What’s with these incandescent South Korean authors and their magnificent translators? Following in the marvelous footsteps of the irrepressible Han Kang and her translator, Deborah Smith, the duo of Cho Nam-joo and Jamie Chang dish out a thematic and topical stunner that will make you introspect on an unfortunate socio-cultural attribute to which the world has long remained inured to – unacceptably so. While the subjects of misogyny and gender discrimination have gathered momentum and steam over the past many years, the hard to digest truth is still that there is a yawning schism that separates the privileges, opportunities and standing accorded to men from what is being offered to women.
To argue as has been advocated in many reviews, that this is a stirring book on feminism would not be doing ample justice to it. While undoubtedly it lays down the marker for eviscerating gender discrimination and providing the neglected sex, their rightful and deserved due, it transcends the domain of women’s rights. It addresses unabashedly a broader issue which is ushering in a paradigm shift in the narrow thinking ascribed to a subject – thinking that is now an insidiously entrenched dogma.
Thirty-four year old Kim Jiyoung rents a small apartment on the outskirts of Seoul with her husband Jung Daehyun. A former marketing professional, Jiyoung is now a stay at home mother having quit her job after delivering her daughter. Jung Jiwon, who is one-year old, spends half a day everyday in her daycare, before coming home for lunch. Jiyoung starts exhibiting an inexplicably strange behaviour all of a sudden. Alternatively assuming the role of her mother and a now dead colleague, Cha Seungyeon, Jiyoung begins conversing with Daehyun by sliding into the skin of the people whom she impersonates. When on a visit to Daehyun’s parents to Busan, Jiyoung effortlessly metamorphoses herself into a third person and proceeds to politely bemoan her frenetic and restless life, hell freezes over and Daehyun arranges for Jiyoung to visit a psychiatrist.
The story then drifts back many years, tracing the trajectory of Jiyoung’ s life from her birth till the onset of her seemingly unfathomable personality disorder. The background is gleaned from the meticulous notes prepared by her psychiatrist. The story of Jiyoung which is neither spectacular nor surreal, is the stereotypical conundrum faced by every woman from Seoul to Shanghai, from Boston to Bengal and from Mozambique to Madrid. Gender stereotyping since birth, compartmentalization of chores and conduct, brazenly assumed and taken for granted sexual licentiousness, virtue signaling, first victimizing and then indulging in victim-blaming, sacrificing and attenuating one’s ambitions so that the aspirations of the alpha male (*who is invariably a spouse) can be fueled to completion. Jiyoung faces every single one of these treacherous dilemmas. Even though a courageous proponent of her daughters’ rights, Jiyoung’ s mother reserves the most exclusive and delectable of delicacies to her brother while she and her elder sibling Enyoung are served the leftovers. Jiyoung is also severely reprimanded by her grandmother for surreptitiously consuming her baby brother’s formula by the spoonful. This visible discrimination gets exacerbated in school when after being constantly bullied by her desk mate, she finds herself at the receiving end of her teacher’s reprimand, when a shoe of hers, that is kicked by the bully flies across the class.
These indignities continue unrelentingly and haunt Jiyoung through her short but promising career as a marketing professional, a thankless hamster wheel of a life as an exhausted mother and a fatigued wife, and most importantly as a woman whose is resigned and reconciled to playing the second fiddle permanently as ambitions are thwarted and hopes, dashed.
The arresting story of Kim Jiyoung illustrates the startling hypocrisy of our world and age in a blistering fashion. While the entire Planet takes up cudgels, lamenting and bemoaning the beastly treatment accorded to helpless and hapless women in Afghanistan by the animalistic nature of the barbaric Taliban, the complaining populace conveniently forget the atrocities committed against women in their own backyard! While the Taliban needs to be mercilessly and ruthlessly annihilated and the multitude of women urgently liberated, there is also a need to reassess and relook the status and stature bestowed upon women globally, or rather taken away from them unfairly.
Cho Nam-joo cleverly slips in invaluable data and statistics gathered from various global and multilateral institutions such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to reveal the hardships faced by women spanning geographies. “A stay-at-home mother with a baby under the age of two has four hours and ten minutes a day to herself, and a mother who sends her baby to daycare has four hours and twenty-five minutes, which makes only a fifteen-minute difference between those two groups. This means mothers can’t rest even when they send their baby to daycare. The only difference is whether they do the housework with their baby beside them or without.”
When a tired Jiyoung after gathering Jiwon from the day care takes a much needed break to sip a cup of coffee while relaxing in a park, two condescending men clad in suits, point to her and murmur among themselves in tones strong enough for Jiyoung to hear. “I wish I could live off my husband’s paycheck…bum around and get coffee…mom-roaches got it real cushy…no way I am marrying a Korean woman….” These stinging and unwarranted words of insult drive Jiyoung to tears and has her tearing away from the park and heading home awash in a ceaseless flood of tears.
While this slim book is a paean to the predicament faced by womanhood in general, as Jamie Chang the translator, reveals in an interview, “for Korean women, this is the first novel that offered a full, panoramic, cradle to present-day view of all of their collective plight. So in that way it doesn’t just represent one person’s experience, but everybody’s experience.” The gender pay gap in Korea is the highest among the OECD countries. According to 2014 data, women working in Korea earn only 63 percent of what men earn; the OECD average percentage is 84.13 Korea was also ranked as the worst country in which to be a working woman, receiving the lowest scores among the nations surveyed on the glass-ceiling index by the British magazine, The Economist.
Korea also, for a developed nation, surprisingly places a ‘premium’ on the external features and extrinsic attributes of a human being. Women in general are under extraordinary pressure to repeatedly go under the scalpel to embellish, enhance and exacerbate their looks. Deborah Smith, translating the works of Booker Prize winning South Korean author Han Kang does an unparalleled service to her readers by providing a fascinating insight into a culture that places immense priority on external looks and physical attributes. Smith’s translation resonated with me when I experienced the tremors and turbulence of a culture obsessed with the external. A visit to Seoul found me occupying a budget hotel with cramped rooms. Every time I took the lifts, I was accosted and accompanied by a multitude of women draped in white bandages spread across their anatomy. Some of them in fact provided an impression that they were participants in a reality show that was reenacting the history and peculiarity of the Mummies in Egypt. Upon closer examination, I realised that the hotel was specially set up to cater to the accommodation requirements of patients who went under the scalpel willingly to embellish their visage in a specialist cosmetic surgery clinic adjacent to the hotel. I could relate with a chilling immediacy, the intersection of translation with culture.
Years ago, when I happened to visit an acquaintance, I was served a plate of deliciously assorted sweetmeats. After licking the plate clean (in metaphorical terms), I trudged into the kitchen to wash my plate. The matriarch of the family, grabbing the plate from my hands thrust it towards her daughter in law and for added measure asserted in a threatening voice that “a kitchen was the domain of the feminine.” In absolute contrast, I dare not fail in my duties to do the dishes, lest I get clanged on my head with the heaviest one amongst them by my Mom! (Just kidding but this is a chore which I have been unfailingly programmed to do since eons).
It may be wishing for the moon, but miracles do happen. So let us all fervently and collectively hope that in the near future, the world never gets to see a book, whether fictitious or autobiographical, dwelling on the plight of another Kim Jiyoung. Even though I know this is more a pipedream than a wish, let me reiterate that I also believe in miracles!