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This Korean bestseller chronicles the everyday struggle of women against endemic sexism. Its provocative power springs from the same source as its total, crushing banality: in telling the story of Kim Jiyoung – whose name is the Korean equivalent of “Jane Doe” – Cho Nam-joo’s third novel has been hailed as giving voice to the unheard everywoman.
When we meet Jiyoung, she is 33, with a one-year-old child. Her life is unremarkable, except that she has begun to take on the personalities of other people. During a visit to her in-laws, Jiyoung slips into her mother’s identity and speaks in a manner deemed inappropriate for her place in the age-based hierarchy of Korean society. Her father-in-law is outraged, thundering: “Is this how you behave in front of your elders?”
Jiyoung agrees to visit a psychiatrist, and his record of their conversations about her life makes up most of this slim novel. She was born when “checking the sex of the foetus and aborting females was common practice, as if ‘daughter’ was a medical problem”. We see that though she has always played by the rules, she cannot win. “Jiyoung was standing in the middle of a labyrinth. Conscientiously and calmly, she was searching for a way out that didn’t exist.” The clinical, dispassionate third-person account, annotated by reports from newspapers and official demographic data, catalogues the systemic oppression she has faced. At school, boys eat first, and she suffers sexual harassment and victim blaming. In the workplace, she has first-hand experience of the gender pay gap (“women working in Korea earn only 63 per cent of what men earn”). And while performing the uncompensated, costly work of motherhood, she is horrified to hear herself denigrated as a parasitic “mum-roach”.
What does it mean to narrate a life in a strictly chronological fashion? The linearity of the account feels claustrophobic, with the case-study style objectifying Jiyoung and stripping her of her interiority. Cho’s formal excision of any sense of imaginative possibility is highly effective in creating an airless, unbearably dull world in which Jiyoung’s madness makes complete sense. Her derangement is the only way out of the cramped paradox of gender-based roles.
As time passes, the novel shows how attitudes towards gender are entwined with socioeconomic issues. Cho spotlights the Korean financial crisis of 1997, after which increases in wage inequality and barriers to social mobility contributed to a sense of despair, fuelling misogynistic sentiments. Jiyoung’s life is also set against more positive developments, such as new legislation against gender discrimination – but the path to progress is serpentine. “The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and customs had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all.”
“When you girls grow up, maybe we’ll even have a female president!”, speculated Jiyoung’s mother to her young daughter. And indeed, when Kim Jiyoung was published in Korea in 2016, there was a female president: Park Geun-hye, the daughter of military dictator Park Chung-hee. But Park Geun-hye adopted her father’s method of patriarchal authoritarianism. Under her leadership, gender inequality worsened, women took a disproportionate hit from the growing wealth gap and the number of sex crimes rose.
Park Geun-hye was eventually brought down by a huge corruption scandal that erupted in 2016, causing millions of Koreans to take to the streets calling for her impeachment. In May that year, a 34-year-old man murdered a random woman in a Seoul subway, stating that he did so because he felt “ignored” and “belittled” by women. The public outcry that followed this attack fused the widespread energy of change with a nascent popular feminist consciousness, taking root in the Korean version of #MeToo.
Kim Jiyoung’s publication during this seachange in mood could not have been more perfectly timed. The first Korean novel in nearly a decade to sell more than 1m copies, it has become both a touchstone for a conversation around feminism and gender and a lightning rod for anti-feminists who view the book as inciting misandry (there was a crowdfunding campaign for a book called Kim Ji‑hoon, Born 1990, showing the “reverse discrimination” faced by men). The book has also touched a nerve globally: a bestseller in China, Taiwan and Japan, it has been translated into 18 languages, in English by Jamie Chang, and adapted for film.
The character of Kim Jiyoung can be seen as a sort of sacrifice: a protagonist who is broken in order to open up a channel for collective rage. Along with other socially critical narratives to come out of Korea, such as Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite, her story could change the bigger one.
• Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo, translated by Jamie Chang, is published by Scribner (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 review – South Korean #MeToo bestseller | Fiction in translation