An Interview With Lee Jing-Jing, Author Of How We Disappeared
Hello, Jing-Jing! What’s the weather like in Amsterdam at the moment? How have you been spending your time recently?
This is the end of summer / the beginning of fall in Amsterdam so the weather is 80% abominable right now – dreary and rainy and cold. The rest of the time it’s cold but sunny, which I quite enjoy. We just moved and there’s been a lot to do at home, much of which involves trying to keep my nine-month-old, who’s learning to walk, out of trouble. Mostly I’m just trying to survive the first year of motherhood. On this note: I strongly believe that single parents should be worshipped and given all the help and subsidies they need to raise their young. There should also be an annual parade in their honour.
You once mentioned in an interview that you write “because you can’t not”. One gets the sense that the stories are almost ingrained in your memory and your entire being. Can you elaborate on that?
I find writing an emotional necessity – sometimes this need is almost physical. I haven’t written much for the better part of a year and feel quite ill because of it.
As someone whose own grandmother lived through WWII, I cannot emphasise how grateful I am that someone gave her and those of her generation a voice in How We Disappeared. Thank you for that. It is so important that Singaporean women from the WWII generation are represented in literature. What are your thoughts on this?
I think it’s easy to dismiss the stories of the older generation – women’s stories in particular – as they’re loathe to talk about the worst bits of their war experience anyway. I find that history inevitably glorifies war heroes and resistance fighters and prisoners of war – most of these people are men (as usual) – leaving little room for women’s stories, whose wartime experiences are usually brushed off as centering around the domestic. I find that the 'domestic' usually mirrors/reacts to what is going on in the nation as a whole; isn’t the domestic an intrinsic part of sociopolitical life?
Through one of its main characters, How We Disappeared deals with the harrowing ordeal of comfort women during World War Two. Was it a conscious attempt on your part to ‘preserve’ that part of history through her experience, difficult as it might be to read about and confront?
I didn't set out to make a statement by writing about wartime rape. I started the novel while listening to the voice of a character who’d been through the war – once I started though, I felt I had to stay true to her experience as well as the testimonies of many former comfort women in order to try and do them some justice. This meant detailing the conditions in which they lived during the war, however gruesome they might have been.
As a writer, do you feel compelled to represent in your work those whom you feel have been overlooked or underrepresented?
I think there has been a lot of emphasis on underrepresented voices of late, which is imperative and very much welcome, but my choices have always been motivated by my own desire to take a close look at the things people / societies would rather sweep under the carpet.
Moving on to something lighter, do you have any advice for budding writers out there besides getting comfortable with solitude?
Listen to what your characters have to say to you. Also, don’t get too comfortable with solitude, no matter how much of an introvert you think you might be. Find your writing community and recharge yourself with their presence every once in a while.
Lastly, if you could choose to live as a female character in a novel, who would you choose and why?
Astrid from Ali Smith’s The Accidental – because she sees people for who they are and truly could not give a fuck what you think about her.
Photo credit: Aline Bouma