Cho Nam-Joo’s novel ‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982’ centers on a woman who goes about her daily life in South Korea. It sounds simple enough. Yet the story—about everyday sexism that women face in their personal and professional lives—is moving and makes you think. It narrows in on how women, in South Korea and the world over, face unnecessary pressures, scorn, sexism and even assault and how they can lead to a loss of self and lack of confidence. The book was published in 19 countries, becoming an instant bestseller in Japan, China, and Taiwan, and has sold more than two million copies.
Middle-class, 30-something Kim Jiyoung, whose mind starts unraveling suddenly, could easily be any woman we know. She has dealt with the effects of Korea’s misogynistic society from a young age. Her paternal grandmother is disappointed by her birth. She had hoped for a grandson. As a child, Jiyoung had to share a room with her elder sister while her brother got his own. At work, she is overlooked for a promotion. Men make random remarks about her appearance and her father blames her when she is stalked. When she becomes a mother, she has to give up work to look after her child.
Jiyoung also endures many cases of sexual assault and discrimination in her life. Her school had many male teachers who sexually assaulted young girls. One of her male high school teachers touched female students in class using a pointer stick: “He carried around a pointer that had a hand pointing just the index finger on the tip, which he used to poke girls in the breast under the guise of drawing attention to missing nametags, or to lift girls’ skirts to “check their school uniform.”
At work, there’s a hidden spy camera in the ladies’ room and men pass around naked photos of their female colleagues. When found out, the company’s director tries to brush the incident under the carpet saying, “The accused male employees have families and parents to protect. Do you really want to destroy people’s lives like this? Do you want people to find out that your pictures are out there?”
Sexism dictates the lives of most women and through Jiyoung we are made to realize just how it can potentially ruin us, sometimes even without us noticing until it’s too late. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a slim book but it will take you time to finish it because the content is quite heavy. Cho Nam-Joo’s fiction is backed by hard facts in the form of statistics and reports that are cited as footnotes. You might find yourself googling these articles to learn more. I certainly did—actually, going through the references online took more time than reading the book. All in all, the book is an important read that calls for some much-needed introspection.
Three and half stars
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982
Pages: 176, Paperback