Saturday Excerpt: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

We are starting the weekend with How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee. Featuring two storylines in two different time periods woven together into an amazing book, this is a must-read for fans of literary fiction.

About How We Disappeared:

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing LeeSingapore, 1942. As Japanese troops sweep down Malaysia and into Singapore, a village is ransacked, leaving only two survivors and one tiny child.

In a neighboring village, seventeen-year-old Wang Di is strapped into the back of a troop carrier and shipped off to a Japanese military brothel where she is forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman.” After sixty years of silence, what she saw and experienced still haunts her.

In the year 2000, twelve-year-old Kevin is sitting beside his ailing grandmother when he overhears a mumbled confession. He sets out to discover the truth, wherever it might lead, setting in motion a chain of events he never could have foreseen.

Weaving together two time lines and two very big secrets, this stunning debut opens a window on a little-known period of history, revealing the strength and bravery shown by numerous women in the face of terrible cruelty. Drawing in part on her family’s experiences, Jing-Jing Lee has crafted a profoundly moving, unforgettable novel about human resilience, the bonds of family and the courage it takes to confront the past.

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  She began in the first month of the lunar year. They said she was born at night, the worst time to arrive—used up all the oil in the lamp so that her father had to go next door for candles. It took hours, and it was only after muddying up swaths of moth-eaten sheets the neighbors had given in the last few weeks of her mother’s pregnancy that she emerged. As her first wails cracked through the hot air in the attaphut, he went into the bedroom to look at her, a worm of a thing freshly pulled out of the earth. When he saw the gap between the baby’s legs, the first-time father spat, then slumped in a chair at the kitchen table, eyeing his wife as she nursed, already thinking about the next child.

That is one story.

Or, she began when her mother found her in a rubbish skip. She was walking to the market with four eggs her hens laid that morning, was passing by the public bins when it started to whimper. The woman looked in and there it was—a child, scraps of leftover dinner on top of it. She took the baby home and brushed the dirt off her face. Waited for a week to see if anyone would come and claim her. They kept her when no one did.

The third and last story, told to the child by her aunt, was that she was born and her father took her to the pond, the one where water spinach grew. Villagers went to collect it in armfuls when they could afford nothing else for dinner, and it was by this vegetable, completely hollow in the middle of their stems so as to warrant the name kong sin, empty heart, that her father put her. The aunt told this story each time she went to visit, and each time, as she got to this point in the story of her niece’s birth, she would stop, smack her lips and lean in close, adding that her father had tried to push her under with the tip of his sandaled feet. She explained that it wasn’t easy, what he was doing, because the water was shallow and the weeds were holding her up. “You were bobbing in and out of the water,” she said, “and the whole business was almost finished with when you stopped crying from the feeling of damp on your body and simply looked at him. Your eyes opened up a crack and you just stared into his face.”

The aunt couldn’t say why but it made the new father take the child back home again. He put the bundle on the table like a packet of biscuits and told his wife that she could keep her if she gave birth to a baby boy next year. They didn’t bother naming the girl for a few weeks, but when they did, they named her Wang Di—to hope for a brother.

This morning, as with most mornings these days, Wang Di woke to the ghost of a voice, a voice not unlike her aunt’s, calling out her name. As she lay in bed she remembered how her aunt once asked if Wang Di wanted to live with her; she could adopt her and take her away since her parents thought so little of girl children. She wouldn’t be like them, she told her, casting an eye at Wang Di’s father, but would make sure she went to school, got two sets of uniforms and books. An education.

“What do you think, Wang Di?” She’d smiled, a hopeful, shuddering smile.

Each time she remembered this, Wang Di wondered how her life would have been different had she said yes (in her mind her parents would have said go, good riddance), if she had gone to live with her aunt on the other end of Singapore, ten miles south in Chinatown, with its narrow alleys and smoky shophouses. Or if she had grown up and been approached by the matchmaker at the right time, and the war hadn’t torn through the island as it had: in the manner of an enraged sea, one wave after another sweeping everything away.

What she remembered most though, what she liked best, was the way it felt to hear her name, softly spoken.

Because the only time her parents used her name was when someone important was at the door, someone life-changing, or rich. The matchmaker was both. Auntie Tin had appeared at the door one Sunday and snaked inside past her mother before she had been invited to. A few months later, war would arrive on the island. Auntie Tin visited a second time during the occupation and then again—the third and last time—after the war, when Wang Di had little choice but to say yes. She had been the one to tell Wang Di what the words in her name meant and she had been the one who plucked her away from her anguished parents, away from the stolid silence of their home four years after they first met.

