Continuing our exploration of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, Ms. Jang Su Yeon and I have sat down to discuss the book’s reception, its continuing impact on South Korean feminist discourse, and the differences between it and its popular cinematic adaptation. The interview was conducted via Skype between Seoul, Korea, and Berkeley, USA, in July 20, 2020 [Pacific US time]. It has been edited for length and clarity. The copyright for the interview content belongs to Ms. Jang and anyone who wants to quote from the interview below should contact Ms. Jang for an explicit permission. The letter “Q” indicates Kyu Hyun Kim, the interviewer, and “J” indicates Ms. Jang Su Yeon.
Q: Let’s start the discussion, shall we? I read your essay with great interest and I am sure it will be extremely helpful for [UC Davis] undergraduates who will be reading the novel. What do you think their response would be like, when they first laid their eyes on it?
J: My initial thought was that this novel was more specifically attuned to the experiences of East Asian women, as in China, Korea and Japan, growing up in cultures with influences of Confucianism, for instance. However, since then I have come to think that the problems Ji-young were subject to are a lot more universal. When I had first read Maria Mies’s Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1986) in my undergraduate days, I remember resonating strongly with the examples the author discussed in her book, even though they were not based on South Korean society or experiences. So there definitely are experiences of women that apparently transcend cultural differences.
Q: Well, the Amazon’s sales rank of the English translation of Born 1982, Kim Ji-young is currently [the July 20, 2020 figure] at No. 191 in the “Fiction and Satire” and No. 370 in “Mothers and Children Fiction” rankings. This is no mean feat. And in Amazon Japan, it is currently ranked at, Holy Mackerel, No. 1 in the “Asian Literature” list.
Q: It is also ranked at No. 2 in the “Foreign Literature” category. What are the elements of the novel that would also “make sense” to the non-Korean readers, and what are those that the latter might consider more specific to the Korean situation?
J: I think especially the sections in the novel where Ji-young encounters various hurdles and difficulties in the transition from school to workplace might have universal appeals. I don’t think Americans use the term like mamchung [see Su Yeon’s essay accompanying this discussion], isn’t that correct?
Q: Not that I am aware. Actually, this segues into what I consider to be one of the problems I and my wife had with the film version. In the film version Ji-young’s husband struggles mightily with the issue of whether he should take a parental childcare leave from his job. And when he finally does, that is presented as if he had turned a big new leaf in his life.
*Ji-young (Jung Yu-mi) tries to juggle childrearing and homemaking in a scene from the film version, Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Source: Lotte Cultureworks/Movist.com.
J: I think the filmmakers tried hard to portray, Tae-hyun, the husband (played by the handsome star Gong Yu) in the sympathetic light.
Q: But would the Korean men who had no consciousness about these issues change their mind by watching this single movie?
J: I can understand that as a motion picture the filmmakers had to consider expanding their reaches beyond the readers of the source material.
Q: Cho Nam-joo’s novel is distinctive from the majority of the novels written by male authors, in the sense that there is little physical description of its characters, especially female characters. You cannot develop an image in your brain about what Ji-young actually looks like, for example. So I can certainly see that this would have not been easy to adopt into a visual medium like a feature film. When a South Korean reader asks about a literary personage, “What kind of person is she?” the answer is really about the socially constituted image of that character-- What kind of dresses does she wear? Does she wear a lot of makeup? Does she drink a lot and talk like a construction worker (never mind that there actually are female construction workers, even in South Korea)? Does she wear her nails all black and matching black stiletto heels? -- these things are usually spelled out in great detail in literary works.
J: I think that, precisely, is one of the strengths of the novel. Her “facelessness” in fact allows a wide range of women, not just South Korean women, to identify with Ji-young. I think the Japanese and American book covers capture this sense rather well.
Q: My wife actually loved the novel’s ending, found it superbly chilling yet realistic. I was sympathetic to certain choices made by the filmmakers, such as giving voices to Ji-young’s mother, even if that plot development was a tad melodramatic, but the movie’s denouement was weaker than the novel’s, to say the least.
J: My mother found the novel, not the movie, “boring,” because she thought that there was nothing that she did not know already.
Q: That’s an interesting response. So all the hardships and frustrations she had experienced were retold in the novel, and for her, what’s the point of reading something that I would rather not relive through? (Laughter)
*Ji-young and her "officemates." Source: Lotte Cultureworks/Movist.com.
J: Right, but at the same time, her mother, my grandmother, and in many ways, I, her daughter, have had so many experiences overlapping with those had by my mom, and the responses to this novel across these generations show how little has really changed.
Q: It is interesting that the book inspired such a virulent backlash from some Korean men, to the point that a popular k-pop singer such as Irene of Red Velvet was subject to stupendous levels of vilification and personal attack, just for admitting to having read the book!
