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Nation & World

South Korean Bestseller 'Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982' Gives Public Voice To Private Pain

Across South Korea, a slim novel called Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, by Cho Nam-Joo, became a cultural sensation when it came out, selling more than a million copies. Nearly four years after debuting in its native country — and months after the film adaptation hit theaters, the book is now available in English.

The story itself doesn't sound like it would be the stuff of a meteoric bestseller. In it, protagonist Kim Jiyoung, an ordinary woman in her mid-30s, recounts the beats of her life. She starts by sharing her memories of childhood, then her school years, college, getting married, getting a white collar job and becoming a mom. That's it. Really. No love affairs, no crime, no wild plot twists. But the book is full of demoralizing daggers flung at Kim, an everywoman in Korea's punishingly patriarchal society.

"For Korean women, this is the first novel that offered a full, panoramic, cradle to present-day view of all of their collective plight," says Jamie Chang, who translated the work into English. "So in that way it doesn't just represent one person's experience, but everybody's experience."

I thought of Kim Jiyoung's character as a vessel that contains experiences and emotions that are common to every Korean woman.

Author Cho Nam-Joo wrote the book inside of three months. She says she never expected it to take off — and she didn't even know if she could get a book deal. "I just wanted this book to be in the bookshelves, in bookstores and the library as evidence of how women in this era, the 2010s, lived, thought and made efforts," Cho says through an interpreter.

The book may be fiction, but she fills it with real-life examples and data about the state of gender equality in her country. South Korea's gender wage gap is the widest in the developed world, by a long shot; women make 63 cents to a man's dollar. Despite being highly educated, about half its working-age women stay home, something the US hasn't seen since the early 1980s. And harsh stigmas exist around menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth. Cho Nam-Joo says she wanted to make personal experiences public.

"If we women all go through these experiences, then they should be discussed together, in a public way," Cho says.

The book and its wide success gave women license to address long buried pain and trauma, out loud. It became part of the latest wave of Korean feminism, which erupted in the largest women's rights protests in Korean history in 2018 — and a movement to stand up against rigid beauty ideals, called Escape the Corset, as well as #MeToo-driven calls for stronger prosecution of against sexual violence and domestic abuse.

"The general social atmosphere makes it hard for us to realize how serious these crimes are, and we tend to think lightly of these crimes," Cho says.

Unlike the US, which fractures over race, Korea is 97 percent Korean, so gender is the primary dividing line here. The novel effectively opened many young women's eyes to sex-based discrimination for the first time.

At an underground bookstore where Kim Jiyoung is on the bestseller table, 18-year-old Jang Si On says she didn't even realize the different roles for men and women in Korean society could be challenged.

"I always thought [the episodes in the book] were ordinary," she says. "Then I realized maybe that isn't the way things should be."

It's so normal in South Korea — practices like women doing the tedious work of food prep and entertaining for holidays. Or the way that girls don't get the option to play team sports in grade school. Or that boys get to line up first to eat at the cafeteria. For 23-year-old Heo Soo-hyun, seeing these simple realities laid out in Kim Jiyoung helped her better see the generations that came before her.

I always thought [the episodes in the book] were ordinary. Then I realized maybe that isn't the way things should be.

"It made me think a lot about my mother," Heo says. Just like the main character, Kim, Heo's mother delayed college because her brother — the male in the family — took first priority. And after reading this book's stark look at what women face in South Korea, Heo's rethinking what she wants.

"I saw that when it came to things like housework, the man is described as helping the woman rather than equally participating in housework and raising the child. And by the end of the book we see that Kim Jiyoung had to give up her career to raise her child. And when I saw that, it made me think, maybe marriage is not the best option," Heo says.

The author, Cho, says she just wants Korean women to feel they have choices, and to make them with their eyes open. But more than anything else, she wanted women to know they're not alone.

"I thought of Kim Jiyoung's character as a vessel that contains experiences and emotions that are common to every Korean woman," Cho says.

And her book, a reminder that every day lives of every day women can unearth extraordinary collective pain. Overcoming it will require many ordinary voices to be heard.

Se Eun Gong and Dasl Yoon contributed to this story, from Seoul. Petra Mayer edited it for radio, and adapted it for the Web along with Elise Hu.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.