Finding A Voice

During one of her group fan meetings, Korean Pop (KPop) idol Irene of Red Velvet fame was spotted carrying a book. What she did not expect was the backlash that followed this incident. Many of her and her group’s male fans started burning her pictures, their album, and group merchandizes. Some of these radical fans took videos and pictures of their actions and posted it on social media. What was the book that she was spotted carrying and reading that it was met with such intense backlash? It was Cho Nam-Joo’s novel, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982.

The eponymous Kim Jiyoung was born on April 1, 1982 in the South Korean capital of Seoul. Her family came from a modest background. She was the middle child and was the second daughter. She was also given the most common Korean name for girls. Despite being elder, she and her older sister, Kim Eunyoung, grew up under the shadows of their younger brother, who was treated like a royalty by their grandmother and parents. As she grew older, it became increasingly palpable to Jiyoung that there was a stark dichotomy in how males and females were viewed, not just in her home but all over her country.

Originally published in 2016 in Korean, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, was a commercial success. Immediately after its release, it became the book to sell over one million copies since Kyung Sook-Shin’s Please Look After Mom. It piqued everyone’s interest that no less than the South Korean President Moon Jae-in himself recommended the book. He was quoted saying that “everyone should embrace it”. However, the book elicited its fair share of critics. The novel was met with heavy cynicism for its content. South Korea is known as a patriarchal society and it was no surprise that the novel’s most vocal critics were from men. In fact, any scraps of feminism espoused in Korean literature is frowned upon and any celebrities seen carrying these feminist works usually face backlash. Suzy Bae, another popular Korean celebrity, was in the same dire straits that Irene found herself in.

“Number one on the roster was a boy, everything began with the boys, and that felt like the right, natural thing. Boys lined up first, boys led every procession no matter where they were headed, boys gave their presentations first, and boys had their homework checked first while the girls quietly waited their turn, bored, sometimes relieved that they weren’t going first, but never thinking this was a strange practice. Just as we never question why men’s national registry numbers begin with a “1” and women’s begin with a “2.””

~ Cho Nam-Joo, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

If Irene and Suzy Bae’s situation was any indication, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 was a badly needed literary piece. In writing this novella, Cho drew inspirations from her own experiences. Her goal was clear: to shed light into the deeply entrenched sexism that has been rampant in South Korean society. In her third novel, not only is she diagnosing the problem what ails her nation but she is also giving voice for her fellow women, especially the ordinary voiceless women, who were oppressed by the country’s highly patriarchal society.

The publication of the novel in 2016 coincided with the rise of South Korea’s own #MeToo movement. Despite being perceived as an economic superpower, patriarchy has become a societal and systemic concern as it reverberated from the household up into the workplace. Just like many things, it all started in the household. Even before the births of Jiyoung and her sister, it was palpable how their grandparents (and at times, their father), have always favored a son over a daughter. Jiyoung’s mother, Oh Misook, felt the weight on her shoulders but her in-laws kept reassuring her that she will next birth a son. There was just no alternative to having a son. When she bore a son, she finally breathed a sigh of relief.

The concept of gender roles are underlined in the corners of the home. Sons were often extended privileges that are not afforded to female children. Jiyoung and her older sister were treated as second class citizens. At a young age, they were taught that they must learn to do household chores because that is what their fate is going to be. Historically, women were seen as only fit as homemakers, limited to raising and raring children, keeping the home tidy, and ensuring that the husband has meal to eat when he goes home. They were also pushed to strive in their studies whilst their younger brother can choose to extend his studies.

Sexism is ubiquitous in South Korean society and vivid examples can be observed in school settings. The teachers are often strict and critical of girls’ uniforms whilst they tend to be more lenient on what the boys wear. Quality education is also more accessible to men, underlining the deepening sea of inequality between men and women. Young women like Jiyoung, and even her mother, were forced to give up their dreams. At one point, when Jiyoung was speaking to an ice cream seller, the ice cream seller mentioned that she also had a college degree. In a country as competitive as South Korea, college degrees are nothing but pieces of paper, even more so if the paper bears the name of a woman.

“People who pop a painkiller at the smallest hint of a migraine, or who need anaesthetic cream to remove a mole, demand that women giving birth should gladly endure the pain, exhaustion, and mortal fear. As if that’s maternal love. This idea of “maternal love” is spreading like religious dogma. Accept Maternal Love as your Lord and Savior, for the Kingdom is near!”

~ Cho Nam-Joo, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

On the backdrop of Jiyoung’s story is South Korea’s own success story. Despite being tagged as an economic super power, South Korea lags amongst its peers in workplace equality. South Korea is the 12th largest economy in the world but in a recent gender gap report, it ranked lowly at 108th out of the 153 countries surveyed. Women who chase success were viewed as enigmas and were frowned upon. “Promising” young men were given lighter task for them “not to give up early” whilst the more taxing works were given to the younger women. It was a foregone conclusion that young women, no matter how promising they are, are going to resign later on because of maternity, among other reasons. Promotions also favor the male gender.

The book portrayed many scenes that are ubiquitous not just in a South Korean setting but on a universal scale. Sexual abuse and voyeurism was also pretty common place. What is perhaps more appalling is that blame is often put on the victim. One familiar scene depicted by Cho in the novel is the prevalence of spy-cams which are installed in women’s bedrooms or comfort rooms. Pictures and videos taken are often uploaded in the internet or other distributed through other media. Despite the presence of pieces of evidence, victims opt to be silent because when exposed, the men’s families are going to be put to shame. The blemish on the men’s names are crosses the victims will have to bear. Unfortunately, spy cams are still prevalent in South Korea.

