March Book Club Meeting: “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” by Cho Nam-joo, Wednesday 15 March, 8:15pm KST

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes.

Knowing a thing or two about Korean feminism, I avoided reading the most popular Korean feminist novel, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, for the longest time. Ironic, I know, but I just felt it wouldn’t really teach me anything new.

I wasn’t being arrogant. I’m still no ‘expert’ on Korean feminism, and I’m never going to claim to be one. But expert or not, if you’ve spent nearly two decades immersed in a subject, there’s only so much you’re going to gain from a book aimed at a general audience.

Then March’s book club meeting was coming up, originally planned for International Women’s Day on the 8th (postponed because I was sick). It felt time.

So now, having read it…I actually liked it, and would recommend it. But yeah—it really didn’t teach me anything new.

What it does do, and very well, is open a window onto the lived experiences of Korean girls and women. While much of what gets revealed by that may well not be news to anyone who’s shared, witnessed, listened to, read about, and/or studied those experiences, the way Cho Nam-joo summarizes and puts them all together into a succinct, very readable story is still very skillful, and essential for spreading knowledge of them to a wider audience.

Take the following two pages on many Korean schools’ blatantly unfair, sexualizing, and body-shaming dress codes for schoolgirls for instance. Just these few paragraphs alone are far more evocative of what it’s really like for girls than any of the news reports I’ve translated, and much more likely to spur people to action:

It’s also true that while I can’t really think of anything earth-shatteringly new I learned from it, it covers so many aspects of Korean girls’ and women’s lives that it reminded me of many things I’d almost completely forgotten, and got me interested all over again. To give another for instance, a topic I covered here recently was a ruling against a (usually) rarely-enforced law requiring study-rooms to be sex-segregated; providing some context to that, I explained that in many respects Korea is a surprisingly homosocial society, starting with most Korean schools being single sex. Thanks to that same chapter above, “Adolescence, 1995-2000,” I was reminded that even in ostensibly coeducational schools too, the classes themselves are still often single-sex. And that’s just one important fact about Korean school life, packed in among so many others in the chapter on that subject. Likewise, there’s many more jumping out at you in the sections on university, dating, work, marriage, pregnancy, motherhood, and so on.

Yet I only gave it a 3 out of 5, for three reasons.

First, because of frequent, long seques into discussions of background statistics and trends. (I’d previously encountered them in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, finding them very shoehorned in; hearing that they were in Kim Jiyoung too was another big reason why I put off reading it for such a long time.) Sure enough, while there were a lot fewer than I’d expected, they were definitely jarring, completely ruining the immersion in the story. Say, when listening to Jiyoung’s fuming about being discriminated against at job interviews in the mid-2000s, to suddenly being given figures on the numbers of female managers in the mid-2010s, then right back to going back to her fuming ten years earlier. Those stats, to the extent something from ten years in a character’s future even needed including at all, could surely have been brought in much more seamlessly.

Next, for its brevity. For sure, being only 163 pages long will likely have positively contributed to sales. But for what I personally wanted from the book, it felt at least 163 too short.

Specifically, I was approaching it having just read last month’s selection Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, a collection of light horror-themed, often graphic, sometimes disgusting short stories (in the first, a woman’s doppelganger slowly grows out of her feces in her toilet, and begins talking to her). Struggling to understand these earthy, brutally corporeal choices of subjects, and trying to find a common theme to the stories, I gained a sense of women’s much more visceral relationship with their bodies and awareness of their cycles and rhythms, based on their physical difference with men’s.

Which I realize may sound crude and simplistic, and open to multiple (mis)interpretations. So, to be clear, I’m absolutely not saying that women are any less rational than men, that men can’t be emotional or don’t ever have mood swings, that men shouldn’t also be much more aware of their bodies, or that the similarities between men and women aren’t much stronger than the differences. I also completely understand every women’s outrage at ever being dismissed by men for being “hormonal.”

I still raise that sense though, because I also brought to Kim Jiyoung my own lived experience, discussions with women, and those nearly two decades of immersing myself in various feminist materials and forums, all of which tell me that, yes, speaking very, very generally, (cishet) women do talk about their bodies much more than (cishet) men, talk about men and sex very differently, talk to women very differently than to men (as indeed men do to women), and that the female gaze, libido, and arousal are not at all like cishet men imagine them to be, and so on.

Put that considerable baggage of mine all together, and I was just expecting something much deeper—and less sanitized—from Korea’s most popular and famous feminist novel. Insights into what it’s really like being a woman that I didn’t already know. The numerous things that all women take for granted and so generally don’t discuss, least of all with men, which is why I’m still only learning about them at the tender age of 47.

Indeed, many of them from the first novel I’m (painfully slowly) reading in Korean: Bodies and Women ‘몸과 여자들’ by Lee Seo-su, which I’d easily recommend from anyone wanting an upgrade from Kim Jiyoung. And, given that Bodies and Women is also relatively short, tells me that even in a longer book Cho probably wouldn’t have provided what I was looking for anyway.

Image sources: Aladin, NamuWiki.

The third and final reason though, I couldn’t put my finger on, but somehow felt familiar. Then, as I actually clicked on those 3 stars at The StoryGraph, I was informed that my connection there, Mel of Equal Opportunity Reader, had also given it 3 stars (great minds think alike!), and written a review which hit the nail right on the head. Taken here from the longer one on her blog:

…despite the familiarity of her experiences, Jiyoung herself is nearly impossible for me to relate to. She has an infuriating lack of agency and inner thought–she’s a perfect victim and it’s only her privilege as a member of a stable family who support her financially that keeps her life from being far, far, worse. I found myself frustrated by how safe and protected she actually was and how little she did with that foundation. She’s a flabby marshmallow of a woman who goes along with everything that happens to her and comes out far better than a lot of women do despite that. This is only highlighted by the fact that most of the other women in the story–her mother, her sister, her first boss–all have much more developed, layered personalities, in my opinion.

As she goes on to explain, the book doesn’t really offer any solutions or ways forward, whereas “there [definitely] are in fact ways to claim agency and equity as a woman in the world.” I also suddenly realized the familiarity: all the K-dramas I was exposed to in the early-2000s, in which the hapless long suffering daughters-in-law and/or lowly company employees would just sit there and take abuse all day long, complaining and crying but never actually doing anything about it. Constantly shouting at the screen, just wanting to get up and shake them out of their resignation and passivity, it ruined K-dramas for me for life.

Unlike books ;)

And on that note, if you’re interested in attending the book club meeting—a very safe space, with a maximum of 12 members, but frankly usually more like 4 or 5—then please send me an email, and I’ll pass on the Zoom link before Wednesday. Also, my apologies for the very short notice, but you’re more than welcome to join if you’re just interested in Korean feminism in general, regardless of if you’ve actually read the book. Even most of the reading group questions below, helpfully provided at the end of the edition I bought, don’t at all require it. So please do get in touch!

Update: I forgot to mention there’s still time to cheat by watching check out the movie on Netflix too!

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