May 2020

by Helen Elliott

‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982’ by Cho Nam-Joo (trans. Jamie Chang)
The coldly brilliant, bestselling South Korean novel describing the ambient harassment and discrimination experienced by women globally

Kim Jiyoung is 33 years old. She has been married for three years and has a baby daughter. Her husband, Daehyun is three years older, works long hours in an IT company, is thoughtful and kind. They live in a small apartment on the outskirts of Seoul. One set of grandparents live in Busan, a five-hour trip by car, and Jiyoung’s parents run a small restaurant – so Jiyoung, who enjoyed her work in marketing, is now at home with their daughter. One evening in the autumn of 2015 Daehyun notices his wife behaving oddly.

Jiyoung starts ventriloquising other people. She mimics her mother’s attitudes and physical gestures, and Daehyun is amused and entertained. He’s not so entertained later when she starts calling him “Dude” and insists she is a female friend of theirs who recently died. Then, in the harvest holidays visiting Daehyun’s parents, Jiyoung projects her mother again. She has found a channel to speak about herself: “To tell you the truth, my poor Jiyoung gets sick from exhaustion every holiday.” Daehyun’s family are affronted and, believing her to have postnatal depression, Daehyun takes her to a psychiatrist.

Cho Nam-Joo is a former television scriptwriter. In South Korea her novel sold more than 1 million copies and caused sensational public debate. What is sensational about the novel is Kim Jiyoung’s ordinariness. Her name signifies exactly this: it was the most popular choice for a female baby born in 1982. She’s a nice girl, smart but no genius, attractive but not beautiful, she helps her mother, obeys her father, does her schoolwork, goes to a university and, after backbreaking persistence, gets a lowly job in marketing. She likes her job, despite the outrageous sexism, because she feels useful and capable, and she earns her own money. But having a baby is not compatible with having a job and as much as she adores her little daughter she cannot figure out a future. Being uncomplainingly perfect hasn’t been rewarded.

What this book coolly identifies is the ambient harassment and discrimination that women, globally, experience but too often don’t recognise. Cho Nam-Joo distils what it is like to be female in a world that has belonged to, and been defined by, males. This has nothing to do with the grand moments, the glass-ceiling reachers, and everything to do with the minutiae of life from the moment a daughter is conceived. And not terminated as a foetus, as is often the case in Korea, once the sex is identified. Jiyoung’s existence is a wan reflection of male expectations. Not that she expresses this. Her thoughts remain feelings, necessarily incoherent because there is no language for her inner self.

This novel, now a film, ignited a Korean #MeToo movement. It has cold brilliance and teeth. It is also terrifying. There will not be a female reader of this translation who will not identify with Kim Jiyoung, nor has there been a calmer dissection of an unidentifiable psychic pain that is certainly not particular to Korea.

As the psychiatrist says in the final chapter: “I’ve come to realise there is a world I wasn’t even aware of.” Me too.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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