and cleansing. Korean rice cakes in purple and yellow (colours for the comfort women), optional.
I first heard about this book in a newsletter from the Korean Council – an NGO set up thirty years ago that brought about the first “comfort woman” testimony by the late Kim Hak Soon. But at the time, I was hesitant to read it: could a novel do justice to these women? Their suffering, their courage, and their ongoing battle with the Japanese government?
Then, on 19 August 2019, an Australian “comfort woman” survivor died. Her obituary in the Washington Post read ‘Jan Ruff-O’Herne, seeker of dignity for fellow comfort women of World War II, dies at 96’. Jan was the first survivor I had met in 2006, when I began my activism. She was my role model for a life lived with love and forgiveness over anger. When she passed, the world lost a great woman, and I lost a very special friend.
Coming up to the anniversary of her death (and after hearing author Jing Jing Lee at the Melbourne Writers Festival), I started reading ‘How we disappeared’. I was no longer shedding fresh tears of grief but feeling determined of keeping Jan’s legacy alive in this world.
Within the first ten pages, however, Lee’s prose made me shed some of my activist ambitions and just settle into a good book. The tone of her writing lacks any ‘Oxbridge’ airs even though she was educated at one (thank God!). Instead, it conjures up memories of Jung Chang’s tumultuous tale of three generations of women ‘Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China.’
The use of English in Lee’s story feels familiar and familial; spanning generations in a distinctly Asian ‘yin and yang’ style of storytelling. As protagonists, pre-teen Kevin and septuagenarian ‘Ah Poh’ (grandmother) Wang Di paint a contrasting picture of modern-day versus wartime Singapore. The story revolves around birth and death, often occurring in the same chapter, making the story feel circular rather than linear as I turned the pages.
Lee is fierce in her historical research and re-telling of the brutal violence experienced by the “comfort women” – the silence and shame that followed and the hard won remembrance and forgiveness they were able to achieve.
I reached out to the author with some of my questions (I always have questions with a good book!):
Your debut novel is about the so called “Comfort Women” – how did your publisher react to ‘the pitch’ about writing a historical fiction that includes a thoroughly researched telling of the women’s experiences in military sexual slavery?
From what I remember (it has been some years ago since the book was pitched to my editor, Juliet Mabey), she was moved by the story and felt that it was one that needed to be told to a wide reading audience.
‘How we disappeared’ has an innovative storytelling structure. In the ‘Wang Di’ chapters you use the third person narrative but the first person narrative for the chapters describing her experiences during the war? Why is that?
Wang Di is illiterate and writing her “present-day” chapters in the third person served to convey this. If I had used the same point-of-view for the chapters set in the past, they would have come across distant, even cold, and I wanted to make sure that the reader got an intimate view of what being in the comfort house was like, so close that the reader is made to feel uncomfortable at times. On another level, writing the chapters in first person also brings up the question of who’s in charge of this important historical narrative and, perhaps, who’s telling (and re-telling) Wang Di’s story: is it Kevin? Or the readers themselves?
The so called “Comfort Women” issue is (unfortunately) still contested. What is your writer’s intention for this book that you wish to share with the readers, if any?
On a practical level, there’s little to nothing that can be done for the former “comfort women” anymore. Many of them are elderly and even more of them have already passed away. I do not see that the current Japanese government might give them what they’ve been campaigning for, which is a sincere apology and admission of guilt. What I’d hoped to achieve with this book was simply to inform people about the very existence of these women – and offer them the slight dignity of having their story told.
Buy this book as a gift to: a) any history buff who loves Singapore but ends up always reading about Lee Kuan Yew; b) any book lover (or skeptics?) of historical fiction; and c) any descendants of wartime survivors – lest we forget all those pained and perished.
Lee ends the book with a masterstroke of ‘coming full circle’ while letting the story linger with the reader. It’s an ending that will have your book club talking for hours!
Here’s to happy reading,
This Korean woman reads
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Images via Facebook and Straits Times