The Voice of the Voiceless: Lee Jing-Jing
Born and raised in Singapore, Lee Jing-Jing made history by becoming the first Singaporean to be longlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, a prestigious British award for female authors. Her novella, If I Could Tell You, was published by Marshall Cavendish in 2013 and her debut poetry collection, And Other Rivers, was published by Math Paper Press in 2015. Her debut novel, How We Disappeared, was published by Oneworld in 2019 and has since been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and the HWA Debut Crown. By seamlessly weaving together two timelines and two life-changing secrets, Lee Jing Jing’s How We Disappeared is an evocative and profoundly moving novel that has garnered acclaim from the likes of Financial Times, Sunday Times and the New York Times.
Lee Jing-Jing graduated with a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford and currently resides in Amsterdam, where she is crafting her second novel. The Culture Embassy Pte Ltd caught up with Lee Jing-Jing to find out more about the inspirations behind How We Disappeared and her literary journey.
What inspired you to write How We Disappeared?
I started off writing short stories. My first book was like a collection of voices, specifically the voices of people who are on the margins of society. The stories depict people who have lived in a block of flats for a very long time and who are made to leave because the flats are slated for demolition. Wang Di is one of the characters in that collection, though I only named her “Cardboard Lady” then.
After I finished the book of short stories, I realized I wanted to write about Wang Di in greater detail. I wanted to map out her past, her present and her future. I started writing about Wang Di not long after I graduated from my masters. I wrote about 30,000 words in just a few weeks. When I got to that point, I reached the realization that I really wanted to write a full-fledged novel. At that time, I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it because I hadn’t tried it before.
Prior to that, I mostly wrote short stories and some poems. Writing that novel was akin to taking a chance. I wasn’t sure that I could finish it but eventually, I did. Then came the journey of finding a literary agent. I searched in the UK and US before signing with Nelle Andrew, an agent based in London. She found me an editor, Juliet Mabey from Oneworld Publications.
Oneworld publishes writers from all over the world (including Vietnam and Iran, not just the Anglophone countries), bringing together international literary voices in fiction, non-ficiton, and translation. Their authors have been shortlisted for international literary awards such as the International Booker Prize, the Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. They are interesting because they explore the expression of voices from other cultures, in addition to those from the mainstream channels, and they focus a lot on showcasing stories and perspectives that are not often talked about in the mainstream.
Could you share with us your journey in crafting How We Disappeared?
My novel took eight years in the making. I did huge amounts of research and in between, I took time off. Whenever it got too much, I had to take a break from the novel. I also published a collection of poetry and did a bit of teaching. A lot of the work was first spent researching, then endless rounds of drafting and redrafting until I simply lost count. The novel that I began with looks very different from the end product.
Prior to meeting my agent, I had worked on it for about 6 years before I went to her with a full manuscript that I felt was worthy to be published.
Both of us then edited the manuscript twice. She would come to me with comments like “What do you mean by this? Could you elaborate?”. Some novelists get their stuff edited down, but I had to work hard on expanding my novel. My editor and I made sure that the scenes in the comfort house were not too whitewashed and that I depicted things as accurately and factually as possible, and that I did not shy away from depicting themes such as sexual trauma and rape.
I don’t think I could have written this novel without having read Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking. It wasn’t an easy read but I think it is necessary for those who want to confront some of the subjects regarding Japan’s war crimes, and sexual trauma that are portrayed in How We Disappeared. I also drew a lot of inspiration from the testimonies of Korean comfort women.
Having said that, my main goal was to tell the story of Wang Di and her struggles to find her “voice”.
Were there moments when you encountered the writer’s block and how did you manage to overcome it?
Sometimes, not writing helps me write. For example, when I am walking down the street or doing yoga, I would have sentences floating around in my mind and I would suddenly realise how to solve a particularly tricky problem.
Being away from the desk helps. If something gets too tricky or difficult, I stop and read. However, I can get so engrossed in the book that I am reading that I feel tempted to stay in the “writer’s pit” and just keep on reading instead of returning to my writing! There was a period when I completely stopped writing for about 3 months.
There are, of course, writers who can write a book in a short period of time, without taking breaks in between. For example, Jack Kerouac claimed to have finished writing On the Road in a very short span of time, but not everyone can emulate that.
Do you consider How We Disappeared as feminist?
This is a book about amplifying minority female voices. It’s about unravelling decades of trauma, making sure that the victims’ voices are heard and that they are not silenced. Wang Di, for instance, hadn’t had the chance to deal with her trauma. I wanted to give her a voice through How We Disappeared.
There are over 300 people on the waiting list, queuing to borrow How We Disappeared from the National Library Board of Singapore’s NLB e-resources. What aspects of this novel resonate with Singaporeans and their culture?
I think this is a very Singaporean book. It is set in Singapore. It is about various Singaporeans and the country’s past and present. The novel is also about the different sides of Singapore, not just set in Syonan-to, but also in modern-day Singapore in 2000. It is essentially very Singaporean without selling itself as being “Asia Exotica”. I am proud of not having over-explained things, except for a few uniquely Singaporean terms such as “void deck”.
How do we foster the literary creativity of authors in Singapore?
I think it is a lot to do with the pressure that society piles on the individual. You are expected to finish a degree, get a good paying job, buy an apartment, get married and have two kids. It can get relentless and suffocating. Some people can deal with it creatively but for me, I had to be away from it all. Having that distance helped me look at Singapore more clearly. It is easier for me to write about Singapore when I am not there.
Creativity can only be fostered when Singaporeans have the freedom to play and read from young. You can pour a lot of money into it, but you have to foster the environment for reading and literary pursuits from a very early age. I think local publishers like Ethos Books and Epigram have done a great job trying to make sure that Singaporean literary voices are heard, but there is a need to start from ground up. If we made playing and reading as important as academic pursuits, and creativity is as much encouraged as coding, then I’m sure that the literary scene will only continue to flourish.