I made my first book purchases of 2021 earlier this month (stepped foot inside a B&N and everything), and fittingly, those purchases are the focus of this review! In addition to being two of the first three new books I bought this year, today's selections were both translated into English from other languages and published in 2020, and they're also books which I wasn't altogether blown away by but still appreciate for existing. First up is an international bestselling novel about a South Korean woman's debilitating lifelong experiences with sexism and misogyny. Then, a winding novel about an Angolan-Portuguese woman in Lisbon grappling with her curly hair and family history. And coincidentally, both of the protagonists of these novels were born in the year 1982!
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo
(Translated from Korean by Jamie Chang)
hype and praise surrounding its release in the States last year, and I know for sure that my friend Irene read it and we briefly chatted about that fact. But I usually like to pin down exactly how or where I initially hear about the books I read so I can remember why I've chosen to read them, and in the case of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, for some reason I simply do not remember. At the very least, this novel was high enough on the to-buy-eventually book list on my phone that when I spotted it while scanning the B&N shelves, I recognized the title right away and grabbed a copy.
The book opens in 2015 ("Autumn 2015"), when the titular Kim Jiyoung, a 33-year-old marketing professional turned stay-at-home mom in Seoul, starts acting in a way that makes her husband Daehyun fear there's something seriously wrong with her. Jiyoung begins talking to her husband as if she's other people—women like her mom and her deceased college friend—taking on their speech patterns and mannerisms in a way that goes beyond mere impersonation. Daehyun shrugs it off at first, but when Jiyoung's new behavior embarrasses him in front of his family during Chuseok festivities (in American terms, he basically blames her for ruining Thanksgiving dinner), he arranges for Jiyoung to see a psychiatrist. The next four chapters recap Jiyoung's life and the inescapable multitude of ways in which she's observed (or experienced outright) how boys and men are prioritized over girls and women throughout each stage of her development. From her mom's sacrifices to Jiyoung being a middle child and an elementary school student ("Childhood, 1982-1994"), to Jiyoung's middle and high school years ("Adolescence, 1995-2000"), to her college years and the first and only job she ever has ("Early Adulthood 2001-2011"), to becoming a wife and quitting her job to be a mother ("Marriage, 2012-2015"). After laying out Jiyoung's life story, the novel ends with a sixth and final chapter that's set during the year after Jiyoung begins therapy ("2016").
Jiyoung's early adulthood is what has resonated with me the most, probably because me being in my 20s makes that chapter the most immediately-relatable of her life phases. But it's also because of how disgusted I was by the rampant sexual harassment and workplace discrimination that Jiyoung and countless working women like her are expected to withstand (or even accommodate), just for the sake of being considered worthy of employment. And that's IF they can even get hired in the first place. Jiyoung's one of the lucky ones who gets a job straight out of college, and has a female boss who's gone out of her way to improve working conditions for women at that particular company, but Jiyoung still ends up dealing with pervy clients and watching her less-qualified male colleagues get a promotion that she deserves. The painful twenty-something disillusionment that overtakes her is something I know all too intimately. Later on after leaving the job to give birth and raise her daughter, Jiyoung hears from a former colleague about an incident involving spy cams that traumatizes all of the female staff, and reading about that made me want to break things.
Jiyoung is done dirty in numerous instances, but the way she's persuaded (weaseled, suckered, brow-beaten, worn down, take your pick) into giving up her career to have a baby really boils my blood. Before having their daughter, she and Daehyun have a serious conversation about whether they want kids or not and it's very clear that Jiyoung has more misgivings about it than anything; motherhood is an idea that's being thrust upon her, not a role that she actively wants at that point in time. And that discussion goes unresolved, but then she's pregnant in the next scene! It's as if the objections she raises during that prior conversation and whatever anticipatory guilt, anxiety, and stress Jiyoung feels about everything she may lose by becoming a mom... none of that matters anyway. None of it was ever going to make a difference. Daehyun's family wants her pregnant, Daehyun himself wants her pregnant (although to his credit, he's just a hair less overzealous and pushy about it than his family is), and so pregnant she becomes. But then being a mom brings her public derision that she's unprepared to handle.
Something that kept bothering me is that we never learn why Jiyoung is with Daehyun. At least with her previous two boyfriends before him, we know about the dates they go on and other romantic aspects of Jiyoung's relationships with them, as well as what about each boyfriend makes Jiyoung fancy them. But all we know about her and Daehyun is that they met at her now-deceased friend's wedding reception. We get very scant details of their relationship prior to engagement and marriage. No dates, no romance, no proposal, none of Daehyun's redeeming qualities. He's her husband at the beginning of the novel, and he's already her fiancé when he appears in the "Marriage, 2012-2015" chapter, and that's all there is to it. Which kept making me wonder: Jiyoung, why are you with this man? Something else I'm realizing just now as I write this review, is that sex is not discussed in the novel. There's mention of the pressure to have children, how much periods suck, the trials of pregnancy, sexual harassment/assault, and even an abortion that one of Jiyoung's relatives has, but the act of sexual intercourse and how Jiyoung feels about it aren't discussed at all.
