Cho Nam-Joo – Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982
Reaching the end of Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982, I wanted to lob Cho Nam-Joo’s 2016 novel across my room.
That’s not because I didn’t love it, but because I found it frustrating. Cho’s story of the life of an ordinary Korean woman, from birth to grave, will resonate with women of all ages, of every nationality. Kim Ji-Young is indeed ‘every woman’.
Don’t expect something light-hearted. This is not Bridget Jones’ Diary. Mr Darcy and a pack of fags are nowhere to be found.
If I had to describe this novel in one word, though, it would be ‘important’.
‘Checking the sex of the foetus and aborting females was common practice, as if ‘daughter’ was a medical problem’ (p. 19)
When Ji-Young starts to act strangely, imitating the personalities of women she knows – her mother, an old college friend – her husband takes it upon himself to book her an appointment with a psychiatrist. Here begins the story of Kim Ji-Young, born 1982, brought into the world with prejudice already looming over her: Ji-Young is a daughter in a society that values the son above all else.
In providing a snapshot of life as a woman in Korea, Cho backs up the systematic oppression with cold hard facts and statistics, even going as far as to cite her sources.
I didn’t find this to be overkill, though. Instead, Kim Ji-Young is more than a character in a novel, her experiences are essentially ‘real’. Cho’s use of stats and facts brings a sense of truth to her narrative that warns the reader “don’t you even dare argue with what I have to say”.
‘Help out? What is it with you and “helping out”? You’re going to “help out” with chores. “Help out” with raising our baby. “Help out” with finding me a new job. Isn’t this your house, too? Your home? Your child? And if I work, don’t you spend my pay, too?’ (p. 131)
Though the novel is about the Korean female experience, Ji-Young’s story is universal. Gender inequality is not a South Korean issue, it’s a global issue. From being warned that coming across too ‘smart’ is ‘taxing’, fending off unwanted advances in work/school/anywhere/everywhere or having to choose between a job and a family are issues that every woman could face in their lifetime. The odds are stacked against women from birth.
This isn’t a man-hating novel though, before anyone starts saying “not all men are like that”. There are plenty of men in the novel that are allies. Cho’s focus, however, is on the systematic oppression of women, the cultural practices that are so engrained that even when Kim Ji-Young’s husband does finally show her some support, it barely scratches the surface. It is not something that can be changed at the hands of a few people, but instead needs to be confronted on a worldwide scale.
Kim Ji-Young gets four stars. A powerful read, but loses a star for the chronological order in which its told – sometimes a strict timeline is a little monotonous.