We Are All Kim Ji-Young
Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982, by Cho Nam-Joo (translated by Jamie Chang), is the story of Kim Ji-Young, an average, every woman in South Korea who, at age 34, starts acting abnormal, being possessed by the personalities of other women - some alive, some dead, but all women she knew and had met. Following this premise, the novel traces her childhood, adolescence, college, work-life, marriage, up until early motherhood, in an attempt to unravel what happened, and why.
A slim novel, a little over 150 pages, it packs one of the fiercest feminist punches you will have experienced in a while. We dare you to show us another novel whose acerbic criticism of endemic patriarchy and institutional sexism was laid out with almost clinical dispassion, all the more terrifying because of its banality and regularity.
Kim Ji-Young is unremarkable in every way - this is no Circe, whose witchcraft frightens the menfolk and threatens the status quo - which is what makes Ji-Young's story touch a nerve. She is neither an extraordinary feminist advocate nor an activist - she is an ordinary woman who is deeply conditioned in the ordinary patriarchy.
Every woman we know (ourselves included), will have experienced (and maybe even knowingly or unknowingly perpetrated) at least one aspect of the casual, every day, even forgettable, misogyny that Kim Ji-Young experiences. It made us wonder - "Can a woman narrate the story of her life without touching upon how patriarchy, if she's lucky - only shaped it, and if she isn't - shackled it?"
A fiction profoundly rooted in reality is what makes Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 so sensational. The novel also adds footnotes to news articles and statistics from the time, driving home the fact that this is not "just" Kim Ji-Young's story, that she too is just a statistic, a symptom of a larger problem, a vessel for the collective suffering of ordinary, average women just trying to get by. There's a short paragraph on what it means for a male spouse to help out at home that made us reel.
One of the themes that this book consistently explores is motherhood and what it does to a woman’s body, career, and mental health. Kim Ji-Young’s husband is not your typical misogynist who ‘forbade’ her from pursuing her career post motherhood. In fact, when Kim Ji-Young, who has a college degree is tempted to take up a menial job at an ice cream parlour, he poignantly asked if this is what she wants to do. Considering that she had to find a job with flexible hours to juggle between contributing to the family’s income and caregiving responsibilities, she soon realises that she no longer has the luxury of asking herself that question.
The novel highlights how institutional patriarchy can only be corrected by systemic change. Kim Ji-Young’s husband is a liberated progressive in as much as he wants Kim Ji-Young to have the same opportunities he does, but can do nothing to ensure she can go forth and achieve her dreams. That’s the problem with patriarchy, isn’t it? For women to be kept in their place, men need to also be equally (if more subtly) bound by its rigid rules.
We can't recommend this book enough, but if we could just say this - Kim Ji-Young's howl of pain is a battle cry for women (and men!) to wake up and really look at the world around them. One can easily extrapolate this book to be statistically applicable to women everywhere. The limited career options during and post motherhood, gender pay gap, workplace harassment and gender discrimination and the overarching unquestioned conditioning and resigned acceptance of patriarchy is universal. Time should be up. Time is indeed up.
Sruthi Balki and Kruthika R are lawyers from Bangalore. They contribute to and run, respectively, the One Too Many Books page.