When Wang Di sat up and opened her eyes, the faint hum of her name was still in her ears, a song she couldn’t stop hearing. Her hand fluttered to the faint scar on her neck, right where her pulse lay, then went down to the line on her lower stomach, the raised welt of it smooth beneath her fingers. Eyes closed, she already knew what kind of day this was going to be—dread was pooling in her chest but she put her legs over the side of the bed and stood. Shuffled the narrow path to the altar. Eleven steps and she was there, lighting up joss sticks for everyone she remembered, saying, “Here I am, here I am,” as if they’d been the ones calling out for her: the Old One, of course; her parents, her aunt, and her two friends, one who died earlier than everyone else, and the other, whom she hoped was still alive. She was walking away from the altar when she turned back and lit up three more, planting them in among the fallen ash. Then she clicked the radio on before the memory of a child’s face, a memory as clear and smooth as a polished stone, could wash over her.

“Breakfast, Old One,” she said. Out of habit. Muscle memory. Her mouth hanging open in the quiet after her words. She knew there was going to be no answer and why, instead of the brown damp of newspapers, she was now surrounded by the scent of clay. Brick. A new house smell that made her feel sorry for having woken up. It was still dark out when she walked into her (new) kitchen and saw herself in the (new) windows: an old lady with a curved upper back that made her look more and more like a human question mark, and gray and white hair cut mid-neck— a style the kindly neighborhood hairdresser called a “bop.”

As the water boiled, Wang Di ripped off yesterday’s date on the tearaway calendar in the kitchen.

There it was: May 24. To make sure she wouldn’t forget, she had written 100 above the date. One hundred, as in “It’s been one hundred days since my husband passed away.” One hundred days spent regretting the fact that she hadn’t said and done all she could for him. She touched the black square of cloth on her sleeve—the black badge that told everyone that she had just lost someone close; the black badge that she wore even in bed on the arm of her blouse—and unpinned it. She fixed her eyes on the calendar again, for so long that the print started to squirm. Like ants on the march. Weaving left and right. The way her mind did these days, moving from past to present, mixing everything up in the process. She could be watching the news or doing the wash when everything blurred in front of her eyes and she would be reminded of something that happened years ago. More and more, bits and pieces of her childhood came back  to her, especially this: the many mornings she had watched as her mother stirred congee in a pot. Neither of them saying anything as she did what girl children were supposed to and laid out the cutlery. Five porcelain bowls. Five porcelain spoons. All chipped somewhere, the smooth glaze giving way to a roughness, like used sandpaper. Her mother would remind her to give the one perfect spoon to her youngest brother—Meng had a habit of biting down on cutlery as he ate from them. “He’s going to swallow a bit of china one day,” her mother used to say.

For the last hundred days, it was the Old One who came back to her. How she had left him that evening. The way he looked—she should have known, was trying not to think it while she combed his hair, telling herself how little he had changed. His hair was a little thinner, like a toothbrush that had lost some of its bristles. Thinner, and more white than black now, she thought as she combed it back. Lines around his eyes that stretched to his temples. She wanted to say it then, how he hadn’t changed much. Instead she said, “You look good today. Color in your face,” and wondered if he could tell she was lying, wondered if by saying it, she could will it into being. He smiled while she rubbed a damp cloth over his face, his neck, his hands, cracking his joints as she wiped from palm to nail. She saw how blue his fingertips were and knew it was a bad thing even though she didn’t know why.

Chia Soon Wei had said nothing as his wife fed him his evening meal and cleaned him. Every single word drew much-needed breath out of him, made his heart flutter and race. His voice used to ring through people, through walls, like a gong being struck. Now, it flitted out of him like a dark moth, barely visible. He nodded to thank her as she sat down and held the side bar on the bed, and wanted to start talking before she got up again to do something else, like pour another tumbler of water or tuck the sheet under his feet. Wanted to urge her to finish her story before it was too late, before both of them ran out of time. He knew what the unsaid did to people. Ate away at them from the inside. He had told Wang Di nothing. Not until a few years into their marriage, following a rare day at the beach. After that, all he wanted to do was talk about the war. What he had done. Not done. He’d brought it up one day at home, was be- ginning to tell Wang Di what happened during the invasion, but stopped when he saw that she was drawing back from him as he spoke, as if she were an animal, netted in the wild; and her face, how wide her eyes had become, how very still. The point was made even clearer when she woke that night, kicking and thrashing, cracking the dark with her cries. He had watched her until the sun came up, in case she had another nightmare, afraid that he might fall asleep and have his own. His usual, recurring one. One that he woke quietly from in the morning and carried around with him. One he had been carrying around with him for more than fifty years.

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