Just minutes into our lunch, with the first of eight courses served but our chopsticks untouched, Cho Nam-joo wants to tell me about her conception.
The South Korean author — whose novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 has helped to inspire a new wave of women’s rights activism in east Asia — says there was a deal struck between her father and his brother.
Had she been born a boy, her uncle — whose own wife was pregnant with her sixth child, having already had five daughters — would be free to take the child as his own. (The contemporaneous cousin turned out to be a boy.)
The tale neatly illustrates the Korean society into which Cho arrived in the late 1970s: boys before girls, men over women. These are the same concerns that animate the 41-year-old writer’s groundbreaking book, which has become one of the most popular Korean novels in years, striking a chord in a society beset with sexism. More than 1m copies have been sold since it was published four years ago, and translations are now making a mark on hundreds of thousands of readers across Japan, China and Taiwan — countries that, like Korea, have struggled to shake off centuries of patriarchal dominance.
Neither Cho, her editor nor her publisher expected the book to become such a sensation. Before Kim Jiyoung, Cho lived in anonymity among greater Seoul’s 25m citizens. Despite publishing two earlier books — one telling the tale of a boy with savant syndrome, another depicting life in a poor district of the South Korean capital — she was mostly unknown in the country’s literary scene.
“I was not the kind of author that a publisher contacted first, asking them to write a manuscript,” she says. The editors at Minumsa saw some potential, but their target was to sell 8,000 copies.
We are sitting in Hamo, a low-key restaurant in Seoul’s upmarket Gangnam district, serving highly refined takes on Korean cuisine. Waiters enter and leave our cosy private dining room through wood-panelled sliding doors, carrying dish after dish from the seasonal set menu. Our first course — a salad of shelled shrimp, quarters of fig and slices of pear, all stacked in a tower and doused in a creamy beige pine nut sauce — has arrived swiftly. But my suggestion that we order a bottle of soju is nixed: Cho has to pick up her daughter from school after lunch.
The writer has a slight frame and a faintly nervous demeanour. Her understated manner belies the outsized impact of her novel, which follows a Korean woman from childhood to motherhood, documenting the misogyny, sexist discrimination and predatory behaviour she faces along the way. A film adaptation was released in Korea last year, topping the local box office and receiving critical acclaim, and English translations will appear in February in the UK and in April in the US.
The book was written in just a few months in late 2015. Offended by degrading media portrayals of women, but without designs of a bigger project, Cho started collecting interviews, articles and statistics.
Despite boasting the world’s 12th largest economy by GDP, following a remarkable rise from the ashes of civil war and widespread poverty, South Korea ranks 108 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap report, and the percentage of women in senior corporate and public jobs is among the lowest in the world. There are also high rates of psychological and physical violence against women; a 2017 study by the Korean Institute of Criminology revealed that four out of five men abused their girlfriends while dating.
After a few months of research Cho decided she needed to put it “into my own words”. Kim Jiyoung — whose name is the Korean equivalent of “Jane Smith” — was born. “What can I say about Kim Jiyoung? If you look at the cover of the UK and Japan editions, it shows a silhouette with no face. This shows her very well . . . She doesn’t undergo great tragedy or happiness. She can be seen as the collective experience of Korean women — a daughter, a student, an employee and a mother — with the element of the individual taken out; that is what Kim Jiyoung is.”
With our shrimp tower still mostly standing, plates with a collection of jeon — small fried pancakes — arrive. I offer her first pick while jealously eyeing the golden, kimchi-laced number.
Some have criticised Cho’s prose as “artless” — we know little of what our main character finds annoying, her desires, habits and quibbles. But the ordinariness is, in fact, part of the magic. Kim’s life mirrors those of many Korean working women: she is born into a struggling family at a time when education holds out the potential for social advancement, but through the slog of school, university, career and marriage, she finds herself always at a disadvantage to her male peers.
Cho notes there is no “male villain” in her story, yet Kim is tormented. Even the “seemingly innocuous” actions of her husband and co-workers are a source of pain. “In some ways, I think those characters are better than ordinary people in reality,” says Cho. “And despite that, the main character had these difficulties — why is that?”
In seeking to explain why this collective experience is so bad, I wonder about the significance of Confucianism — the patriarchal system from which core parts of society across east Asia has evolved. How much blame does Cho apportion to her country’s culture?
Cho’s thin wrists move above the table, a hand lightly chopping into a palm as she makes a point. “It is a combination of these things . . . men are influenced by society, their personality, the environment they grew up in, and Korean tradition.”
A new plate has arrived, grilled mushrooms of more varieties than I knew existed. Cho’s book depicts scenes of sexism in numerous traditional situations. On holidays married couples visit the paternal side of the family first and men carry out the memorial rites of their ancestors while women cook and clean and intrusive relatives bully young brides to get pregnant. And, Cho says, it remains common for elderly Koreans of both sexes to want daughters and granddaughters to produce male offspring. Then again, Cho asks, “I wonder whether it is just Korean culture? Even in the west, based on Christianity, man is the first prototype of human beings, instead of woman. God is man. The religious leaders are men.”
I reach for a line from the book: “The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and customs had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all.” Given so much discrimination appears rooted in conservative family arrangements tied to tradition, does the culture need to be completely broken down for real change?
She carefully corrects me. “The so-called ‘traditional family structure’ is already being dismantled . . . The system of one male breadwinner feeding a family of three to four is no longer sustainable. The process of change has already begun.”
