[Japanese] The Baton Has Been Passed: A Different Person by Kang Hwa Gil
- onJuly 2, 2021
- Vol.52 Summer 2021
- byHiroko Oyamada
- A Different Person
Tr. Osanai Sonoko 2021336pp.
Jina reports her boyfriend, who’s also her superior at work, to the police for choking her. She rejects an out-of-court settlement, but all he faces after a trial is a trivial fine of about 300,000 yen. He doesn’t lose his job, and faces no jail time. Jina writes about this injustice online. While there come voices of sympathy and encouragement, they last only an instant, and are soon replaced with comments mocking and slandering her. Ultimately, Jina winds up leaving her job.
We cannot fully understand others. When our sex, age, and position in society are different, mutual understanding becomes even more difficult. Because of this we must rely on our imagination whenever interacting with others, whether they be family, friends, lovers, or those who just happen to sit next to us. However, with the birth of the internet, unilateral communication where we ignore the feelings of those we’re talking to has become much easier. Occasionally, that sort of communication becomes a type of violence; it can harm others and chase them into a corner.
Jobless, Jina closes herself up in her room and spends her days reading all the comments deriding her. She can’t help herself. One day, she finds amongst all those comments one from someone who seems to know her personally. Because of that comment, she returns to Anjin, where she used to live, to face her past.
Jina’s memory, just like anyone else’s, is spotty. Events are reversed and mixed up. Things are rewritten to fit her expectations. She searches, knowing there’s something important there, and she meets old acquaintances, talks, and tries to remember. Her best friend Dana; her childhood friend Sujin who, for some reason, she grew distant from; her classmate Yuri who died young in an accident. It becomes clear as all their memories are recounted that all the women in this novel are deeply injured, both physically and mentally, by unwanted sex. Unexpected pregnancies, sexually transmitted viruses, physical injuries; their bodies swell, fester, and hurt.
The suffering they face is all quite familiar to me, even though I live in Japan. They’re all the sorts of problems you can’t plan for ahead of time, the sorts of misfortune you can only pray does not befall you or anyone close to you. As I moved through the pages of this book, I had no space to enjoy my reading. I had no space to even hope that the characters would somehow be saved and all would end happily.
Misogyny is real. Whether you try to deny it or just shrug it off and say women actually have more power these days, that is an undeniable fact. And while how much of any group believes we must put an end to this discrimination varies from community to community, it is most often the societal discrimination that they are talking about. Unfair wages and hiring practices, biased school entrance examinations.
This book, however, depicts not only societal discrimination, but something more primal: the pain of physical difference. Only certain bodies can become pregnant. There are sexually transmitted diseases that leave men’s bodies unharmed but do serious damage to women’s. And when someone tries to hold someone else down and force their desire on them, it is by far most often men who have larger bodies and thus greater physical strength. We know that. Of course we know that. Anyone who has lived for some time as a woman knows that. We don’t mention it, and we seem not to pay it any mind, because if we don’t live as though those facts don’t bother us, we won’t be able to go on. Victims are blamed for not looking out for themselves, are treated as villains trying to ruin men, and the legal and welfare systems can’t provide sufficient support.
Jina, Dana, Sujin, and Yuri. The memories of these women come together, and it is thrilling to see the linking of the pain and suffering hidden therein, the connections between the experiences each of them considered their own personal trauma. As I read, I imagined a closing scene where these women join forces and challenge that which robbed them of their dignity. But that is not what this author chose. While she does offer glimmers of hope, she does not free us with a cathartic ending. Countless Jinas and Danas and Sujins and Yuris continue to suffer, and their enemy is not one person, but an endless number of individuals, and, on top of that, the very atmosphere of society that produces such people. We are living now. Can we—who sometimes even benefit from that same social atmosphere—can we tell such a dramatic story where the women face down their oppressors?
So the author has passed the baton to the reader. It was not handed to me alone. Countless readers (women and men both), must take that baton. It is our turn to run.
Translated by Kalau Almony
Author, The Factory (New Directions 2019)
The Hole (New Directions 2020)
Winner, 2014 Akutagawa Prize
Kang Hwa Gil has authored the short story collection An Okay Person and the novel Other People. She has received the Hankyoreh Literary Award, Ku Sang Young Writers’ Award, and Munhakdongne Young Writers’ Award. Her works in translation include Demons (Strangers Press, 2019). The story excerpted here, “Room,” is her debut work for which she received the 2012 Kyunghyang Daily New Writer’s Award.