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 Philippines. How 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; Queenie; Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; and Dominicana.