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Korea Blog: The Explosively Controversial “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” Comes Out in English

The tagline of last year’s cautiously anticipated film Kim Jiyoung: Born 1982 (82년생 김지영) promised to tell “your story and mine.” The picture itself delivers only to the extent that you or I happen to be a Korean woman in early middle age, and even then to the extent that our background aligns with the title character’s. But that was more than understood, given the frenzy of attention already drawn by the picture’s source material: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, the debut novel by a former television writer named Cho Nam-joo. As I wrote here on the Korea Blog two years ago, this plain tale of a woman’s life of struggle and frustration in the realms of school, family, work, employment, and childrearing became an unlikely bestseller not long after its publication in late 2016.

At the same time, Cho’s novel also became an even less likely object of fierce controversy. Battle lines were drawn across society over its diagnosis of the plight of Korean womanhood in the 21st century. Social media, by its very nature, stoked the flames: on Instagram, an all-powerful force in Korea, the book’s familiar cover became a declamatory flag to hoist up in selfies. But however long a moment Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 enjoyed, trends have a way of simmering down here no sooner than they’ve boiled up. Translations into other languages began appearing not long after the book turned into a social phenomenon, but the English-language publishing industry seems, true to form, to have dragged its feet. Published just this year, Jamie Chang’s rendering of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 can now give English-readers a clearer idea of what all the fuss was about.

I am not, it will be noted, a Korean woman in early middle age. In normal times this wouldn’t need saying, but these days — from what I gather watching the culture wars now raging on Western social media — one can’t be too careful about declaring one’s identity. By some lights, I’m disqualified from writing about this book entirely. Did I, like Kim Jiyoung, go through childhood making do with what was left after my brother had his fill? Was I tormented by boys at school and told simply to endure it? Have I felt the pressure exerted by an entire extended family to produce a son, and the judgment when I didn’t? Was I forced to quit a job I enjoyed (apart from being expected to make coffee for the higher-ups) when I did have a child, who turned out to be a daughter? Do I have to travel to my in-laws’ home every holiday and cook them food for days straight? Have I lived in fear of strangers’ hands on the bus, or of the pornographers’ cameras potentially hidden in every restroom stall? Have I withstood all this only to be derided as a “mom-roach”?

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.