Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Girl & How We Disappeared

Jing-Jing Lee’s debut novel, How We Disappeared, and Edna O’Brien’s eighteenth novel, Girl, share some striking thematic similarities, so much so that I wondered why both had been longlisted for the Women’s Prize. Lee’s multi-narrative book tells the story of Wang Di, or ‘to hope for a brother’, who is kidnapped by the Japanese from her home in Singapore in 1942 and forced into sex slavery in a military brothel. O’Brien’s sole first-person narrator, Maryam, is captured by Boko Haram in modern-day Nigeria and undergoes relentless physical and sexual violence in their camp. Both books explore the pernicious but persistent association of rape with defilement, and the myth that women who are subjected to these atrocities have somehow consented; both Wang Di and Maryam are shunned by their communities when they finally escape their captors, and treated as semi-collaborators in their own abuse. Both books are also concerned with motherhood, and the love and grief both women feel for children born through rape, even as their families refuse to recognise these babies.

Therefore, both novels raise questions about how writers write about abuse that they have not themselves experienced, even if O’Brien has faced more direct questioning about the appropriation of such narratives than has Lee. The concerns about O’Brien’s choice of subject make sense to me: unlike How We Disappeared, this didn’t happen very long ago, and while Lee is drawing from her own family history, O’Brien has no links to Nigeria, and troublingly assigned herself the role of telling these girls’ stories after reading an article in a newspaper. Nevertheless, I don’t think this lets Lee ‘off the hook’, as such. We still owe something to people in the past and the legacy of the ‘comfort women’ is a live issue today not only in Singapore, but in South Korea, China and the PhilippinesHow We Disappeared is not a better novel than Girl solely because its writer shares family history and an ethnic background with its narrator, although obviously her own lived experience will have informed her work; it’s a better novel than Girl because it works better as a novel.

Rachel argues in her review that Girl should have been an article or an essay rather than a novel, and I completely agree. I find it hard to get on with fiction that seems to have the sole purpose of telling us that something obviously wrong is wrong, and I don’t really buy arguments about ‘drawing attention’ to or inducing empathy with a particular situation. As Hannah Giorgis writes in the Atlantic, ’empathy can be a seductive, self-aggrandizing goal. It demands little of author and reader alike’. While I think that novels can do a great deal of general work around empathy, I don’t think that they are well suited to push particular polemical narratives. While reading Girl, I found myself thinking ‘what’s the point?’ not because I wasn’t affected by the brutality that O’Brien depicts, but because I wasn’t sure why this had to be a novel at all. Part of the problem was that Maryam never felt like a real person to me, but rather a mouthpiece for O’Brien to talk through. We don’t get any sense of her life before or outside her kidnapping by Boko Haram.

In contrast, I found that the several narrative strands that knot together to make up How We Disappeared brought a much greater richness to its telling. Wang Di narrates her story in first-person in the past and in third-person in ‘present’-day Singapore (these parts of the book are set in 2000), while we also get a contrapuntal present-day narrative from Kevin, a twelve-year-old boy whose dying grandmother confesses an explosive secret. While the past sections that focus on Wang Di’s experiences in the military brothel are the most immediately compelling, I found the ‘present’ sections, set in 2000, equally worthwhile, especially once you realise where the book is going. Some readers found Kevin’s narrative unnecessary, but I felt that it added something important to the novel, offsetting Wang Di’s relentless depictions of suffering and expanding its thematic weight by allowing us to consider questions of truth, family and storytelling across the longue durée, rather than focusing solely on the immediate aftermath of Wang Di’s ordeal. In short, unlike Girl, How We Disappeared is not just trying to get us to be shocked and horrified by its subject-matter; it has bigger things to accomplish.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. These are numbers seven and eight. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; and Dominicana

39 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Girl & How We Disappeared

    • Yes, I think there are far too many thematically-similar books on the longlist this year. Alongside these two, there’s also A Thousand Ships, which also deals with women, trauma and war, and Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line which has some similar themes that are hard to explain without spoilers!

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  1. While I don’t disagree that questions should be raised over O’Brien’s choice to write a novel set in a place with which she has no connection, I’m slowly getting more nervous about people questioning the right of an author to write a book that has characters unlike themselves. I don’t disagree with the people questioning, but I’m also getting an “ehhhhhhh” feeling because we’re slowly creeping from protesting by not purchasing books we’re against to outright censorship, which I never support. I’d like to hear more about the editorial and drafting process for such books, including the use of sensitivity and accuracy readers in a beta group. And I’d definitely like to see more writers of non-white backgrounds being published.

