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Kim Jiyong, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo — the unfair world of women

Cover of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, a novel by Cho Nam-Joo that offers a chilling indictment of the iniquities and discrimination  that pervade every aspect of life for women in South Korea.

In Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, Cho Nam-Joo offers a chilling indictment of the discrimination and misogyny experienced by women in South Korea.

Cho Nam-Joo said she wrote the novel to stimulate a public debate about the struggle of women in her country against sexism and misogyny. It’s an issue seen through the lens of one woman — Jiyoung, a 33-year-old mother who lives in an apartment on the outskirts of Seoul.

Without warning, she begins to exhibit an alarming change in behaviour, taking on the personalities of other people (some of whom are dead) and speaking of herself as if she were someone else. Her husband is bemused initially but when she outrages his parents by her behaviour, he decides it’s time for action.

Jiyoung begins to see a psychiatrist, his records of their conversations about her life forming the bulk of the novel. Her story reveals how the systemic oppression of women she experienced from childhood, is deeply ingrained in South Korean culture.

In 1982 when she was born, it was common practice for prospective mothers to check the sex of the foetus and to abort any females “as if ‘daughter’ was a medical problem”. At school, boys got to eat lunch first; were more likely to be chosen as class monitors and suffered fewer rules about their uniform. The unfairness continued at home — Jiyoung and her sisters were required to help with household chores while the youngest child (the precious boy) got off scot free and was served larger portions of food.

As an adult Jiyoung encounters discrimination at every turn. In the workplace, women are paid less than men, miss out on promotional opportunities and are subjected to sexual harassment. But when she forsakes her career in marketing to take care of her child, she is horrified to find herself labelled as a parasitic “mum-roach.”

Her experience is rendered in a dispassionate third-person account accompanied by data points from official reports and newspaper reports.

We get for example the issue of the imbalance of male/female managers in the workplace. On one occasion Ji-young’s female supervisor tells her an anecdote from another company where she asked her lunch companions about the firm’s childcare leave policy.

... none of the five, including one department head, knew the answer because none of them had ever seen an employee go on childcare leave. She couldn’t picture herself at the company ten years down the road, resigned after some thought, and her boss grumbled, ‘This is why we don’t hire women.’ She replied, ‘Women don’t stay because you make it impossible for us to stay.’

Immediately we are then told :

The percentage of female employees who use childcare leave has increased from 20 per cent in 2003 to more than half in 2009, and four out of ten still work without childcare leave. [11] Of course, there are many women who have already left their jobs due to marriage, pregnancy or childbirth, and have not been included in the statistical sample of childcare leave. The percentage of female managers has also increased steadily but slightly from 10.22 per cent in 2006 to 18.37 per cent in 2014, but it’s not even two out of ten yet. [12]

These footnotes chillingly illustrate how gender-based injustices are by no means unique. to one woman. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 shows a society that does change as South Korea becomes a key player on the world economic stage. “Family planning” birth control policies are abandoned and new laws are enacted against gender discrimination.

But there’s a sense that these developments are not enough to overcome the traditional beliefs about women’s role in society and that without practical support in the workplace, it would still be difficult for women to rise to the top of the career ladder. We’re told that: “in certain pivotal moments in women’s lives, the ‘woman’ stigma reared its head to obscure their vision, stay their hands and hold them back. The mixed signals were confusing and disconcerting.

Comparisons with another Korean literary sensation — The Vegetarian by Han Kang— are inevitable. Both focus on women whose mental health disintegrate under the pressure of trying to conform to society’s expectations. Kim Jiyong, Born 1982 isn’t as literary nor as elemental but does have a similarly disquieting conclusion about the prospects of lasting change.

Kim Jiyong, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo : Footnotes

Cho Nam-joo was working as a scriptwriter for TV programmes but took two months off work to write her book. According to her, the life of her main character wasn’t significantly different to the one she had lived so the novel came together very quickly.

After its publication in 2016, the novel became a social media sensation, giving new energy to the feminist campaign in South Korea as well as the  #MeToo movement. The English language edition, with translation by Jamie Chang, was published by Scribner in 2020.

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