Cho Nam-Joo, without a doubt, has underscored several facets of the inequality between men and women. It is a subject that is all too familiar even if it was written in a different setting. It is something that we often see or hear about. We all share the hope that these inequalities, in the home, in workplaces, in society in general, will be resolved. In underlining these subjects, Nam-Joo also subtly underscored another seminal theme – the stigma surrounding mental health. South Korea has, unsurprisingly or not, very high depression and suicide rates, one of the highest, in fact, amongst OECD member countries. Even psychologists and psychiatrists tend to dismiss these issues, as shown in the closing pages of the book.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 has a very familiar story line. The story was too familiar that rather than reading a story, it was akin to reading a commentary. Rather than letting the story speak for itself, the narrative was propped with ill-timed, and at times unnecessary statistics and footnotes. The weight of the subject and themes explored cannot be denied. However, the execution was a little off, if not lacking. At one point, Kim Jiyoung wrote a marketing piece which she had her team lead, Kim Eunsil, read and evaluate. Her supervisor gave it back and said that, although it was good, it read like an article.

“You’re right. In a world where doctors can cure cancer and do heart transplants, there isn’t a single pill to treat menstrual cramps. The world wants our uterus to be drug-free. Like sacred grounds in a virgin forest.”

~ Cho Nam-Joo, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

There was also very little interaction and dialogue amongst the characters and the readers hear very little from Kim Jiyoung herself. Jiyoung’s profile was built on her psychiatrist’s records and this lack of connection between the readers and the primary character affects one’s appreciation of the story. Readers were treated as mere spectators rather than as part of the narrative. Whilst there were shades of the gray, the story felt monochromatic on the whole. Men and women were portrayed as black and white as well. Women were forgiving of their husbands’ failures. Men, on the other hand, were depicted as either weak or spineless. They rely on their wives when making decisions.

Cho Nam-Joo, like Kim Jiyoung, was forced to quit her job because of her impending motherhood. In drawing from her own experience, Cho wrote a narrative that is timely and seminal. Although it is set in South Korea, Jiyoung’s voice and story reverberates on a universal scale. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is an insightful and unsettling glimpse at what ails society in general through the story of a seemingly ordinary woman. The novella captured how this malady has adversely affected women. As a piece of literature, however, it lacked nuance and finesse. Nonetheless, its conviction to deliver a clear message and to demand for changes is worthy of applause.

Rating

64%

Characters (30%) – 17%
Plot (30%) – 21%
Writing (25%) – 14%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

I first heard of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 back in early 2019 because of its film adaptation that starred Gong Yoo of Train to Busan fame. When I read of and heard of the novel’s English translation, I was excited. I haven’t watched the movie but I had high hopes for the book. You see, the movie elicited controversy in South Korea and the original publication seem to have irked many as well. Before reading the novel, I already have an iota on the deeply-rooted sexism that existed in South Korea. Despite this, I can’t help but feel incensed by the discrimination. The scenes that Cho wove into the story are realities women had to deal with in Korea. The novel is an eye opener, but I feel like the exploration of Jiyoung’s story was lacking. The main character was kept at a safe distance. Nonetheless, this doesn’t negate the fact that a lot needs to be done to topple the patriarchy and this thought-provoking novel is a step towards the right direction.

Book Specs

Author: Cho Nam-Joo
Translator: Jamie Chang
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 163
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

Set in modern-day Korea, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 mesmerizingly diagnoses the endemic misogyny and institutional oppression that is relevant to us all.

Truly, flawlessly, completely, she became that person. In a small, tidy apartment on the outskirts of the frenzied metropolis of Seoul lives Kim Jiyoung. A thirtyssomething “millenial everywoman,” she has recently left her white-collar desk job in order to care for her newborn daughter full-time – as so many Korean women are expected to do. But Jiyoung quickly begins to exhibit strange symptoms that alarm her husband, parents, and in-laws: She impersonates the voices of other women – alive and even dead, both known and unknown to her. As she plunges deeper into this psychosis, her discomfited husband sends her to a male psychiatrist.

In a chilling, eerily truncated third-person voice, Jiyoung’s entire life is recounted to the psychiatrist – a narrative infused with disparate elements of frustration, perseverance, and submission. Born in 1982 and given the most common name for Korean baby girls, Jiyoung quickly becomes the unfavored sister to her princeling little brother. Always, her behavior is policed by the male figures around her, from the elementary school teachers who enforce strict uniforms for girls to the coworkers who install a hidden camera in the women’s restroom and post their photos online. In her father’s eyes, it is Jiyoung’s fault that men harass her late at night; in her husband’s eyes, it is Jiyoung’s duty to forsake her career to take care of him and their child – to put them first.

Jiyoung’s painfully common life is juxtaposed against a backdrop of an advancing Korea, as it abandons “family planning” birth control policies and passes new legislation against gender discrimination. But can her doctor flawlessly, completely cure her, or even discover what truly ails her?

Rendered in minimalist yet lacerating prose, Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 sits at the center of our global #MeToo movement and announces the arrival of writer of international significance.

About the Author

Cho Nam-joo was born in 1978 in Seoul, South Korea.

Before starting a career as a writer, Cho worked as a television scriptwriter for nineteen years. Her most popular work to date is Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 which was originally published in Korean in 2016 before being translated into English in 2020. Although it was her third novel, its portrayal of the gender inequality and discrimination in Korean society gave it a universal language. It has since been translated in 18 languages. The novel was also longlisted for the 2020 US National Book Award for Translated Literature and the French Emile Guimet Prize for Asian Literature. The novel was also adapted into a film which starred Jung Yu-Mi and Gong Yoo.

Cho currently resides in South Korea.