Lee Jing-Jing first Singaporean writer longlisted for prestigious Women's Prize for Fiction

Writer Lee Jing-Jing's international debut How We Disappeared has charted on the Straits Times fiction bestseller list for the past five weeks.
Writer Lee Jing-Jing's international debut How We Disappeared has charted on the Straits Times fiction bestseller list for the past five weeks.PHOTOS: ALINE BOUMA, ONEWORLD

SINGAPORE - Writer Lee Jing-Jing has become the first Singaporean to be longlisted for the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction, a prestigious British award for female authors.

Her novel How We Disappeared, about "comfort women" in World War II Singapore, made the list of 16 on Tuesday (March 3).

It is up against the likes of Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other, which won the Booker Prize last year; The Dutch House by former Women's Prize winner Ann Patchett; and Hilary Mantel's much-anticipated historical novel The Mirror And The Light, out this Thursday.

The £30,000 (S$53,400) prize, previously known as the Orange Prize and the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, was set up in 1996 to celebrate and promote international fiction by women throughout the world.

It will be awarded to the best full-length novel of the year, written in English by a woman and published in the United Kingdom between April 1 last year and March 31 this year.

The Amsterdam-based Lee, 34, is the first Singaporean to make the list, although British-Chinese writer PP Wong, who was born to Singaporean parents, was longlisted in 2015 for her novel The Life Of A Banana.

She says over e-mail that she was changing her son Dylan’s diaper when she got the news from her publisher, who sounded so serious she thought it was bad news. 

“I had to ask her to repeat herself. Then the news started to sink in and I began to jump wildly up and down. Dylan got excited as well and expressed it by whacking my face with his palm.

“I feel incredibly honoured to be on this year’s longlist, in the company of such literary giants. I’m also glad this might give more attention to Singaporean voices in literature – we are a small island with an outsized reputation for being finance- and tech-forward, so it would be great if readers around the world were more interested in reading fiction by us as well.”

How We Disappeared was Lee's international debut. It follows Wang Di, an elderly cardboard collector who as a teenager endured sexual slavery in a WWII Japanese military brothel, and Kevin, a 12-year-old boy who is bullied at school and is trying to find a missing link from his family's past.

Published last year (2019), it has had a recent resurgence on the Straits Times fiction bestseller list, on which it has charted for the past five weeks.

Lee said in an earlier interview that it is "virtually impossible" to find first-hand accounts of local women forced into sexual slavery during WWII, but that does not mean there were none. "It was very important to me that this not be a book about rape, but about surviving trauma. It is about surviving your memories and the past, more than anything else. I told as much truth as I could afford to tell."

 
 

The Women's Prize longlist ranges from titles by award-wining authors such as Anne Enright's Actress and Jacqueline Woodson's Red At The Bone to bestselling debuts such as Taffy Brodesser-Akner's Fleishman Is In Trouble and Candice Carty-Williams' Queenie.

Notably absent is Margaret Atwood's The Testaments, the sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, which won the Booker last year alongside Girl, Woman, Other.

This year's jury is chaired by businesswoman and philanthropist Martha Lane Fox and includes bestselling author Paula Hawkins. They chose the 16 nominees from 152 novels.

Baroness Lane Fox said in a statement: "Ahead of the longlist meeting I was anxious that the negotiations between judges might be as arduous as Brexit, but it was an absolute delight to pick our final 16 books.

"Entries for the Prize's 25th year have been spectacular and we revelled in the variety, depth, humanity and joy of the writing - we hope everyone else will too."

The shortlist will be announced on April 22 and the winner will be announced on June 3.