Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982
I knew that the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and India celebrate Independence Day on the 15th of August. What I didn’t know was how similar the cultures of these two countries were until I read Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982.
This million-copy bestseller, written by Cho Nam-Joo, translated into English by Jamie Chang with audiobook narration by Jamie Parker deserves it’s tremendous success and more. The cover with a sketch of a face framed by black hair but no features laid atop a city skyline, highlights by its absence, the commonplace life of its eponymous protagonist, Kim Jiyoung in urban South Korea.
Like the simple cover, it is a simple story, simply told. What makes it special, is the way it draws in readers through its matter of fact telling of a story that plays out in every country that is burdened by patriarchy.
Jiyoung, a young woman in Seoul starts showing signs of mental imbalance in the autumn of 2015, a year after the birth of her daughter. At first it seems odd to find an educated, modern young woman falling apart despite a comfortable, happily married family life but as the story unfolds, the reasons become apparent.
It isn’t always one moment of horrific trauma that makes people crack but the cumulative effects of a lifetime of being at the receiving end of small, thoughtless aggressions, something that girls in Korea (and world over) routinely face, a series of episodes that can ultimately destroy a person’s well-being.
Jiyoung, the quiet, second daughter born in a traditional family where the father goes out to work while her mother stays home, observes and quickly normalises her life in a culture that prefers male children. While she is expected to share everything from a blanket to a treat with her sister, her much-younger brother gets the best portions of food, better clothes, and of course, more attention from their parents and grandmother.
“It didn’t occur to the child Jiyoung that her brother was receiving special treatment, and so she wasn’t even jealous. That’s how it had always been.”
As we follow Jiyoung’s growth through her childhood years (1982-19940), adolescence (1995-200), early adulthood (2001-2011), and marriage (2012-2015), through ordinary episodes of school and workplace bullying, family expectations before and after marriage, we uncover the myriad ways in which a person’s soul can be effaced. The unfolding of the systematic effects of patriarchy is so gradual that it doesn’t come across as punitive or intentional. It is revealed for what it is, an insidious state of being .
Jiyoung’s father and later, her husband, appear to be mild-mannered men of not much consequence. It is the women who are the complicit perpetrators of patriarchy.
Jiyoung’s paternal grandmother, who despite her hard life with four sons and an incompetent husband (a man with a fair complexion and soft hands, who never worked a day in his life) doesn’t resent her him because he didn’t sleep around or hit her. Even though three of her four sons turn out to be ungrateful, her heartfelt wish for the only daughter-in-law, Jiyoung’s mother, who takes care of her is “You should have a son. You must have a son. You must have at least two sons.”
Jiyoung’s mother is more than just the compliant meek daughter-in-law. She is the backbone of the family, the one with business savvy and foresight who uplifts the family’s standard of living and enables her daughters but still favors her youngest child, the hardwon son.
Korea’s growth from a primarily agricultural society to an industrialised one and its impact on society provides the backdrop on which the characters grow and change, thereby enabling the transformation of the country. But they each bear the human cost of their participation in the country’s progress as it plays out in small and large ways in their own lives.
At periodic intervals, the novel provides footnotes for reference to relevant statistics on government policies and other measures. These helpful asides are not mere digressions. They add veracity to the story of one fictional protagonist who represents her generation.
The introduction in Korea of ‘family planning’, a government sanctioned measure to limit the expanding population when combined with easy access to ultra-sound technology leads to sex-selective abortions and an alarmingly skewed gender ratio. The short-sightedness of such programmes in cultures that favour male children and the inevitable impact that serves to further exacerbate existing problems were effortlessly portrayed through Jiyoung’s life. Whether it’s her interaction with bullies or perverts or outright chauvinists, Jiyoung’s story hits uncomfortably close to home.
What makes the story work is the clinically detached narration. I admired the absence of sentimentality that kept the story moving briskly as well as the simplicity of the prose that stayed true to its purpose of just telling the story.
I first heard the audiobook and then read the print version. On both occasions, I found myself getting worked up, my short breaths fanning my anger at the way people make choices to conform to the bias of society, cleanly sidestepping responsibility for all the wrongs that follow. Even as I wrote this review, I had to stop and take deep breaths to continue.
What makes the novel real is not just Jiyoung’s struggle to make her way through a world that seems to be systematically wired with landmines to trip her progress, but the fact that at several points, she comes across women who in their own limited way, try to make a difference.
Whether it is a young classmate in school who decides to stand up to an unfair system that puts girls at a disadvantage or the stranger on the bus who rescues her on a dark night at a bus stop and tells her “It’s not your fault”, there are women who work within the system to uplift one woman at a time, through words or actions, however trivial they may seem.
My favorite character was Jiyoung’s mother, herself a victim of a generation where female siblings willingly worked in their youth to put their brothers through school and later spent their adult life supporting their own family. With her entrepreneurial spirit and courage, she brings financial stability to her home and takes a stand to enable her daughters to have a better life than what she could do for herself. But in the end, she is a victim of her circumstances and her biases, just like the therapist who tries to piece together Jiyoung’s case in the context of his own life.
The strength of the story lies both in the telling of it and in it’s conclusion that the ills of society cannot be condoned, even if it is co-opted by the majority. What it does not do is provide a neat solution, either for Jiyoung or for the reader.
My opinion: With translations into eighteen languages, this book should be made essential reading for girls, boys, and their parents all over the world.
Have you read this book? Or come across similar books by writers from other countries? ? Drop me a note in comments.
Photo credit Ranjani Rao’s personal archives