The Heroine of This Korean Best Seller Is Extremely Ordinary. That’s the Point.
Kim Jiyoung, the exceptionally average protagonist of Cho Nam-Joo’s novel, is 33, living on the outskirts of Seoul with her husband and infant daughter. She is exhausted by the monotony of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing, and vaguely resentful that she gave up her job at a marketing agency.
There’s nothing especially dramatic about her story, which is precisely Cho’s point. Translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang, Cho’s clinical prose is bolstered with figures and footnotes to illustrate how ordinary Jiyoung’s experience is. “In 2014, around the time Kim Jiyoung left the company, one in five married women in Korea quit their job because of marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and child care, or the education of young children,” she writes, adding exact percentages of working women by age group, with a footnote from a 2015 study published in South Korea’s Health and Social Welfare Review.
Even though her book, “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982,” is fiction, Cho grounded it in statistics so that its message wouldn’t be dismissed as a made-up account of one woman’s experience, she said.
“I wanted to write about issues that women could not speak about before, because they were taken for granted,” Cho said last month during a Skype interview from her home in Seoul, where the streets in her neighborhood were empty because of the coronavirus outbreak. “I wanted to make this into a public debate.”
Her strategy worked. When “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982,” was published in Korea in 2016, it was received as a cultural call to arms. Celebrated and criticized in almost equal measure, the novel ignited a nationwide conversation about gender inequality. K-pop stars like Sooyoung of Girls’ Generation and RM of BTS praised it, delivering a major publicity boost. In 2017, a member of South Korea’s National Assembly bought copies of “Kim Jiyoung” for the entire legislative body. A politician with the left-wing Justice Party gave a copy to President Moon Jae-in with a note imploring him to look after women like Kim Jiyoung. When Seoul passed a new budget with additional money for child care, the city’s mayor promised that there would be “no more sorrow for Kim Jiyoung.”
Like Bong Joon Ho’s Academy Award-winning film “Parasite,” which unleashed a debate about class disparities in South Korea, Cho’s novel was treated as a social treatise as much as a work of art. It sold more 1.3 million copies in the country and was adapted into a feature film. Translation rights sold in around 20 countries, and the book took off in China, Taiwan and Japan. The English-language version, which comes out in the United States on Tuesday, has drawn praise from novelists such as Elif Batuman and Ling Ma, who wrote in a blurb that “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” “possesses the urgency and immediacy of the scariest horror thriller — except that this is not technically horror, but something closer to reportage.”
Cho, a former television writer, is one of several female Korean novelists whose work is resonating at home and abroad. Some of Korea’s biggest and most celebrated literary exports in recent years have a feminist bent. Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian,” about a frustrated housewife who starves herself and believes she is turning into a tree, became a global best seller and won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Kyung-sook Shin’s novel “Please Look After Mom,” about a woman who sacrifices everything for her family then goes missing, won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 and sold more than a million copies in Korea.
“There is no Korean literature without women or feminism right now,” said So J. Lee, who has translated contemporary Korean poetry and fiction by women.
Decades earlier, groundbreaking authors such as Oh Jung-hee, Park Wan-suh and Park Kyongni won commercial and critical acclaim in Korea, despite initially being dismissed as “yeoryu jakga” or “lady writers” by male literary critics, Lee said. Park Kyongni’s most famous work, a 16-volume novel titled “Toji,” was adapted into a movie, opera and television series.
The new, often subversive novels by Korean women, which have intersected with the rise of the #MeToo movement, are driving discussions beyond the literary world.
“These books exposed Korea’s dirty little secret, which is that despite being seemingly wealthy and modern and enlightened and cool, the social advances have fallen far, far, far behind the money,” said Euny Hong, author of “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture.” “What’s recent in Korean feminist literature is the first-world-problem nature of it, where Korea is an extremely wealthy country, and there’s still something that’s profoundly wrong.”
Cho wrote “Kim Jiyoung” in 2015, finishing a draft in just a few months. At the time, misogynistic trolls were becoming a greater presence online. False rumors proliferated on the internet that a South Korean woman had contributed to spreading the MERS virus in Hong Kong after refusing to be quarantined. Derogatory slang targeting housewives, like the term “mum-roach,” was becoming more prevalent.
“I wanted to write about the everyday and common but nonetheless undeserved experience of women around me, about the despair, exhaustion and fear that we feel for no reason other than that we’re women,” Cho said in an email through a translator. “I also wanted this story to not just be a work of fiction, but a very likely true-to-life biography of someone out there.”
Like her heroine, Cho experienced pervasive sexism throughout her life, she said. Born in Seoul in 1978, she studied sociology at Ewha Womans University, the nation’s top women’s college, then spent nearly a decade writing for current events TV programs. She quit to raise her child but found it difficult to restart her career — a biographical detail that informed her novel.
She began gathering articles and sociological data and decided to write a fictional biography of an average Korean woman, following her from birth to the present. In “Kim Jiyoung,” small disappointments and minor outrages trail Jiyoung for her entire life. When she is a child, her parents spoil her younger brother, while she and her sister have to share everything; at her all girls’ high school, male teachers grope and harass their students under the guise of examining their uniforms.
In her first job, Jiyoung and her female colleagues are passed over for choice assignments that are given to less competent but higher paid men. When Jiyoung gets married and decides to start a family, she and her husband quickly determine that she should be the one to stay home since he makes more money, an outcome that was a foregone conclusion. “The fact that Jiyoung saw this coming did not make her feel any less depressed,” Cho writes.
One day, when Jiyoung is sitting on a park bench drinking coffee while her daughter naps in her stroller, she overhears a stranger calling her a “mum-roach” who leeches off her husband’s paycheck. Her pent-up frustration boils over, and she begins speaking in the voices of other women, some living, some dead, the one moment where the story tips from the mundane into the slightly surreal.
Along with praise, the novel generated a backlash among men who opposed Cho’s feminist message. After the pop star Irene, a member of the group Red Velvet, said she was reading it, angry male fans posted videos of themselves burning photos of the singer. A crowdfunding effort began to support a parody book titled “Kim Ji-hun Born in 1990,” about a young Korean man who faces reverse discrimination for being male.
Cho never expected it to drive such extreme reactions. Now that it has become a blockbuster, she has been gratified by the responses from readers who saw their experiences reflected in Kim Jiyoung’s story.
“My novel made people speak out,” she said. “The novel became more complete thanks to the readers themselves.”