When I read in the beginning about Jiyoung's behavior suddenly changing and her husband being perplexed about why it's happening and what to do about it, I immediately thought of Han Kang's The Vegetarian. (A Korean novel in which, rather than pretending to be other people like Jiyoung does, the female protagonist refuses to eat meat and then eventually stops eating altogether.) I wondered if Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 would go in a similar direction as The Vegetarian, revealing Jiyoung's current behavior to be the result of the mental trauma caused not solely by one specific incident, but by a lifetime of being undermined and disregarded in a sexist society. I found no delight and only sorrow in realizing that I was correct.
Then I arrived at the last chapter ("2016"), where's it's revealed that the entire book is actually a collection of therapy notes! The contents are all observations about Jiyoung that her male psychiatrist has recorded based on what Jiyoung and her husband have told him in their sessions. So it's not that the book is oddly written (as I began to suspect due to its tone), but that the narration takes on the somewhat formal style of the psychiatrist, digging deep into his vulnerable patient's personal life and memories while remaining respectfully detached from the patient herself (a detachment that's compounded by his lack of experience living as a Korean woman). Maybe it was obvious to other readers that the book is written from the psychiatrist's perspective, but I was genuinely surprised. It felt like a huge reveal to me. And at first I thought the psychiatrist would be one of the good ones, so to speak; he's a man who gets it, or at least is closer to empathizing with the plight of women than most other Korean men seem to be. I hoped that Jiyoung would be in good hands. But then those last two paragraphs of the novel showed up like a punch in the gut, like salt rubbed into the wound of righteous indignance (dare I say rage?) that this book opened up in me. I won't spoil what exactly he does or says to reveal his true character, but I'll just say that if this is the best Jiyoung has access to as far as mental health support is concerned... she might not ever get truly well.
Now. Given the intense wave of simultaneous praise and outrage that pushed Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 into international bestseller status after its initial 2016 publication in South Korea, I buckled myself in to read some quality man-thrashing! The back cover declares that this is "the global sensation that ignited South Korea's new feminist movement", and I heard that plenty of men were upset about its popularity, so surely there would be some man-thrashing involved? Right? Not exactly. The book does pay careful attention to the daily horrors of living as a girl or woman in a way that frequently made me feel afraid, angry, and disheartened for Jiyoung. But overall, it's fairly tame in the man-thrashing department. Cho Nam-joo matter-of-factly portrays the average Korean woman's experience as she knows it, and if anything she tempers the egregiousness of those daily horrors by using a male narrator to convey them. So I definitely get why the book has been such a huge hit, but I don't get why men have been so offended by it. Maybe it was the timing of the publication, and maybe I'm missing something because I'm not Korean and don't read Korean. In any case, this is certainly a read that I would recommend! If you're interested in understanding Korean women's hopes and disappointments along with the countless nuances of Korean mothers' sacrifices, but you don't necessarily want something that will make you collapse in a puddle on the floor like Please Look After Mom and If You Leave Me almost did to me (which also came to mind as I read this), then read this book!
"Besides, I don't know if I'm going to get married, or if I'm going to have children. Or maybe I'll die before I get to do any of that. Why do I have to deny myself something I want right now to prepare for a future that may or may not come?" (60)."Disappointment collected between them like dust on top of the refrigerator or medicine cabinet—spots clearly visible but neglected... Onto the feelings left unsaid for so long that they were desiccated and crackling, a tiny spark of a flame fell and instantly reduced the most shining romance of youth to ashes" (107-8)."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" (119)."Help out? What is it with you and 'helping out'? You're going to 'help out' with chores. 'Help out' with raising our baby. 'Help out' with finding me a new job. Isn't this your house, too? Your home? Your child? And if I work, don't you spend my pay, too? Why do you keep saying 'help out' like you're volunteering to pitch in on someone else's work?" (131).
That Hair by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida
(translated from Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker)
Alentejo Blue—and it was on my book list for many months. Fun fact: This is the first book I've ever read or reviewed whose translator I've actually met! When I was in the running for an editorial fellowship with an international literary magazine last year, Eric M. B. Becker was one of the people who interviewed me. That interaction had absolutely no influence on my desire to read this novel, since I knew about That Hair before I knew that Becker existed, but it's a funny little coincidence that I was looking forward to sharing in this review.
