Look Aama, she wrote our memoir for us!Have you ever been so angry with all the gendered injustices that you wanted to note down every aberration in a saga? Cho Nam-Joo has somehow managed to do this.
“Everything began with the boys, and it felt like the right, natural thing.”
In Nepal, among a tiny group of people that prides itself on being progressive and worldly, it has become quite fashionable to state, “I want a daughter.” This may sound hurtful to the son who might appear instead. But a girl born in this family is welcomed, and loved, and cocooned by doting parents.
Meanwhile, in another part of the country, a newspaper story congratulates a couple for bearing a son after six daughters. These daughters are most likely unwanted and neglected, a mere burden to be fed and clothed and married off as soon as possible.
There are thousands of girls between these two extreme spectrums. Those reluctantly hailed as Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth; those grudgingly sent to school; those who are lauded for their homely skills; those who are encouraged in the career they choose.
Each one of these girls, no matter how vast the difference in their upbringing or the path their life takes, will face similar experiences in life. In varying degrees, every one of them will face discrimination at home, educational institutions, and offices. Their marriage and childbirth; their success and happiness will be decided not by themselves but by vague concepts such as societal expectations, tradition, and culture—all a veiled synonym for patriarchy.
These direct and subtle admonishments on her dress and behaviour, work and leisure will build up over years until one day, even the most seemingly content Nepali woman explodes. The injustices keep piling up, but there seems no respite. Is this how life will always be, one rung behind a man, no matter how incompetent he might be?
And it is not only Nepali women who explode thus. South Korean women—hailing from a country that is consistently ranked among the top 20 economies, educational and health systems, human capital index and female literacy rate—suffocate as much in their conservative surroundings. We look at these sparkling statistics and forget that beyond these are the more important measurements: of self-esteem and confidence; of equity and a sense of pride in one’s capabilities.
Bringing these forgotten statistics to life is Kim Jiyoung, a millennial woman residing in the outskirts of Seoul with her husband and daughter. Her life is the epitome of ordinariness, going from a middle-class childhood to a job and a seemingly stable marriage. But one day, she begins behaving abnormally. It is as if she morphs into the hundreds of women she has seen repressing their emotions and ambitions and starts speaking out her mind.
It is dangerous and unbecoming when a woman begins to speak what she feels. So her husband, Daehyun, takes her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist begins to unravel Jiyoung’s history—so commonplace, such an everyday experience, nothing there for a woman to be so agitated or disturbed. And yet… is it so innocent as it seems? Author Cho Nam-Joo takes us on an emotional journey that will make women readers relieve their sense of inequality, and men (if they are discerning) question their privileges.
The novel, titled ‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982’, has been hailed as the anchor for a feminist movement in South Korea. It has been translated in 19 languages, sold over a million copies, and been adapted into film. It does not boast a riveting plot, nor particularly beautiful language. In fact, each of its chapters is pegged to certain data—on female labour force participation, maternity leave, sexual harassment policies, childrearing—and the chapter is a case study dissected using a sparse, utilitarian tone.
Take this bit for example, “The gender pay gap in Korea is the highest among the OECD countries. According to 2014 data women working in Korea earn only 63 percent of what men earn the OECD average percentage is 84. Korea was also ranked as the worst country in which to be a working woman.” Quite unlike the form of the novel we are used to, and yet more effective and hard-hitting than any news piece could be.
To make sure that this disparity strikes a chord in the readers’ hearts, the author weaves anecdotes and dialogues, insignificant incidents in Jiyoung’s life that build up and around her to shape her thoughts and actions. It starts right from childhood, when Jiyoung and her sister are expected to eat tofu and dumplings that are ‘falling apart’, so that the best pieces can be served to their father and brother.
In school, the girls’ roll call begins only after the boys’ ends. The boys’ dress code is relaxed, while the girls must wear only dress shoes in the coldest of days. When a flasher streaks before their window, it is the girls who are called ‘shameless’ and punished. Male teachers harass the girls, who are the ones left feeling guilty and unclean. When a boy stalks Jiyoung, her father shouts at her, “Why do you talk to strangers? Why is your skirt so short?”
At work, Jiyoung battles another set of challenges: being expected to set tables and fetch coffees even though it isn’t part of her job, having to bear the lewd attentions of clients, earning less than male peers, not being selected for projects because women are seen as ‘unreliable’ due to their childbearing capabilities. And then, marriage and childbirth push Jiyoung over the edge.
This is where the story ends, in a chilling verdict by the psychiatrist for whom Jiyoung is just one more patient. But for women worldwide, by this time, Jiyoung becomes a manifestation of themselves. In her we see ourselves growing up scared and unsure for no fault of ours, in her we see our foremothers sacrificing their entire lives for a family that takes it for granted, in her we see our daughters who will have to struggle even harder to hold down a challenging job while managing their families.
Have you ever been so angry with all the gendered injustices that you wanted to note down every aberration in a saga? Then you stopped because it is such a huge and overwhelming pile without a beginning or an end. Cho Nam-Joo has somehow managed to do this. She has captured the pent-up rage and frustration into a part novel, part essay.
Cho Nam-Joo has written a collective memoir for all of us.
The novel tries to encompass every hurt and setback that girls and women encounter because of gendered discrimination, and of course it is too colossal a mound to tackle. So sometimes it might seem as if the author is just skimming through several issues, it is not enough, it is all over the place, it is not tightly bound together.
All of this is true. But what is even truer is that the novel has made a real difference. It has made people enraged, anxious, nervous, defensive, and led them to action—which is the highest form of emulation a book can take. Feted by several women and detested by anti-feminists when it came out in 2016, it is considered to abet the #MeToo movement that took Korea by surprise two years later. When its movie came out last year, people petitioned to have it removed, and deluged the lead actor with hate comments.
These people proved the pervasive presence and power of the misogyny insinuated in the novel.
But is there no end to the suffering, can we ever enjoy real change? Perhaps not in our lifetime. But for our daughters we must keep fighting, writing, and recommending Cho Nam-Joo’s uncomfortably ordinary novel.
Novel: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982
Author: Cho Nam-Joo, Translator: Jamie ChangPublisher: Liveright