Former TV scriptwriter Cho Nam-joo wrote the story in two months, saying that the main character, Kim Ji-young, was relatable to her own life. The book was published by Minumsa in October 2016 and has sold over 1 million copies as of November 27, 2018. This makes it the first Korean novel to reach a million sales since Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom” in 2009. The novel sparked controversy due to its perceived sexism against men, and the subsequent movie adaptation also generated both success and controversy.
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In 2015, the story centers around Kim Ji-young, a young Korean woman who is a wife and mother. She suffers from a peculiar psychiatric condition where she starts to imitate women she knows, particularly her mother and a former classmate who passed away during childbirth. Her husband takes her to a psychiatrist after a family meeting during the holidays. This part of the story is only revealed in the last of six chapters in the book. In the rest of the book, Cho explores Ji-young’s life from childhood and delves into the experiences of her mother. The author sheds light on how the strict patriarchal society of Korea affects women of all ages.
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As children, Ji-young and her sister were expected to sacrifice everything for their brother’s success in life. This included providing food, dedicating their time, and fulfilling any other needs in between. Unfortunately, their father showed little interest in them, only focusing on their brother and often scolding or criticizing the sisters. However, their mother, who had also faced similar struggles in her own childhood, was more understanding and did what she could to support them. Despite this, she also had to handle the family’s finances and deal with her husband’s immature decisions. As Ji-young grows up, she becomes increasingly aware of the gender imbalance in Korean society, which starts from school and extends into the job market and workplace.
Ji-young enters into multiple relationships before marrying a man who loves her. However, he expects her to give up her job and focus solely on being a mother and wife, causing disappointment among their relatives. Despite his love for her, her husband still falls under the influence of patriarchal norms, making it difficult for him to truly support and care for his wife. She is also pressured to conform to societal expectations of being a selfless caregiver, losing sight of her own needs.
Cho Nam-joo presents the story and accompanying comments in a clinical manner, resembling a report on the struggles faced by women in Korea. The language used is simple, with short sentences and minimal literary embellishments. This detached approach adds to the chilling effect of the novel, as it offers no hope for change and takes a rather pessimistic and pragmatic stance.
At the same time, through her portrayal of the various male characters in the book, particularly her father (whose stalking incident serves as a clear example of his behavior), the author’s perspective can be seen as controversial towards men. This is where the negative responses to the book may stem from. However, considering the events described throughout the book and recent documentaries and films that also make critical comments, her perspective can also be seen as realistic and quite compelling. The hoju system, which was only abolished in 2008, and reports on gender inequality (such as the OECD ranking Korea last in gender pay gap among all OECD countries in 2017) are strong evidence of this, as Cho mentions in the book’s footnotes.
Despite facing criticism, Cho Nam-jo’s novel “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982” successfully drew attention to the challenges women in Korea face. Through its realistic portrayal and the author’s passionate writing style, the book effectively sheds light on these issues to a wide audience.