Female Friendships as Resistance: Blood Sisters by Kim Yideum
- onMarch 26, 2019
- Vol.43 Spring 2019
- byCrystal Hana Kim
- Blood Sisters
Tr. Ji Yoon Lee 2019250pp.
Progressive feminist poet Kim Yideum published her only novel, Blood Sisters, in Korean in 2011. Eight years later, this taut, raw book has now been translated into English by Ji Yoon Lee. Like Kim’s poetry, Blood Sisters examines art, political unrest, death, and most notably, gendered, sexual, and physical violence.
Blood Sisters bares its teeth from the opening pages, revealing the trauma and truth of a young woman’s life in conservative, patriarchal 1980s South Korea. The narrator Jeong Yeoul is a college student who has left her father and stepmother’s home and is staying with her friend, Jimin. As Yeoul grieves her stepbrother’s recent death, Jimin encourages Yeoul to read philosophy, join the Feminist Student Association, and become more politically involved. Yet Yeoul feels lost, unmoored by her lack of political ideology. However, when Jimin’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and she commits suicide by swallowing a bottle of pills, Yeoul becomes consumed with figuring out what happened to her friend and who is responsible. It becomes clear to the reader, and eventually to Yeoul, that a young man she works with named Sungyun raped and subsequently impregnated Jimin, which sparks Yeoul’s desire for revenge.
Yeoul’s cerebral introspection swirls around a multitude of topics, from wondering what it means to be a “grown up” to virginity’s social capital and ties to innocence. Always, she struggles to maintain control over a world that treats women as lesser than men, and sometimes, as mere objects to be used and discarded by men. At one point, she wonders, “Do I have to act coy, act like I’m a virgin until I get married? Do you have to? I don’t know . . . Lately I feel like I’m in danger wherever I go, like I’m walking through landmines.”
Blood Sisters also reveals the intense terror college students felt in South Korea in the 1980s, when they were still under the reign of an oppressive, dangerous government. Through Yeoul’s friends, who participate in protests and sit-ins, the narrative thrums with tension and ill ease. References to historic events like the Gwangju Uprising of 1980 and Lee Han-yeol’s death during the June Struggle of 1987 recur throughout the novel, ever present in these students’ lives.
Violence and trauma are woven into the landscape in subtle lines like “a Dogwood tree is blooming, its flowers look like scattered yellow pills,” which recalls Jimin’s demise. Yeoul thinks of death often, even saying, “I feel an urge to walk into the road with a fruit basket in my hand. I could just lie down on the road and be done with it.” And yet, remarkably, Blood Sisters is a steely novel of resilience. When Yeoul’s investigation into Sungyun’s actions leads to a sexual assault and subsequent hospitalization, she finds support and strength from her female friends. Sol, in particular, who is described as a “mini-Jimin,” anchors her. Both Sol and Jimin are Yeoul’s “blood sisters,” who are “bound by friendship thicker than blood.” In a letter to Yeoul, Sol writes, “We need to directly face the confusion, scarcity, and despair. We must endure the present.” These remarks echo the book’s frank discussion of the despair these women feel regarding sexual violence and pregnancy, as well as the confusion they have regarding sexual orientation, motherhood, and even religion.
Though this translation has a few moments of clunky imagery and a lack of dialogue markers sometimes making it difficult to identify who is speaking, Blood Sisters is a thought-provoking work on how control and violence are interwoven in all aspects of these students’ lives. Yeoul is relentlessly constrained—from the way she speaks to where she lives to what she does with her body. All these years later, these restrictions on female autonomy are still horrifyingly relevant today.
Blood Sisters is bleak and honest, but there is also hope in Yeoul’s determined resilience, as is evident when she says, “I speak with my own mouth, so I will address others on my own terms.”
Kim Yideum has published a novel, a travelogue, an essay collection, and five books of poetry. She has received the Kim Chunsu Award, 22nd Century Literary Award, and the Kim Daljin Changwon Award. She held a residency at the Free University of Berlin in 2012 and at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia in 2016, and participated in the Stockholm International Poetry Festival in 2014 and the Biennale Internationale des Poètes en Val-de-Marne in 2015. Action Books published the English edition of Cheer Up, Femme Fatale in 2015.