The sweep of demographic transformation in South Korea is immense. The country has one of the world’s fastest-ageing populations and lowest birth rates, and economic growth is sputtering, a reversal from the big families and rapid development seen since the 1970s.
But attitudes have been slower to progress. During a public hearing last year, a lawmaker told a top economics professor nominated for a high-ranking regulatory position that she had failed to “fulfil [her] duty to the nation” because she did not have children.
Cho grew up in a poor area on the outskirts of Seoul, in a family that “was not emotionally or financially stable”. She enjoyed reading, but public libraries were barely functional and there wasn’t enough money around at home to buy books, so she borrowed the few her siblings had, reading and rereading the same stories.
Writing, too, came early, with Cho revealing her fears and feelings in diaries that she shared among her classmates. Later, she worked for 10 years writing television scripts for current affairs shows, and also raised a child.
More dishes arrive from smiling waitresses and waiters. Small mountains of octopus arms and deodeok root with the restaurant’s deep red chilli jang, stacks of galbi, grilled beef ribs glazed with a homemade and slightly sweet soy sauce, as well as bowls filled with moreish chunks of beef floating in a clear soup: food in South Korea is rarely a problem.
Cho has started scribbling in a notebook as she listens to my questions. In precise movements, her right hand switches between her pen and chopsticks, swooping in to swiftly lift bites from the plates crowding the table between us. I feel I’m being observed as much as I am observing.
The lack of joy in Cho’s book — save the odd reference to a past passionate romance or a newborn baby — is unsettling, I venture. Are Korean women, essentially, unhappy?
A polite chuckle — clearly I’ve been too dramatic. “If you look, Korean women actually seem to enjoy their lives more than men,” says Cho. “They are better at finding meaning in their lives, in the small joys and their hobbies.”
She didn’t set out to create an “especially unhappy” character. She wanted to expose the fiction that a woman’s life is self-evidently a happy one.
“You are a happy girl because you are loved by parents, you are a lovely daughter with pretty clothes. You are the happy young woman dating, protected by a man. You are happy because you are looked after by male employees in an office. And you are happy, as a mother, because you raise your pretty daughter who looks just like you. The outside world keeps telling you your life is good. It may not be a total misery, but it is not truly happy either. That is what I wanted to tell people.”
And, she notes, these problems don’t seem consigned to Korea either, pointing to the struggles faced by mothers in best-selling novels such as Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Large bowls of bibimbap are placed in front of us — a supremely balanced version of the Korean staple, with rice, fermented vegetables and blood-purple raw beef tossed through by the diner. Still, even more dishes appear — schools of fried fish, more kimchi. At some point a plate of beef shank must have also arrived. I count 30 plates and bowls on the table.
Chopsticks hovering back above a juicy octopus arm, I ask about Korean men. Each year in South Korea, thousands of cases of molka are reported — hidden cameras filming women without their knowledge in places like public toilets and changing rooms, and in even more intimate private settings. Korean society has been further rocked in the past few months by the suicides of two prominent K-pop stars in their twenties, both the victims of vicious misogynistic attacks online, as well as rape convictions handed to two male celebrities.
Does Cho have an explanation?
2nd Floor, 819 Eonju-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Set menu x2 Won58,000
Beef shank with perilla
Octopus and deodeok
Walnuts and omija-cha
Total Won116,000 (£75)
“South Korean society has somewhat failed to raise men into healthy and mature citizens — I don’t know the exact reason why.”
It appears, she says, that boys have their “egos stroked” growing up and later as young men, some seem frustrated at their diminished status in society. Maybe, Cho suggests, they find solidarity spouting choruses of extremist tropes against women online, watching pornography and going to brothels. She notes that it has only been in very recent years that these issues have started to be acknowledged as problems.
“When we talk about sex crimes, the most serious problem is the legislation and court rulings are too insufficient or lenient, to the point where it gives people the impression that the offenders only get light sentences.”
A touch surprisingly, though, she’s optimistic about the future. Amid Korea’s own #MeToo movement, women are increasingly speaking out en masse, protesting about issues they may not have had direct experience of, and this will make a difference, Cho believes.
“There is a slogan, ‘we are each other’s courage’. Solidarity will help us see gradual changes . . . I wrote in the author’s note that the world my daughter will live in should be a better place. I believe that it will be that way.”
A modest dessert arrives: a single candied walnut each and white porcelain cups of hot omija-cha, a delicate, rose-coloured tea made from dried magnolia berries. The waiting staff courteously refrain from evicting us as our now two-hour meal extends into their afternoon break.
Did Cho feel, when she wrote the book over those few months, that she was doing something great — or at least, something that hadn’t been done before?
She responds quickly, without a shade of false modesty. She simply tried to produce an accurate testimony, a corrective to the portrayals of women as “empty” and “obsessed” with consumerism. “I thought: ‘we are living really hard lives’ . . . if it was just a manuscript somewhere in a library, I wanted to leave a true account of what life was like for women living in Korea at this time.”
As for fame, while she would prefer to avoid the spotlight, she wants to stay the course to see what happens next. “I think Kim Jiyoung, the novel, is having a life of its own that is more adventurous, more courageous and more progressive than me . . . This phenomenon that the narrative is generating, I just want to keep up with it and all the wonderful things that it does.”
As we stand up to leave, I ask what she thought of the food. “It was delicious. Everything I don’t have to cook myself is delicious,” she says matter-of-factly — one last nod to all the Kim Jiyoungs.
Edward White is the FT’s Seoul correspondent. Additional reporting by Kang Buseong. Jamie Chang, a professor at Ewha Womans University, assisted with translation
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