The million copy international bestseller Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo has already been translated into numerous languages – 18 at the last count. It appeared in English in 2020, through the work of translator Jamie Chang. The reviews which speckle its cover call it variously ‘a howl of anger’, ‘moving, witty and powerful’, and a ‘ground-breaking work of feminist fiction’. Every single one of these comments, as well as a review from a highly trusted Goodreads friend, drew me to pick this up in my local Waterstones, and to begin it almost immediately.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is Cho Nam-Joo’s third book. This novella, which runs to just over 160 pages in its English translation, follows Jiyoung, from her birth in the early 1980s to the present day. The structure uses six separate sections, each of which deals with a specific time period in Jiyoung’s life.
We first meet Jiyoung in the autumn of 2015; at this point, she lives on the outskirts of Seoul, has been married to Daehyun for three years, and is the mother of a baby daughter. She is also undergoing a breakdown. We are told, with the addition of her medical records, that ‘Jiyoung’s abnormal behaviour was first detected on 8 September.’ This ‘odd behaviour continued sporadically. She’d send [her husband] a text message riddled with cute emoticons she never normally used, or make dishes like ox-bone soup or glass noodles that she neither enjoyed nor was good at. Jiyoung was starting to feel like a stranger to Daehyun. After all this time – the stories they shared, as countless as raindrops, the caresses as soft and gentle as snowflakes, and the beautiful daughter who took after them both – his wife of three years, whom he married after two years of passionate romance, felt like someone else.’
For Jiyoung, the misogyny which follows her throughout her life starts in her own home, when she is tiny. She has an older sister and a younger brother; the latter is the apple of his parents’ eye, spoilt by everyone around him, and given the best of everything. The omniscient narrator of the piece recalls: ‘The brother had chopsticks, socks, long underwear, and school and lunch bags that matched, while the girls made do with whatever was available… It didn’t matter to the child Jiyoung that her brother was receiving special treatment, and so she wasn’t even jealous. That’s how it had always been. There were times when she had an inkling of a situation not being fair, but she was accustomed to rationalising things by telling herself that she was being a generous older sibling and that she shared with her sister because they were both girls.’ At school, the boys are always allowed to eat first, and have their homework checked before the girls too. It felt like more than a small victory when Jiyoung got the lunchtime rota changed, so that she and her female friends would sometimes be able to start eating first.
Jiyoung’s father worked in a low-level government job, which brought in the house’s only income, and was not expected to do anything at all when he returned home. Her mother was relied upon for everything; along with looking after her three children and her elderly mother-in-law, she had to do all of the household chores, and ‘chose sideline work she could do from home. Taking out stitches, assembling cardboard boxes, folding envelopes, peeling garlic and rolling weather strips were just a few of the endless list of jobs available’ to her.
Cho Nam-Joo’s prose is not hugely descriptive, but this just serves to make everything she writes more impactful. Through the lens of Jiyoung and her sister, Eunyoung, Cho Nam-Joo has presented a great deal about the inequalities embedded in Korean society, and its expectations, which still differ greatly between men and women. Women find it far more difficult to get into the best Universities, and then to embark upon a chosen career. They miss out on promotions, and many find it impossible to start work again after having a child. Paying for rent and childcare more often than not stretches their already limited budgets too far.
Much of what occurs in this striking novella will be familiar to women all over the world. When Jiyoung is sexually harassed, her father asks her: ‘”Why do you talk to strangers? Why is your skirt so short?” Jiyoung grew up being told to be cautious, to dress conservatively, to be “ladylike”. That it’s your job to avoid dangerous places, times of day and people. It’s your fault for not noticing and not avoiding.’
The author is always transparent about the way in which Jiyoung’s experiences are also those of millions of real women living in South Korea, who have had to modify their behaviour, and have missed out on countless opportunities, merely due to their gender. Throughout, Cho Nam-Joo blends facts from Korea alongside her imagined narrative about Jiyoung. These are stark, and startling; for instance, in the 1980s, ‘checking the sex of the foetus and aborting females was common practice’. She also tells us that in an Economist article published in 2016, Korea was named ‘the worst country in which to be a working woman, receiving the lowest scores among the nations surveyed’. The Korean pay gap is also the highest among all of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries; in 2014, it was concluded that women were found to earn only 63% of what men do; the OECD average is 84%.
The importance of Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, cannot be understated. The novella, which provides a fascinating insight into modern history in the country, has had a ‘profound impact on gender inequality and discrimination in Korean society’, and sparked the #MeToo movement in the country. It has sparked conversations all over the world, in fact; much of what Cho Nam-Joo recounts here is familiar to many of us, and still goes on in so many societies today. Cho Nam-Joo has raised numerous questions about ‘endemic misogyny and institutional oppression that are relevant to us all.’ Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is an invaluable work of riveting and disturbing social commentary, which makes its readers contemplate so much about the unjust world in which we have lived for so long.