Situated on the west coast of south-central Africa, what's known today as Angola was colonized by Portugal for 400 years until independence in 1975, and the impact of colonization is embedded in main character Mila's family history and physical features. Her most visible and commented-on feature being her naturally curly hair, which sticks out and up rather than flowing downward. She's a biracial woman with an Angolan (Black) mom and a Portuguese (white) dad, who was born in Luanda (the capital of Angola) and then raised in Lisbon (the capital of Portugal) from the age of three. Colonial relations are what makes it conceivable that both of her parents are "from" Africa: her dad was born in Mozambique when it was still a Portuguese colony, was raised by Portuguese parents who considered Africa to be their home, and he met Mila's mom after moving to Luanda as a young adult. Mila moves to Portugal with her dad in 1985, and by the mid-1990s most of her family on both sides—including her Angolan grandparents but not including her mother—are living in or around Lisbon. Mila mostly grows up with her Portuguese relatives, though she has a tender fondness for both sides, especially all four of her grandparents. She sees her mom during summers when either she visits Angola or her mom visits her in Portugal. (No mention is made regarding the circumstances of her parents' divorce or her mom's decision to remain in Angola.) In this novel that's framed as Mila's attempt at autobiography, her yearning to know more about her Angolan roots and her desire to make sense of her hair journey feed into each other.
It's not that I wanted this to be exactly like, for example, 'Nappily Ever After' (of which I've only seen the Netflix movie adaptation and haven't read the book it's based on). But I suppose I was expecting That Hair to be its own version of that now-quintessential, heartfelt, even humorous story of a Black woman learning to embrace herself through her hair, albeit written in a more sophisticated way and in a Portuguese context. And while Mila does pepper in anecdotes about unsuccessful at-home and in-salon attempts to style her hair, the comments she fields from relatives and strangers alike, and how frustrations with her tresses affect her sense of self... this book doesn't actually center around Mila's hair. It's more about her family and how she memorializes the people in her life (including her ancestors and herself), with frequent mention of her hair as a guiding motif. Reading That Hair actually reminded me a lot of Michael Ondaatje's fictionalized memoir Running in the Family, which also features multiple generations of a mixed family connected to a formerly-colonized country of Brown people (Sri Lanka).
I'll just make it plain and say that I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. Something about the writing took me out of it. Though I do appreciate that Becker's translator's note at the beginning of the book provides a heads-up about this, explaining how Portuguese writing "is many times more permissive of and malleable to discursive detours, repeated pivots, and elliptical flights of lyrical fancy, all in the same phrase" (xiii). Knowing what to expect did make the book smoother to get through. And while I was impressed by much of the novel's poetic phrasing, I'd venture to say that That Hair probably wouldn't be a good choice for someone who gets lost when reading heavily-descriptive or winding sentences. It feels like something I would've been assigned to read in one of my James Madison College classes back at MSU, classes in which I still distinctly remember tackling community and identity-related questions like: What is a symbol, what is a sign, and what is the real? What is memory and what is forgetting? What is history, what isn't history but functions as history, and what's the difference? What does everything mean? If you enjoy reading philosophical, theoretical, or even slightly abstract thought processes like these, then you'll probably appreciate this book. Or maybe if you're someone who is fond of and has a solid grasp of comprehending poetry (even though the book is written in prose). But if none of that applies to you, the reflective passages that are interspersed with the more relatable quotidian snapshots within the book might read as slightly dry or confusing.
Personally, past a certain point I felt like I was reading this book primarily because I'd assigned myself to read it. And as insightful as it is about the cultures and geopolitics between Angola and Portugal, I finished it mostly because I'd already committed to the idea of finishing it (and I had a review to write!), not necessarily because I was enthralled by it. In a nutshell, I really wanted to connect with That Hair on an emotional level, but I couldn't. And that's okay. I'm still glad that Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida has gotten some shine for writing it.
"They were part of her, like an elastic band around her wrist meant to remind her of something she'd unwittingly thrown away before its time, forgetting what had brought her there in the first place" (29)."She never got caught up in the mechanics of prayer, the way those who don't know how to pray do. Prayer was, above all, fertile terrain for improvisation, where she didn't trouble herself with vain questions of whether we have a duty to restrain ourselves when we ask something of God" (74)."Visiting salons has been a way of visiting different countries and learning to distinguish the features and manners of each, giving new fuel to prejudices. Senegal is a pair of moisturized hands; Angola a certain casualness, a brutal grace; Zaire a disaster; Portugal a burn from a hair dryer, the flesh wound left by a brush. I remember Tina, from Guinea-Conakry, a girl who did my hair in Mercês and shared a similar distrust of the Portuguese; but I can color in this map with the angel from another day, Lena, the Angolan girl who saved me one afternoon" (114)."What is found reconfigures what was sought... A person finds herself only by chance" (133).