Image Credit: Scribner UK
Despite being an in-depth view of life for women in South Korea in the late 20th century, author Cho Nam-Joo ensures the reader understands that ‘Kim Jiyoung is every woman.’ International bestseller Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 provides the reader with a knowledge of gender discrimination inherent in Korean society, and the specific struggles faced daily by women. Whilst an international audience are given an insight into issues inherent in Korean society, the topics such as giving up a career for motherhood or a brother being favoured over a sister are ones which we can recognise as being present in all societies.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 charts the life of Kim Jiyoung, including the circumstances of her birth up until the present where the novel finishes in 2016. The book leads the reader to understand that Kim Jiyoung has gone mad, with her life story forming the basis of the reason why. Naturally split into childhood, adolescence, early adulthood and marriage, Cho cleverly writes in a way in which the reader discovers the hardships of a gender biased society along with Kim Jiyoung.
The protagonist learns to expect to be second choice to a man, to be blamed when she is wronged by one, to eventually give up her independence for a man. As these case studies are unpacked chronologically, in life stages which are generally experienced by all - such as school, work and relationships - the reader is invited to reflect upon their own lives and the injustices they have faced.
Cho educates an international audience on issues facing Korea, such as a sex ratio imbalance at birth where boys are favoured, through referencing sources including relevant journal articles and Statistics Korea. Potentially jarring for a work of fiction, the use of referencing is poignant in that the reader is consistently reminded that, whilst the story of Kim Jiyoung may be fiction, these struggles are in fact very real.
The simplistic authorial voice doesn't allow for misinterpretation. Of course, the novel is translated from Korean - into English by Jamie Chang - which may allow for the simplicity of the tone. However, it seems likely that this was a choice made in order to accurately and definitively communicate the feminist themes in a way in which any reader could decode. The book is therefore accessible to all, and makes for an enjoyable and somewhat easy read.
The novel touches on the notion that although Kim Jiyoung’s life has been largely unremarkable, there is enough evidence to encourage compassion for the madness she acquired in her thirties. Like the straightforward tone with which the novel was written, the problems she faces are easy to grasp, and potentially relatable for readers worldwide. This formula is inevitably what has resulted in over a million copies of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 being sold internationally, as readers are able to respond to the key themes with tangible empathy.
It is important to note that the book is not explicitly violent or sexual in nature, as many novels covering injustice against women often are. Although potentially less triggering for some, this does not make it an easier read: the problems discussed are done so in an impactful manner that has ensured the books position as a key text for Korea’s feminist movement, which is still taboo. Adapted for film in 2019, the sales of the book rise each time feminist issues are brought into the spotlight, not without consequences for women in the media. Female Korean celebrities have been criticised for publicising that they had read the book; particularly singers and actresses who have been bullied online by male fans. The response from men to the book, and to women who have read the book, highlights the severe imbalance between genders in South Korea, and the work they still have to do. The book itself is indicative of the progress which is still left to be made internationally, as gender bias is inherent, parasitic, and increasingly challenging to weed out.