The tagline of last year’s cautiously anticipated film Kim Jiyoung: Born 1982 (82년생 김지영) promised to tell “your story and mine.” The picture itself delivers only to the extent that you or I happen to be a Korean woman in early middle age, and even then to the extent that our background aligns with the title character’s. But that was more than understood, given the frenzy of attention already drawn by the picture’s source material: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, the debut novel by a former television writer named Cho Nam-joo. As I wrote here on the Korea Blog two years ago, this plain tale of a woman’s life of struggle and frustration in the realms of school, family, work, employment, and childrearing became an unlikely bestseller not long after its publication in late 2016.
At the same time, Cho’s novel also became an even less likely object of fierce controversy. Battle lines were drawn across society over its diagnosis of the plight of Korean womanhood in the 21st century. Social media, by its very nature, stoked the flames: on Instagram, an all-powerful force in Korea, the book’s familiar cover became a declamatory flag to hoist up in selfies. But however long a moment Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 enjoyed, trends have a way of simmering down here no sooner than they’ve boiled up. Translations into other languages began appearing not long after the book turned into a social phenomenon, but the English-language publishing industry seems, true to form, to have dragged its feet. Published just this year, Jamie Chang’s rendering of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 can now give English-readers a clearer idea of what all the fuss was about.
I am not, it will be noted, a Korean woman in early middle age. In normal times this wouldn’t need saying, but these days — from what I gather watching the culture wars now raging on Western social media — one can’t be too careful about declaring one’s identity. By some lights, I’m disqualified from writing about this book entirely. Did I, like Kim Jiyoung, go through childhood making do with what was left after my brother had his fill? Was I tormented by boys at school and told simply to endure it? Have I felt the pressure exerted by an entire extended family to produce a son, and the judgment when I didn’t? Was I forced to quit a job I enjoyed (apart from being expected to make coffee for the higher-ups) when I did have a child, who turned out to be a daughter? Do I have to travel to my in-laws’ home every holiday and cook them food for days straight? Have I lived in fear of strangers’ hands on the bus, or of the pornographers’ cameras potentially hidden in every restroom stall? Have I withstood all this only to be derided as a “mom-roach”?
In the original, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is written clearly and straightforwardly enough that I recommend it without reservation to Korean-learners who want to start reading novels. But all of its eighteen translators so far must have had to take a deep breath at the term Chang translates as “mom-roach,” mam-chung (맘충) in Korean. Few equivalents could accurately convey both its currency and its intent, to label as public nuisances those non-working mothers who use their young children to cut in line, make special demands, and otherwise bend the rules. Though the comparatively meek Jiyoung engages in none of these behaviors, she nevertheless overhears herself so described by a stand of office workers as she sits in a park with her daughter and an americano. This is what sends her around the bend: soon, to her husband’s blindsided distress, she starts blankly channeling other women — a dead college friend, her own mother — to complain bitterly in the third person about her lot in life.
Jiyoung’s husband sends her to a psychotherapist, whose report of the life that has brought Jiyoung to this point ostensibly makes up the novel. Only at the beginning and end, however, does Cho adhere convincingly to that voice. Before long it drifts closer to the subject herself: “She couldn’t win,” narrates the “psychotherapist” in the aftermath of a heavily pregnant Jiyoung’s humiliating commute on the crowded Seoul subway. “Exercising all the rights and utilizing the benefits made her a freeloader, and fighting tooth and nail to avoid the accusation made things harder for colleagues in a similar situation.” At times it reads more like the work of a firebrand opinion columnist. “People who pop a painkiller at the smallest hint of a migraine, or who need anesthetic cream to remove a mole, demand that women giving birth should gladly endure the pain, exhaustion and mortal fear,” the text preaches. “This idea of ‘maternal love’ is spreading like religious dogma. Accept Maternal Love as your Lord and Savior, for the Kingdom is near!”
Unevenness of tone is perhaps to be expected from a first-time novelist who, by her own admission, wrote quickly and drew heavily from her own life. But it can’t have escaped notice here in Korea that, in the main, even Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982‘s strongest advocates shy away from discussing the book’s literary qualities. A case can be made for its plodding style, the better to convey the punishing mundanity of the indignities visited day after day and decade after decade on the strenuously blameless protagonist. In stretches it reads like a Biblical Book of Jiyoung, though it ends not with God restoring the societally battered young mother to her former promise but the psychotherapist making a note to himself to replace a departing pregnant employee with a man. The film adaptation insists on a mildly triumphant ending instead, one in which Jiyoung finds herself as a memoirist — preceded by an additional “mom-roach” encounter that overplays its hand with an indignant piano-and-string-scored monologue.