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    • I think O’Brien has put herself in an especially difficult position by (a) writing a novel about a country where she has no connection, and which she cannot know well (b) choosing a country that has a long history of colonisation and exploitation by the west (I know O’Brien is Irish rather than British, but I don’t think that especially matters) (c) writing a book that is basically intended to shock the reader and has no other purpose other than to draw attention to this particular atrocity and (d) choosing to tell her story in such a way that it emerges as *the* singular survivor’s narrative of the Boko Haram kidnapping. For me, it’s those combination of factors, rather than any of them alone, that make this novel particularly problematic. I think (c) and (d) are also just bad or uninteresting novelistic choices, quite apart from any moral considerations.
      Personally, I haven’t seen anyone calling for censorship of adult novels like Girl or American Dirt. (I have seen some calls for censorship, i.e., telling the publisher not to publish a particular book, in debates over YA fiction, and I don’t support that).

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      • Those are four great reasons, and I like that you note how you have different reasons, such as choices that simply make for bad writing.

        I know Stephen King has been causing a stir by arguing that he’s not comfortable with publishers pulling books because potential readers (meaning people who have not read the book) are asking that it not be published at all. King’s argument was in response to the publisher of Woody Allen’s new book deciding to pull the memoir after several staff from the publishing house walked out. Do you think it’s possible that Allen’s book could have sold so poorly that the publisher would have learned from their choice had the published it?

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        • I think Woody Allen is a different case. With the YA novels that I mentioned, the issue was with the book not with the author, and I don’t believe books under contract should be ‘cancelled’ under those circumstances except in extremis. With Allen, the question is whether the publisher should be platforming – and pouring time, money and resources – somebody accused of sexual abuse, regardless of the content of his book. I’m not that familiar with the particular details of the Allen case, but I can certainly see the argument for cancelling a book in those circumstances.


  2. I LOVE this post – such a great decision to pair your reviews here and I agree with every word. Especially this: “I find it hard to get on with fiction that seems to have the sole purpose of telling us that something obviously wrong is wrong, and I don’t really buy arguments about ‘drawing attention’ to or inducing empathy with a particular situation. As Hannah Giorgis writes in the Atlantic, ’empathy can be a seductive, self-aggrandizing goal. It demands little of author and reader alike’.”

    That’s my exact issue with these ‘should have been essays’ novels and with Girl in particular. I think the fact that O’Brien has come under fire re: the authorship question has caused a lot of people to rise to a knee-jerk defense of her book, but the issue to me ended up being less about the authorship and more about the fact that she was never able to justify to me her decision to fictionalize this story.

    I know I criticized Kevin’s POV in my review but I do actually agree with you about what it accomplishes on a broader narrative level. I struggle with dual past/present perspectives in general as the present so often feels so much more anemic so I was always disinclined to enjoy that element, but I think How We Disappeared accomplishes so much more than Girl and ultimately justifies all its structural decisions.

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    • Thanks so much! I totally agree about O’Brien – I think the issues about authorship were just another nail in the coffin of this book.

      I actually struggled most with older Wang Di’s chapters in How We Disappeared, as I didn’t see why they were necessary, but when it all started to come together it made sense! I actually really warmed to Kevin as a character – he doesn’t seem to have worked for a lot of reviewers which perhaps explains the response to his chapters. (Yours is far from the only review I’ve seen to criticise them.)

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      • Oh yes I similarly struggled with older Wang Di’s chapters, I forgot to mention that in my review but they also fell under that ‘extraneous present-day’ criticism in my brain. I just felt like the present chapters could have been tighter and more focused all around to elevate this to a 5-star level.

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        • Ah interesting, yes I agree that the balance between the present and the past was a bit off. I can see why it was difficult for her to find a single present-day narrator given the way the plot works though.

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  3. Sound review of these two books and a well articulated argument, I’m not for censorship but I do look at books increasingly with the perspective of a literary diet, do I really wish to consume this kind of narrative and what effect will it have on the mind. I wish to be aware of reality but my intuition tells me there is little or no nourishment or knowledge to be gained from this reading, which for me after all, is for pleasure and craft.

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    • That’s a really good point – we can only read a certain number of books. Sometimes, I find reading books that don’t work really helps me understand why other books do work, as in this case, but I do have to make sure I’m not reading too many novels that I know in my heart will be mediocre.


