ANDREA PLATE WRITES – (This is the first in an original series about new wave feminist writers in Korea). It was big news in 2016 when the novel Kim Ji-young, 1982, by author Cho Nam-Joo, awakened a semi-somnolent women’s movement in South Korea. The book sold one million copies—only the second novel in the country’s history to do so. The novel made news again this April, when an English language version, beautifully translated by Jamie Chang, an award-winning teacher at the Ewha Womans University in Seoul, was published in the U.S. “Literature is news that stays new,’” said the famously noted American poet, critic and expatriate Ezra Pound.
Why has Cho’s novel had such an extraordinary impact in South Korea? Oddly, protagonist Kim Ji-young, thirty-something, is a rather ordinary literary creation— a kind of Jane Doe of South Korea. She is a curious, ambitious teen-turned- college graduate-turned- careerist who eventually — perhaps inevitably, in 1990’s South Korea — gives it all up to become a housewife and mother (against her better instincts). How does she fare? Suffice it to say that the narrator of this alarming tale is the protagonist’s psychiatrist. Explains South Korean sociology professor Lee Na-young of Chung-Ang University, “It [the novel] follows Kim Ji-young’s life cycle and along the way one detects discrimination, exclusion and violence. And it hurts.” Which is why she sees a psychiatrist.
Another emotionally loaded and much lauded novel—Please Look After Mom, by Shin Kyung-sook, published in 2009— was the first in South Korean history to sell a million copies. Shin told a different type of tale about an old-school, traditionally loyal wife and mother who steps into a crowded subway station with her husband and suddenly, inexplicably, disappears— forever. The symbolism of one generation replacing another was not lost on the South Korean public. In fact, it was Ban Soon -taek, wife of former UN Secretary General Ban (and former South Korean foreign minister Ki-moon), who gifted me this book at a small dinner party with the diplomatic power couple in 2011. Now in her seventies, the college-educated Madame Ban had just proffered a brief personal history telling how she left her post at the Chung-Ang University library, some forty years ago, to marry and raise children. The Secretary General, also at the dinner, explained to me, somewhat wincingly: “Korea then was not like America. If you married, you didn’t pursue a career.”
Not anymore. Cho’s novel got a big-time boost from the late Roh Hoe-chan, a prominent leader of the Justice Party, who presented the book to President Moon Jae-in with a message that read “Please embrace ‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982.’” This was in 2018— the same year that the largest women’s rally in the history of Seoul took place; and the same year that America’s #MeToo movement took off. In literature as in life, timing is everything.
Cho had no idea that she would strike a national nerve. “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,” she has 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.”
Cho is no hard-bitten polemicist. She prefers instead to let the stark truths of misogyny and discrimination seep slowly, gently into the reader’s mind. Among the most compelling plot points: her mother’s sorrow and shame upon learning that her firstborn was a girl; her brothers’ preferential treatment in the home, at school and at work; the scourge of subway groping and hidden spy cams in public bathrooms; the teacher who scolds outspoken female students: “You girls should be ashamed of yourselves… what a disgrace for our school;” Ji-young drinking herself into a stupor, desperate to be “one of the boys,” only to hear, on the frayed fringes of drunken semi-consciousness, those same boys refer to her as “gum someone spat out” (she had a boyfriend in college); and last but most certainly not least, the psychiatrist/narrator’s interpretation of the burdens Ji-young bore regarding her late mother’s all too often articulated disappointments. Says the psychiatrist/narrator: “Her life choices … she was regretting them. Ji-young felt she was a rock, small but heavy and unyielding.”
Unyielding, indeed. For her first job, this brave young heroine spends two sleepless nights perfecting a two-paged press release about a home-bedding pollution assessment conducted by an eco-friendly company. “Others seemed to be walking around with the IDs dangling at their chests because it was a bother to keep taking it out and putting it away,” the author explains, “but Ji-young did it on purpose… that was the dream: walking with a group of people also wearing lanyard IDs, holding their purse and phone in the same hand, chatting about the lunch menu.”
Cho has a strong voice but she does not speak for all South Korean women. Many, in fact, have tried to shout her down. Before release of the 2019 movie adaptation, also titled “Kim Ji-young, Born, 1982,” social conservatives and anti-feminists petitioned the President to block its release. Actress Jung Yu-mi, playing the title role, received thousands of hateful messages on Instagram attacking the storyline as, anti-male, relentlessly negative and an exaggerated portrait of contemporary gender conflicts. As if the actress were to blame!
Cho knew that she was up against the status quo. And so, her compelling narrative is interspersed with didactic passages providing historical context — as if to further prove her point. Readers will learn, for example, that: widespread social support for women’s ambitions didn’t exist until the 1990s; the Women’s Development Act wasn’t incorporated into the constitution until 1995; six years passed before the Ministry of Gender Equality was established in 2001; and the “hoju” law (requiring so-called traditional family registration—meaning, all family members must be registered under the patriarch’s name), wasn’t abolished until 2008— but by Cho’s count, at the time of her 2016 publication, only 200 South Korean women on record had adapted the new nomenclature.
Cho’s literary voice is unique but not singular; she has many sisters in the literary world. Of ten novels listed by the online international literary magazine Books & Bao as “ones to watch in 2020,” eight have been written by women. That in itself is good news. With art imitating life, the future of feminism, and women’s literature in South Korea, looks promising.
Andrea Plate, Asia Media International’s senior advisor for writing and editing, has degrees in English Literature, Communications and Social Welfare/Public Policy from UC Berkeley, UCLA and USC. Her college teaching experience includes Fordham University and Loyola Marymount University. Her most recent book, MADNESS: In the Trenches of America’s Troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, about her years as a senior social worker at the U.S. Veterans Administration, was recently published in Asia and North America by Marshall Cavendish Asia International.