Reading Women on the Work of Korea’s Cho Nam-Joo
Kendra Winchester and Sachi Argabright Discuss This Month's Theme
For August’s theme, Kendra, Sachi, and Joce share books by Asian authors for Women in Translation Month!
From the episode:
Kendra: August is Women in Translation Month, and this was started by a woman who wanted to read more books from around the world. And she realized that to do that, you have to read women in translation. So that’s what happened. And that started, I think, in 2014? 2015? And so now it’s been going on for several years. And of the big stats that she puts out is that according to a study done in 2016, approximately 30 percent of new translations into English are books by women writers.
Sachi: So, this is something that I need to also. . . . Every year, Women in Translation Month comes up, and I’m like, oh, I need to read my translations. And I need to do a better job of of reading them throughout the year. But when you had put in the doc that stat, I was kind of surprised that, you know, only 30 percent of translations into English are from women writers. So we’ve got to read all those books and boost them up so, hopefully, more women get translated in the future.
Kendra: Yeah, definitely. And I think you and I are more aware of women literature, literature written by women.
Kendra: So I, you know, I have Olga Tokarczuk that I have had on my list for a couple years now, even before she won the Nobel. And I just haven’t. And there’s even audio for those.
Sachi: No, okay.
Kendra: And, you know, even with 30 percent of new translations into English being books by women writers, even a smaller percentage of those make it to audio, which obviously limits the accessibility of their work. And that’s something that I’ve really been struggling with the last few years, because only a small percentage of those books become audio. And so that was what I was limited to today. So when I asked a friend of mine to recommend me books by Asian women in translation, he was like, “On audio?” I was like, “Yes.” And so he had like six? And I was like. . . .
Sachi: Oh, gosh.
Kendra: And I mean, granted, that’s off the top of his head. But still, like, you know, it’s definitely a limitation. And so I hope that Women in Translation Month, as it has over the years, increases that awareness so there could be more women in translation on audio as well.
Sachi: That’s a good point. Yeah, I feel like, you know, to be as accessible as possible isn’t always at the forefront of publishers’ minds. So add translation on top of that, and it makes it even more difficult.
Kendra: Yeah. And we don’t often talk about factors in publishing that are in and of themselves a marginalization. So like being in translation, for example, makes it more difficult to get published. And being a woman, you know, being a woman writing a particular language. . . . Like Eastern Europe. There are so few books from Eastern Europe that are coming in translation. I mean, I’ve only come across one book written in Romanian. I think it’s Bottled Goods, you know, that I really made a splash. And so I think there’s a lot of things to think about when we think about women in translation, factors that we just don’t discuss when we’re talking about books written and read in their native languages.
Sachi: Yeah, that’s so true.
Kendra: So we’ll talk a little bit more about that next time. But today we have our six picks that we have, and all of them are from Asian women, mostly East Asian women. And it was really interesting being able to compare and read all of these books.
Kendra: So, Sachi, you have the first one.
Sachi: Yep! So my first pick today is Kim Ji-young: Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, and this is translated by Jamie Chang. And it’s out from Liveright. And this is from a Korean author and was originally published in 2016 and translated to English in April of this year, 2020. And I think what I didn’t realize, you know, until I started reading and focusing on Women in Translation Month and started reading for Women in Translation Month in August is that a lot of the books that are “new” to us . . . you know, some of these stories were written many, many, many years ago. And they’re new to us. But, you know, the story might be decades old, right? So I think some of our picks today were originally written in the ’90s or something. And so it’s just interesting to look, you know, at the publishing dates of when it was published in the US versus when it was originally published in the native country. So I think in this episode, we’ll be outlining some of the originally published dates versus the translated dates, which I think is really interesting.
So a quick synopsis of this book. This story follows Kim Ji-young, a woman who was pressured by her family to become a full-time mother and later suffers from depression. And this book really focuses on the everyday sexism that’s present in Korean culture, in areas such as parenting, school and education, and the workplace—in particular, kind of the corporate environment. And the book is really, I would kind of say, it’s not sectioned off, but has three main parts that follows her life and talks about how gender inequality and sexism takes place in the various stages of a woman’s life. So in her childhood, she has a sister and a brother. And the brother is very much favored over the two sisters. And even they talk about how, like, you know, finding out that you’re pregnant with a daughter is something that is not celebrated. Sometimes, you know, it’s seen as acceptable to have an abortion if you know that the child is going to be female, which is, you know, just awful.
Sachi: Yeah, and like . . . and that is not limited to Korean culture. A lot of these themes are present in other Asian cultures as well. But there is obviously specific examples kind of set in the Korean space because that is where this story is held. You can see throughout that the brother is very highly favored. After their grandmother passes away, he gets his own room, even though he is the youngest. And the two older sisters have to share a room and such.