  4. Excellent post matey. I do not plan on reading either of these books but am very much enjoying reading all the discussions around the women’s prize. This comparison was particularly wonderful to read about both in terms of the similar subject matter and the difference between the authors. I don’t have any insight (as I haven’t read them) but wanted to write this comment both to tell ye how much I enjoyed reading this and also so I can get any future comments sent to me inbox. Arrr!
    x The Captain

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  5. I like how you took a comparative, thematic approach to these two. I remain completely uninterested in Girl; I’ve tried O’Brien twice now and don’t really care for her style in general, so I have no need to try further. While How We Disappeared doesn’t immediately appeal (I feel like I’ve read a lot about Asian countries during WWII — Pachinko, Little Aunt Crane, etc.), I would probably take a look if it makes the shortlist.

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    • I found the tense shifts in Girl really discombobulating, but assumed they were a deliberate choice by O’Brien to explore the narrator’s trauma. I’ve since found out that she takes this approach in some of her other novels, so I’m definitely not keen to read more!


  6. I find the O’Brien book troubling, too. I do know that she went and spent a lot of time in Nigeria and did a lot of research, but it just seems such an odd choice! I have read her Country Girls trilogy but remember thinking I didn’t fancy any more by her and haven’t, since then, in 2001 or something, read any!

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    • After the discussions on this post, I’m even more uninterested in reading anything else by O’Brien! A lot of the newspaper reviews seem to think that the novel fits into the lifetime trajectory of her career because the Country Girls books exposed misgoyny and violence in Ireland, but I think this is a very unfortunate take – unwittingly suggesting that she’s now had to focus on Africa because everything is OK in the West!


  7. This is an excellent post, and very helpful to read about both books side by side. I really like that you address both the authorship issue and content quality, as both can influence readership (they do for me at least, though I’ll be reading both of these regardless because of their longlist placement). To be honest I hadn’t really even considered authorship and intent with Lee’s book yet, partially because I’m not reading it until next month (whereas I think I’ll be starting Girl tomorrow- I want to get it out of the way…) but also because no one seems to be talking about Lee’s lack of firsthand experience the way O’Brien’s is being discussed. It’s interesting to look at the differences between the two that inspire such opposite reactions despite the similarity in trauma content. In the end I am very glad to hear there’s more to appreciate in How We Disappeared than Lee’s more tactful approach to her subject matter; it’s one of the longlisters I have the most hope for!

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    • I’ve been trying to be more careful to not simply assume because somebody is e.g. from Singapore that they have instant authority to write about this kind of trauma and that their approach can’t be questioned. I think these kind of assumptions actually do writers of colour (or, in different contexts, LGBT, disabled, working-class writers etc.) a disservice because it suggests that their novels are only valuable because they are ‘writing what they know’, and, more subtly, that under-represented writers should only write what they know whereas white middle-class straight etc. writers get to write what they want.

      It also ignores other intersectional identities other than the one under scrutiny. Deepa Anappara has written well about the challenges of writing from the point of view of a boy living in the New Delhi slums in her novel Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line – she recognised that she might share a race and country of origin with her character, but in all other ways their lives are completely different.

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      • That does sound like a smart approach to considering authorship. I have also had a similar worry over the push for own voices stories- it could be very limiting for everyone involved I think, if taken to its extreme. I think ultimately the white middle-class straight etc writers would be affected as well, especially when thinking about cases like Girl and American Dirt, which have received so much backlash. While ‘write what you know’ certainly backs people into a corner, ‘DON’T write what you DON’T know’ seems to do the same. I do hope publishers will begin taking authorship into account when choosing how to market and reward certain books, but if so, I will also be curious to see where that line is drawn. If the profit of writing experiences other than ones own is removed, WOULD white middle-class straight etc writers be able to keep writing whatever they want? This seems too far into the future as even a possibility to put any real concern into, but is still an interesting thought experiment, I think.

        I am very keen to read Djinn Patrol, and will have to follow up with Anappara’s writing on those challenges!

        Liked by 1 person

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  12. Brilliant and perceptive review! I just finished and reviewed ‘How We Disappeared’ and I found it such a stunning novel with so much more depth than I expected. At first I did struggle with Kevin’s narrative as I was so engaged with Wang Di’s, however when they converged the book reached a new level of engagement and significance which I thought was really special. Will definitely look into ‘Girl’ as one to add to the list to read – sounds really worth it despite some flaws. Thank you for your review – new follower gained! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! And always great to have a new follower 🙂 I totally agree with how well Lee brought all the threads together at the end – I’d been less engaged with older Wang Di until that point but was then completely won over.

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