Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 03/23/22 7:43 AM

Book review: Kim Jiyoun, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

KIM JIYOUNG, BORN 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, ScribnerUK Books. 2018 release.

We meet Jiyoung just as she turns 33 and starts to have the most startling behavioural aberrations, startling her caring husband and antoganising her in-laws. Apparently, Jiyoung is a Korean version of Jane Doe and this Jane Doe has been stifled under all the familiar yokes of patriarchy, misogyny, sexual harassment, gender tropes, gender expectations, the works.

She`s grown up having to kowtow to her baby brother, being scolded for an incident involving a male harasser on the bus, learning to always stay under the radar in a carelessly toxic, male-dominated workplace, giving up her far-from-stellar career to become a stay- at-home mom…basically, learning that the world, her world in particular, is not one that is kind to the second sex.

And now she`s acting out…or does she have a personality disorder? Even her psychiatrist isn’t quite clear about that.

Jiyoung`s world is our world, the world of most Asian, South Asian and South East Asian women. The preference for boys, the overt and covert denigration by in-laws to women who bear girl children, the saving of the tastiest morsels for her male sibling. The huge gender pay gap between what women and men are paid. Always having to adjust, sit quietly in her place, not aspire to things she knows are out of her reach.

An absent feminist gaze

If you are a woman, you read this book with stopped breath, feeling stifled by the airless box Jiyoung has pulled you into. The book became an instant bestseller, was translated into 18 languages and is a notable addition to the pantheon of feminist fiction. It has sold more than a million copies and started an ongoing conversation about gender disparity and discrimination in South Korea. Change is being effected, yes, but very slowly. Just as it is in other countries in the region.

Jamie Chang`s translation seems to be a bare- bones one, deliberately leached of any emotional connect and the story is told without any flourishes. And no, Kim Jiyoung never really breaks free. This is reality, you see, not fantasy. 

A Korean woman`s lifeabsence of feminist gazeCho Nam-Joogender tropesKim Jiyoung Born 1982misogynypatriarchysexual harassment

Sheila Kumar • March 23, 2022

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