But at least movies don’t have citations. I’d hoped, for the book’s own sake, that the English translation would cut the footnotes that occasionally appear in the original. Cho uses them not as David Foster Wallace-style containment units for digressions from or information incidental to the story at hand, but to cite non-fictional sources backing up her facts and figures: the change in the sex ratio of the Korean population, the year the Ministry of Gender Equality was founded, the rate of increase in college tuition, the percentage of women who use their childcare leave, South Korea’s last-place score “among the nations surveyed on the glass-ceiling index by the British magazine The Economist.” Apart from making for a reading experience that feels like an oscillation between a cri de coeur and a white paper, it suggests on the writer’s part a less than unshakable faith in the power of fiction — a form not traditionally reliant on hard numbers — to generate sympathy in the reader.
Then again, as someone other than a Korean woman in early middle age, I’m not allowed to say this, and certainly not as a white American man. Even within Korea, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 for a time took on the properties of a sociopolitical third rail: praise it and you were part of the feminist conspiracy; criticize it and you were part of the patriarchy. For some, critical engagement first with the book’s strengths and weaknesses as a work of art amounted to an attack on its implicit claim that the lives of many real women are similar to that of its long-suffering main character. Anyone who dares make such an argument faces not a counterargument but a stone wall: the reflexive appeals to “lived experience” that in the West have lately rendered cogent discussion between people of different backgrounds nearly impossible have also begun to catch on in Korea.
There was a time when the novel was regarded as the most effective bridge for just such gaps of understanding. The greatest make even the most alien characters sympathetic, but I suspect Kim Jiyoung will strike you that way only in direct proportion to how much you have in common with her. Crafted as an everywoman — if you’ve spent much time in Korea, you’ve almost certainly encountered someone of the exact same name, and quite possibly birth year as well — she at first comes off as blandly amiable, almost a cipher, but eventually the text begins listening in to her sarcastic internal monologue. “Lucky me, I get to retch all the time, am unable to eat or shit properly, and I’m always tired, sleepy, and sore all over,” she thinks in response to a co-worker’s congratulations on her pregnancy and the shifted work hours that come with it. She has a point, but whether she’ll have the sympathetic ear of, say, a Rust Belt single mother with a husband in jail and a worsening painkiller problem is another matter.
Such an individual is not, of course, squarely in the target demographic of a novel like Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, but how the English translation ultimately fares will interest those invested in Korean literature’s prospects abroad. In following an exemplary character rather than an exceptional one, Cho performs the mirror-like function that many Korean readers seem to expect of their literary novelists but that has proven a liability in selling to readers more accustomed to the conventions of hero-oriented Western storytelling. (The film may find a larger audience, more so if the Lifetime Network remakes it first.) But though the book’s time has passed in Korea, its themes remain broadly topical enough to tap into the same global zeitgeist that, in Deborah Smith’s translation, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian — another story of a Korean women pressured in so many ways that her pent-up dissatisfaction bursts frighteningly and suddenly out — did in 2016.
Not every Western critic was convinced of the earlier book’s charms, least of all the New York Review of Books‘ Tim Parks. “It occurs to me there is a shared vision of what critics would like a work of ‘global fiction’ to be and that The Vegetarian has managed to present itself as a candidate that can be praised in those terms,” he writes. “Ideologically, it champions the individual (woman) against an oppressive society (about which we know nothing, except that it seems ‘worse’ than our own). Emotionally, it allows us to feel intense sympathy for a helpless victim, which is always encouraging for our self-esteem.” Above all, “the writing must be accessible. The foreignness and exoticism must in no way present a barrier to easy reading.” Though Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 fulfills these requirements and then some, it does run the risk of not being quite foreign enough.
Cho references Korean customs and traditions, but only in order to enumerate the ways in which they hold back women like Jiyoung. In illustrating what they’re held back from, the book defaults to highlighting the divergences between the conditions under which Korean girls and women live and those under which Korean boys and men do. The fact that the sexes don’t perform the same work, wear the same uniforms, have the same responsibilities in marriage, or have national ID numbers starting with the same digit is in itself proof of a problem. For those who subscribe to the currently fashionable notion that human condition is created and perpetuated by humans, and thus subject to revision by humans, the law can solve it by convincing society to treat any inherent differences between the sexes as inconsequential. But as the ambiguous narrative voice wonders, “Do laws and institutions change values, or do values drive laws and institutions?”
That’s a fascinating question — and in its way, one of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982‘s driving themes — but not one the book explores in any further depth. Of course, rather than working out the dynamics between culture, law, and biology, many frustrated Koreans opt for a simpler fix: leaving the country. Their mindset is that of Jiyoung’s outspoken older sister Eunyoung, who in childhood expresses a desire to go not to “familiar countries such as the USA, Japan and China,” but “Northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. When asked why she picked those places, Eunyoung said she wanted to go someplace with few Koreans.” She wouldn’t be the first Korean, and certainly not the last, to convince herself of the freedom from constraint and expectation to be enjoyed away from her countrymen in such distant and ostensibly egalitarian societies. But something tells me she’s never heard of the Law of Jante.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.