And then the book kind of moves into early adulthood and to the high school, college type part of her life, let’s say. She talks about being sexually harassed not only in high school, but also in college and as well as in a job interview, which was shocking to me. Some of the questions that they asked were extremely kind of sexist. The book is interesting because it footnotes a lot of facts, which I’ve read that a lot of people think that’s a little clunky that, you know, you’ve got your prose, then you’ve got some facts and footnotes and things like that, which might take you out of the storyline. But I found them to be very helpful and fascinating. One of the things that was called out in the book is that the amount of high-achieving accolades a woman must have to enter the workforce needs to be ridiculous in Korea. You have to have like the best credentials, and they’re often lower paid. And I didn’t know this, but Korea has the largest wage gap in the entire world.
Sachi: Yeah. Yeah. It’s wild. It’s mostly in countries that make up, like, I think 80 percent of the global wealth. The average Korean woman makes 65 percent of what an average Korean man does.
Sachi: Which is shocking. I think the article I read is like, that’s like comparing a salary of $32,000 a year to $50,000 a year.
Sachi: Yeah. So they talk about that a lot in the book, just about her being in the workplace and and trying to find a job out of college and finding out that the men that she started with at the same time that she’s grown close to, you know, she finds out how much they made starting out versus what she did. And they had the pretty much exact same resumé. And so those things, like especially because I work in a corporate environment in the States, like it’s just so infuriating to read that. And so that was I feel like really eye-opening. I did a lot of Googling after reading that portion.
And then it kind of shifts into adult and motherhood and talks about how most Korean women are forced to quit their jobs after they become pregnant. And as a result, you know, most corporate jobs don’t even hire women because they know that they’re going to leave after they’re pregnant. And then a lot of women don’t even make it to leadership positions. So then those leadership positions, like there’s no women advocating for other women in the workplace. And Kim Ji-young, she experiences this when her family is pressuring her to have a child. And her husband ended up just saying, “Well, let’s just have one, just so we don’t have to hear about it anymore.” And then they start doing the math on how much time it takes to take care of a child and how much daycare costs. And they live in Seoul. And it’s so expensive that he’s like, “Well, you know, you might as well just quit your job because I make enough money. And then you can just take care of the child. And I can help sometimes.”
Kendra: Wow, yeah.
Sachi: It’s like, uh, what? And she would say, like, “Well, I love my job. I don’t want to quit.” And he was like, “Well, then who’s supposed to take care of this baby?” And she’s like, “We don’t have to have it right now.” And he was like, “Well, that’s what our family wants, and I’m sick of hearing it. And like, I’m the head of the household.” So it’s just like it’s wild. But this stuff happens. Like this is, you know, very prevalent in Asian cultures, and you get it firsthand.
You know, it’s not to say like. . . . When you’re reading it, the intent isn’t to be like, oh, look how backwards Korea is. And like, look how, you know, these women don’t speak up for themselves and all these things. I think it’s mainly the purpose is to show that things need to change. It’s not to pity the women in those countries, which I have read certain books, at least ones that are set in an East Asian countries. And I’ve seen reviewers from America saying like, oh, you know, these poor women; they’re just so oppressed, and this is terrible, and I’m so glad we’re not like that. And it’s just like that is not the point of putting these books out there! It’s to show that there is injustice happening, and there needs to be something done. Like, I was just so angry and frustrated.
And I think that is the reaction that you’re supposed to get to understand, like, there’s still so much injustice in the world. You know, there’s even injustice in our country, in the United States. But like, we . . . often we’ve talked about some on the podcast, who just like, we live in our bubble, right? And all this stuff. And it’s like, in some other countries, these injustices and inequalities are even more amplified. And this book, I felt like really illustrated that in a way that really came across in less than 200 pages, I felt, in a very powerful way. So that’s kind of my high-level thoughts around the book. I learned a lot just about Korean culture. And I’ve read a lot of books set in Korea, but this one very much puts into light the specific lens of gender inequality. And I very much enjoyed it.
Kendra: And it is a very . . . I mean, the book itself, as it exists, is a woman speaking up about her own community. And Sumaiyya talked about this last month, you know, about how a lot of people think Muslim women never speak up or stand up for rights or activists, et cetera. And that’s very much not the case. And I think, you know, this book is an example of a Korean woman standing up and saying, you know, hey, own community. These are things going on. And so I’m glad it’s coming to the US, so that we can read it as well. But also, I mean, good for her for writing it. And you said there was a movie that was made of it?
Sachi: Yeah! Yeah, I was just about to mention. It was well received, and they made a movie about it last year. And so I saw a trailer for it with English subtitles. I think it was produced and made in Korea. So hopefully that brings to light, you know, in the Korean culture and society some of the injustices that are really still happening to women. Like I’m still so shocked about the wage gap and how it’s the highest in the world. I would have never guessed that. Hopefully, you know, this book and this movie really motivates and gets traction for change in Korea, hopefully. So that was my first pick. It’s called Kim Ji-young: Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo. And that’s translated by Jamie Chang.