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The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

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Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Found in Translation

The gender politics of South Korea

Sheima Benembarek

When Kim Jiyoung was born, her mother, Oh Misook, wept over the misfortune of bringing another girl into the world. “It’s okay,” her mother-in-law said. “The third will be a boy.” There was such pressure to produce a son that when Oh Misook fell pregnant again, she resorted to a secret sex-selective abortion. The practice was gaining popularity in South Korea at the time, as if girls were a medical problem. And when she finally delivered a boy, her two daughters took a back seat.

Years later, Jiyoung lives in Seoul, where her roles as wife and stay-at-home mother are predestined, expected. She builds a short career in marketing — curbed by marrying and having a child of her own — in a company where she is passed over for promotions because her employer “did not think of female employees as prospective long-term colleagues.” We meet her when the everyday oppression has driven her to a mental health collapse.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, the third novel by the former scriptwriter Cho Nam‑Joo, quickly became a publishing phenomenon. When it came out in 2016, it stirred the Korean public, generating a controversy anchored in gender politics that highlighted the seemingly banal injustices women face. A bestseller throughout Asia, it has sold over a million copies, has been translated into eighteen languages, and was recently made into a film. Cho emphasizes the tragic ordinariness of Jiyoung’s experience before the narrative even begins: her name is one of the most common for girls of her generation. Kim Jiyoung, the reader is primed to understand, is emblematic of the everywoman.

The novel’s publication coincided with the beginnings of the South Korean version of #MeToo, dubbed #WithYou. The campaign has its roots in the 2016 protests over the brutal murder of a twenty-three-year-old woman near Gangnam Station in Seoul. The man who killed her, never having met her before, claimed he was tired of being “ignored” by women. Another pivotal event: the televised interview in 2018 of a public prosecutor, Seo Ji‑hyun, where she accused a justice official of sexually harassing her. South Korea remains at the bottom of The Economist’s glass-ceiling index, which evaluates environments for working women, and it has one of the biggest gender pay gaps in the developed world. Cho includes 2014 data that puts Korean women’s earnings at 63 percent of what their male counterparts make.

While it is a fictional account, the novel is peppered with facts and footnotes; Cho annotates again and again. The story is chronicled in simple, stark reportage style, structured around four main parts: Childhood, 1982–1994, Adolescence, 1995–2000, Early Adulthood, 2001–2011, and Marriage, 2012–2015. Again, this is more than one woman’s tale.

Janie Yoon, who acquired the book for House of Anansi Press, notes that whenever a title truly captures the public’s attention, you have to consider the timing. Is it just good fortune, or is the subject matter hitting a nerve in the collective consciousness? In this case, that connection to current concerns has been a big part of the novel’s success, she explains over a Zoom conversation from her home in Toronto.

“I was amazed at how accurately it depicts the way women are treated, the way things are just assumed from the moment you’re born,” says Yoon, who is also of South Korean background. “These things are just part of the culture because it’s very much influenced by an extremely hierarchical Confucian belief system.” But the sexism that Jiyoung experiences isn’t happening just in a faraway land. “You feel it here too,” Yoon says. “It just might be more muted.”

When Yoon received the book from the Taiwanese literary agent Gray Tan, it immediately appealed to her. The topic was very much up her alley, but she was also excited about the cultural momentum propelling it. Korean culture “is suddenly very popular,” she says. “People are even putting kimchee on french fries. When I was growing up, you did not want your friends coming over and opening your fridge!” But it’s not just the cuisine: K‑pop is booming, and Bong Joon Ho’s thriller Parasite collected four Academy Awards last year, including best picture — the first foreign-language film to do so. And thanks to blockbuster authors like Stieg Larsson and Elena Ferrante, there’s been a growing appetite for international literary translation. The English translation of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, by Jamie Chang, who teaches at a university in Seoul, came out in Canada earlier this year. The pandemic disrupted promotional plans, but, as Yoon says, “books have long lives.”

For the novel’s protagonist, the outlook is far less hopeful. On a stroll through a park with her daughter, Jiyoung overhears a group of strangers whispering about her: “I wish I could live off my husband’s paycheque . . . bum around and get coffee . . . mum-roaches got it real cushy.” She can endure this reality in silence for only so long. Then she falls apart.

Eventually, we learn that Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is her patient file, an assessment of her dissociative disorder and depression brought to the reader by her male psychiatrist. The book ends with his comments about a female employee who’s about to go on parental leave. He notes, with unnerving nonchalance, “I’ll have to make sure her replacement is unmarried.”

Sheima Benembarek is a recent graduate of the King’s College master of fine arts program.

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