J: I think if the book had dealt with an extreme case of physical or emotional abuse by men, it might not have inspired such a backlash. Then these angry men could safely set it aside as a treatment of an “unusual case” and easily deny that they are complicit in creating this kind of frustrating and oppressive experience for someone like Ji-young. Some female readers of the novel have reported to me the feeling of suffocation while reading it, so they had to take a breather or two in the middle just to keep going, even though nothing really violent or extreme takes place in the pages. I mean, none of the male behaviors described in the novel, including the truly scary episode of stalking and the disgusting incident of the company bathroom “molka (hidden cameras),” would be considered serious felonies in South Korea. And that recognition is plenty frightening for many Korean women.
*Irene of Red Velvet, who got into a boatload of troubles by simply citing Kim Ji-young as a novel "she has read." Source: Huffingtonpost Korea.
Q: Isn’t all this vicious anger in a way copping to the fact that these angry men are well aware that their behaviors toward women are, you know, wrong?
J: I agree. [Laughter]
Q: As you have already hinted at, one of the unique features of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 is that there is no division between “good men” and “bad men,” unfortunately a standard practice for many, perhaps the majority, of the allegedly “progressively pro-woman” works of literature or cinema, although things are changing. I think this is one of the reasons that so many Korean men get angry at the book.
J: Right. As I have suggested in my essay, I really do not think it is possible to be a “good man” by remaining a “regular guy” in a rigged and exploitative system like the one described in the novel. So I must agree, yes, the men who have faithfully followed and never questioned the way things work between men and women in today’s South Korea are “bad.” They are all “bad,” unless they want to experience at least some levels of discomfort, if not outright persecution, through the acts of recognizing, criticizing and challenging the kind of mentalities and practices chronicled in the novel.
Q: Another great thing about the novel is that it refuses to distinguish between “domestic” and “workplace” labor for women like Ji-young. One thing that the movie version did well was that Ji-young’s mother came to her defense, taking up a fight against some of her tormentors unlike in the novel. Yet, that section of the movie inadvertently illustrates that Ji-young’s husband, because he is a son, has many, many social and cultural resources he could mobilize, the least of which is the unwavering attention the family members give him whenever he demands it. So why do some young men of South Korea think that they are the ones who are persecuted and treated unequally?
J: It is partly economical. South Korea has gone through a long phase of economic growth, but that phase is now pretty much over. The competition for jobs and comfortable lifestyles is much fiercer today than it was thirty years ago.
Q: But if the anti-feminist men’s argument is that women are unfit to work, presumably compared to themselves, so they should stay at home and raise children, then why do they in the same breath put down those women who do exactly that, and call them “mom roaches” and otherwise denigrate them?
J: Well, it is a schizophrenic behavior and attitude on their part. On the one hand, they hate capable women to be their competitors in the labor market and allegedly take away their jobs. But at the same time, at home, they act as if they are the victims of the cruel society, who work their butts off to “bring home the bacon,” and see their wives as freeloaders who should go out and make money for the household. Which they vilify other women for doing anyway.
Q: [Deep sigh] “They are being illogical and self-contradictory” just isn’t going to be enough, I reckon.
*Ji-young comforts her husband Tae-hyun. Source: Lotte Cultureworks/Movist.com.
J: This is why I think so many women today, and not just in South Korea, refuse to get married and have children. Not necessarily because of some ideological commitment or something like that. I remember confiding to one of my ex-boyfriends that I rather not have a child in a social environment like this. His response was “Oh no, we should have children.” From there we went through the whole cycle of all too familiar arguments step by step. I told him I would need to work outside home. He said but women must raise children, and men cannot take care of them properly. Okay, I will be a stay-home mom then. To this he said, oh no, my income would not be sufficient for us to have a decent lifestyle, so you should get a job too. All throughout this discussion, he had an absolute zero inkling of self-contradiction in his arguments. Absolutely none.
Q: The novel is also unique in the sense that it refuses to blame “Confucian culture” or some such “traditional” boogieman for the plight of contemporary South Korean women. Cho Nam-joo does not drag in all the historical sufferings of Korean women with the clandestine purpose of demonstrating to her readers that, yes, it has been women’s fate to suffer like this from the time immemorial, boo hoo, and “ameliorate” their frustrations in a great cauldron of tears, the gimmick many popular Korean movies and novels still resort to. I anticipate such a question from an American undergraduate who has read this novel, “Professor, the Korean society’s treatment of her is the result of Confucian tradition, right?” or something to that effect.
J: To be blunt, the “Korean” or “Asian” background of the novel is not that important. I believe it is the novel’s strength, and again one of the reasons for its cross-cultural appeal, that it precisely does not seek to pin its issues down to “Korean culture,” however it might be defined. I firmly believe that South Korea’s “women’s problems” today originate mainly from sociological and structural factors, not from some ill-defined cultural traits, not to say, of course, cultures and ideologies do not play a role at all.
Q: Thank you so much, Su Yeon, this will be very helpful for the students! Good luck on your continued academic pursuit in the fields of sociology and women’s studies.
J: I am so happy to help you out! I hope the [UC Davis] students find the novel (and the film adaptation) intriguing, disturbing and ultimately educational.