How does Asian historical fiction portray women’s pain?

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Many moons ago, women taking center stage in history were unimaginable. Their lives were thought to be ideal fodder for fluff, but should not be considered worthy of serious scholarship. This situation has been rectified over the years, but what has not changed is the oppression and pain that women have been subjected to since the dawn of time. Asian writers of historical fiction, with their intelligence, dedication, research and commitment to not betraying history for the benefit of fiction, have put women’s pain into perspective – something that still hasn’t. part of the grand scheme of things. Now we have a way to revisit extraordinary moments through the eyes of ordinary women. Thanks to Asian historical fiction, a woman’s body, which has been romanticized or demonized throughout history and almost always held back by her biology, is being reclaimed. Their struggles are finally heard, seen and recognized by a readership that transcends borders and eras.


Cover of Difficult Girls

At Manju Kapur’s difficult girls depicts the impact of intergenerational trauma on the lives of women in pre-independence India. We see fiercely intelligent women held back by social expectations and cowardly men. Rising above national ambitions was no small feat. We see Virmati constantly torn between her desire for an education and an illicit love for a married man who didn’t want to follow his chops. The man in question never separated from his first wife and although he was highly educated, liberal upbringing did not reflect much on his thought process. When Virmati became pregnant before marriage, she suffered on her own and was reluctant to ask her roommate for help. Living in a society where women were ashamed not only of their bodies but also of existing, she couldn’t find anyone to confide her secret to. Women’s pain is often seen as a lonely experience that they are expected to endure and overcome on their own, despite it being a global phenomenon.

In war

“A woman’s life is endless labor and suffering. There is pain and more pain. It’s better to expect it, you know. You’re becoming a woman now, so we should tell you.

This quote from Min Jin Lee’s extraordinary novel, Pachinko, sums up the lives of its female characters. Sunja passively submitted to her situation as a woman, she didn’t have much choice. Her decision not to spend her life as the mistress of her lover Hansu exposed the rest of the events of the novel. He never wanted to legitimize their relationship and expected Sunja to accept his proposal so he could have families in Japan and Korea. Her memories of her parents’ marriage and her father’s adoration for little Sunja prevented her from settling for the shameful future offered to her. Throughout the novel, Sunja would become emblematic of strength as she fought against fate for the sake of her children, her family, and herself. Lee describes how, even in the worst of circumstances, women show incredible resilience to respond to suffering with dignity and courage.

cover of How We Disappeared by Jing Jing Lee

In how we disappeared, Jing-Jing Lee gave voice to Singaporean women whose stories have been mostly excluded from popular discourse centered on World War II. Through Wang Di’s life story, Lee portrays the agony women had to endure at the hands of the Japanese military. She was still a teenager when she was abducted and kept in prison for three years as “comfort woman.” She has been cut off from all contact with the outside world and this harrowing living arrangement has been specially arranged to appease the whims of men. She didn’t know if she would ever be free again and even if the impossible happened, she would forever be treated like an outcast by her family and community. This novel not only illuminates the many injustices that have become the defining fabric of a woman’s life, but also dignifies the experiences of survivors of war and misogyny.

While history treats its women as collateral damage, Asian literature humanizes them and acknowledges their pain. They are not glorified for their lived experiences, nor reviled for their follies. Asian historical fiction simply allows them to exist as they are and given the world we live in, this has indeed become a privilege for the female of the species.

If you would like to explore more Asian literature, please see Southeast Asian Women’s Fiction: 5 Short Reads.

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