Delving into Cho Nam-Joo’s novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 it is easy to mistake it for non-fiction. Not only does it cover the reality for many women in Korea but it also uses minimalist prose and statistics to throw you. A fierce international bestseller that launched Korea’s new feminist movement, this book ultimately follows one woman’s psychic deterioration in the face of rigid misogyny.
In a small, tidy apartment on the outskirts of the frenzied metropolis of Seoul lives Kim Jiyoung. A thirtysomething-year-old “millennial everywoman,” who recently left her white-collar desk job to care for her newborn daughter full-time, which is the expectation of so many Korean women. However, she quickly begins to exhibit strange symptoms that alarm her husband, parents, and in-laws. She impersonates the voices of other women both known and unknown to her. As she gets progressively worse, her husband sends her off to a male psychiatrist.
The chilling third-person voice also adds to that non-fiction feel, Jiyoung’s entire life is recounted to the psychiatrist, highlighting the difficulties for women in Korea when it comes to both the workplace and the home as mothers. Born in 1982, it’s noted that Kim’s behaviour is pretty much policed by the male figures around her—from the elementary school teachers who enforce strict uniforms for girls, to the co-workers who install a hidden camera in the women’s restroom and post their photos online. Even when it comes to family, in her father’s eyes, it is Jiyoung’s fault that men harass her late at night; in her husband’s eyes, it is Jiyoung’s duty to sacrifice her career to take care of him and their child, which is commonplace in this country.
Despite an advancing Korea, it seems that Jiyoung’s painfully common life is still set within previous Korea, which may stem from not being in the best of workplaces, still confined to relationships from the previous generation of thinking. A significant book with lacerating prose, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 sits at the centre of our global #MeToo movement and announces the arrival of writer of international significance. It’s a wonderful text that gives an insight into Korean life for women, before the advances at least. However, it sits as a gloomy tale that sees the mental depreciation of this one woman who has been affected so badly by a system that does not give equal rights to men and women, certainly not in 2015.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is out now, published by Scribner UK