The new, often subversive novels by Korean women, which have intersected with the rise of the #MeToo movement, are driving discussions beyond the literary world.
“These books exposed Korea’s dirty little secret, which is that despite being seemingly wealthy and modern and enlightened and cool, the social advances have fallen far, far, far behind the money,” said Euny Hong, author of “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture.” “What’s recent in Korean feminist literature is the first-world-problem nature of it, where Korea is an extremely wealthy country, and there’s still something that’s profoundly wrong.”
Cho wrote “Kim Jiyoung” in 2015, finishing a draft in just a few months. At the time, misogynistic trolls were becoming a greater presence online. False rumors proliferated on the internet that a South Korean woman had contributed to spreading the MERS virus in Hong Kong after refusing to be quarantined. Derogatory slang targeting housewives, like the term “mum-roach,” was becoming more prevalent.
“I wanted to write about the everyday and common but nonetheless undeserved experience of women around me, about the despair, exhaustion and fear that we feel for no reason other than that we’re women,” Cho said in an email through a translator. “I also wanted this story to not just be a work of fiction, but a very likely true-to-life biography of someone out there.”
Like her heroine, Cho experienced pervasive sexism throughout her life, she said. Born in Seoul in 1978, she studied sociology at Ewha Womans University, the nation’s top women’s college, then spent nearly a decade writing for current events TV programs. She quit to raise her child but found it difficult to restart her career — a biographical detail that informed her novel.
She began gathering articles and sociological data and decided to write a fictional biography of an average Korean woman, following her from birth to the present. In “Kim Jiyoung,” small disappointments and minor outrages trail Jiyoung for her entire life. When she is a child, her parents spoil her younger brother, while she and her sister have to share everything; at her all girls’ high school, male teachers grope and harass their students under the guise of examining their uniforms.