Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo shook South-Korea to the core when it was published there a few years ago, unleashing a fierce #MeToo debate. It chronicles the life of Kim Jiyoung from birth to motherhood to mental breakdown and is written in the form of a psychiatrist report. The cold clinical way her case is described is, of course, a reflection of the way she, as a girl and a woman, is treated. That South Korea lags behind in women’s lib possibly doesn’t come as news but this little book still had the power to surprise and move.
Kim Jiyoung (the South Korean equivalent of Jane Doe) is everyone and no-one and probably quite close to the author herself. She’s born into a family that were hoping for a son; when her younger brother arrives, she’s de-prioritised; when she’s harassed, she, rather than the perpetrator, is blamed; she’s overlooked when applying for jobs and when she finally gets one, she’s paid less than her male colleagues and passed over for promotion.
Incredibly, Kim Jiyoung soldiers on and on, until it all comes crashing down. Sexism is systemic and even Kim Jiyoung’s seemingly empathic and well-meaning boyfriends don’t get it.
If I were an average male in his forties, I would have gone through my entire life without this awareness.
Kim Jiyoung’s psychiatrist reflects, but even he, it turns out, doesn’t really get it. It’s heart-breaking this little book, especially as we know that this is far from fiction.
This is the second internationally bestselling feminist novel coming out of South Korea in the last few years, the other The Vegetarian by Han Kan, went on to win the International Man Booker Prize. Let’s hope these book mark a turning point for South Korean women.
Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo is translated by Jamie Change and published by Scribner, 162 pages.