Kim Jiyoung, the exceptionally average protagonist of Cho Nam-Joo’s novel, is 33, living on the outskirts of Seoul with her husband and infant daughter. She is exhausted by the monotony of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing, and vaguely resentful that she gave up her job at a marketing agency.
There’s nothing especially dramatic about her story, which is precisely Cho’s point. Cho’s clinical prose is bolstered with figures and footnotes to illustrate how ordinary Jiyoung’s experience is. “In 2014, around the time Kim Jiyoung left the company, one in five married women in Korea quit their job because of marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and child care, or the education of young children,” she writes, adding exact percentages of working women by age group, with a footnote from a 2015 study published in South Korea’s Health and Social Welfare Review.
Even though her book, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, is fiction, Cho grounded it in statistics so that its message wouldn’t be dismissed as a made-up account of one woman’s experience, she said.
“I wanted to write about issues that women could not speak about before, because they were taken for granted,” Cho said during a Skype interview from her home in Seoul. “I wanted to make this into a public debate.”
Her strategy worked. When Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 was published in Korea in 2016, it was received as a cultural call to arms. Celebrated and criticised in almost equal measure, the novel ignited a nationwide conversation about gender inequality. K-pop stars praised it, delivering a major publicity boost. In 2017, a member of South Korea’s National Assembly bought copies of the book for the entire legislative body. A politician with the left-wing Justice Party gave a copy to President Moon Jae-in with a note imploring him to look after women like Kim Jiyoung. When Seoul passed a new budget with additional money for child care, the city’s mayor promised that there would be “no more sorrow for Kim Jiyoung”.
Like Bong Joon Ho’s Academy Award-winning film Parasite, which unleashed a debate about class disparities in South Korea, Cho’s novel was treated as a social treatise as much as a work of art. It sold more 1.3 million copies in the country and was adapted into a feature film.
Cho, a former television writer, is one of several female Korean novelists whose work is resonating at home and abroad. Some of Korea’s biggest and most celebrated literary exports in recent years have a feminist bent. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, about a frustrated housewife who starves herself and believes she is turning into a tree, became a global bestseller and won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Kyung-sook Shin’s novel Please Look After Mom, about a woman who sacrifices everything for her family then goes missing, won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 and sold more than 1 million copies in Korea.
The new, often subversive novels by Korean women, which have intersected with the rise of the #MeToo movement, are driving discussions beyond the literary world.
Cho wrote Kim Jiyoung in 2015, finishing a draft in just a few months. At the time, misogynistic trolls were becoming a greater presence online.
“I wanted to write about the everyday and common but nonetheless undeserved experience of women around me, about the despair, exhaustion and fear that we feel for no reason other than that we’re women,” Cho said. ‘”I also wanted this story to not just be a work of fiction, but a very likely true-to-life biography of someone out there.”
Like her heroine, Cho experienced pervasive sexism throughout her life, she said. Born in Seoul in 1978, she studied sociology, then spent nearly a decade writing for current events TV programs. She quit to raise her child but found it difficult to restart her career — a biographical detail that informed her novel.
She began gathering articles and sociological data and decided to write a fictional biography of an average Korean woman, following her from birth to the present. In Kim Jiyoung, small disappointments and minor outrages trail Jiyoung for her entire life.
Along with praise, the novel generated a backlash among men who opposed Cho’s feminist message. But Cho never expected it to drive such extreme reactions. And now that it has become a blockbuster, she has been gratified by the responses from readers who saw their experiences reflected in Kim Jiyoung’s story.
“My novel made people speak out,” she said. “The novel became more complete thanks to the readers themselves.”
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is published by Scribner at $27.99.
The New York Times