“Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” by Cho Nam-Joo

Detail of US cover Detail of US cover

When Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 was published in South Korea several years ago, it took the country by storm, selling more than a million copies and becoming the most popular book in over a decade. Applauded by many women, those who do not support feminism have spoken out against it. Last year, the film version again caused controversy between those who want South Korean sexism to change and those who think the status quo is just fine. Now available in an English translation by Jamie Chang, English-language readers get a chance to understand this divide firsthand.

Kim Jiyoung is a thirty-three year old wife and mother of a young daughter. Before giving birth and deciding to stay home with her baby, Jiyoung worked at a marketing firm. When she starts mimicking other women, such as her mother and a university friend who passed away during childbirth, her husband Daehyun worries she’s suffering from post-partum depression. It’s true that Jiyoung is no longer around any adults during the day, as Daehyun works late hours. But the reasons behind her “strange” behavior run much deeper.

 

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982: A Novel, Cho Nam-Joo, Jamie Chang (trans) (Scribner, February 2020; Liveright, April 2020)
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982: A Novel, Cho Nam-Joo, Jamie Chang (trans) (Scribner, February 2020; Liveright, April 2020)

Jiyoung’s earlier memories of gender disparity go back to when she’s six years old with an older sister and a baby brother. When her mother tries to slip some nourishment meant for the baby boy,  her paternal grandmother, who lives with the family, scolds Jiyoung:

 

The combination of her tone, expression, angle of head tilt, position of shoulders, and her breathing sent them a message that was hard to summarize in one sentence, but, if Jiyoung tried anyway, it went something like this: How dare you try to take something that belongs to my precious grandson! Her grandson and his things were valuable and to be cherished; she wasn’t going to just let anybody touch them, and Jiyoung ranked below this “anybody.”

 

What Jiyoung doesn’t know as a young girl was that her parents had always been trying for a boy. Her mother had had another pregnancy after Jiyoung and before the brother.

 

Oh Misook became pregnant with her third child less than a year after Jiyoung was born. One night, she dreamt that a tiger the size of a house came knocking down the front door and jumping into her lap. She was sure it was a boy. But the old lady obstetrician who delivered Eunyoung and Jiyoung scanned her lower abdomen several times with a grim look on her face and said cautiously, “The baby is so, so… pretty. Like her sisters…”

 

Jiyoung’s mother’s terminated pregnancy came during a time when gender-selection abortions were popular in South Korea. It also coincided—in the 1980s—with South Korea’s ascent as an economic powerhouse. This realization—that the country was progressing while the position of women remained stuck—is one of the main reasons that Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is such a gripping story.

As an adult, Jiyoung is outwardly happy. Her job is fulfilling, even though she doesn’t earn nearly as much as the men in her office doing roughly the same work and suffers their derogatory names. Jiyoung’s husband Daehyun is kind and generous, but he’s barely at home, even after Jiyoung returns from work.

The couple has a healthy baby daughter. But this is what seems to lead to Jiyoung beginning to take on the voices and demeanors of other women she knows who have suffered.

 

The book is short and can easily be read in one setting. Told in an almost robotic, third-person narrative that seems devoid of emotion, its neutral tone highlights the absurdity of the societal rules forced upon South Korean women.

Not just South Korean women, of course. This universal story of balancing marriage, motherhood, and a career may have driven Kim Jiyoung to the brink of insanity, but it’s also the reason the novel has been translated into over a dozen languages. English readers are fortunate to have a chance to read it now.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.