by Deborah Rogers –
Cho Nam-Joo’s slim 2016 novel, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, sold over a million copies upon release in South Korea before being translated and published globally. It created a wave of discussion in that country and beyond about women’s rights, and coincided with the #metoo movement that was gaining momentum elsewhere.
We meet the protagonist, Kim Jiyoung, as a 33-year-old woman, three years into her marriage, with one child, and she’s had enough. Kim begins disassociating; she is seemingly inhabited by a series of other women from her life. Kim’s husband Daehyun is naturally worried – his clever, capable, articulate wife is suddenly acting completely out of character. He takes her to a psychotherapist, and gradually Kim’s life story comes out.
What is revealed as we learn about Kim’s childhood, adolescence and adult life is that South Korea is a truly terrible place to be a woman. It’s a culture that is built around a patriarchal structure and the odds are set against females from even before birth. We learn about the pressure to have a male child and the termination of female fetuses. We witness from inside the family how a daughter’s options are determined based always on her brother’s needs. We see how in the school system boys have priority at all times, including the games they can play at recess and who gets to eat first.
Kim’s role in the book is that of an every woman; the constant, relentless discrimination, assaults and microaggressions that she experiences are the experiences of all women. The clever inclusion of footnotes throughout that relate real statistics to back up the fictional story means that you can’t look away from what the author is telling us.
On the whole the details related in the book surprised our readers and led to a long discussion. It is a culture that not many had experience of and it was eye-opening, though not necessarily enjoyable, to read this deft little story that packed so much injustice into one character’s life. We were interested also to hear that there was a strong backlash to the book in South Korea. Many men did not want to hear how the lives of their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters actually felt, or couldn’t accept it as reality. The little twist at the end of the book seems to anticipate this male reaction too.
Our next meeting takes place on Tuesday, March 14 at 6:30 p.m. We’ll meet at the Nell Horth Room at the Sidney/North Saanich Library to discuss Son of Elsewhere by Elamin Abdelmahmoud. Sign up to the book club email list to stay up to date with what we’re reading and meeting information: www.seasidemagazine.ca/book-club/.