Korean writer Kim Hye-Jin debuts first novel translated into English ‘Concerning My Daughter’

Translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang, As for my daughter is Kim Hye-Jin’s first book available in English. The author brings to the fore issues such as the cost of living, discrimination against the LGBTQ community, generational differences, aging and loneliness in South Korean society.

Green, 30 years old, is threatened by the increase in rental prices. Feeling lost and confused, she seeks help from her mother – our unnamed narrator – asking if the latter can get a loan on her behalf. Green works as a traveling university lecturer and is ineligible for loans or public housing due to his temporary employment status. After some thought, her mother invites her to move in.

However, the mother gets another unpleasant surprise when Green brings his wife Lana to live together. Conflicts arise when Mom learns that they are more than friends — Lane is Green’s longtime girlfriend. She is also the one who gave Green the nickname, which angers his mother even more. After accusing Lane of ruining her daughter, she tells her to leave Green so he can “fit in” and live a “normal life.”

It is easy to label a mother as traditional or homophobic. But as the story goes on, readers will understand why she is worried about her daughter’s life choices, which makes her completely impossible to hate. At the age of 70, all she can claim to control and own is the old, dilapidated house left by her deceased husband.

She is still working a low-paying job as a carer in a nursing home caring for dementia patient Jen. She needs the money to afford hospital bills and medication, insurance, living expenses and emergency funds: “Work without end. The thought that no one can save me from this exhausting job. I am worried about what will happen when the moment comes when I can no longer work. In other words, what I am not concerned about is not death, but life.”

The mother became attached to Jen, in whom she sees her miserable future. When Jen was young, she was a successful diplomat overseeing issues involving child welfare in developing countries. Now that she is old and sick, there is no family to take care of her, and she is treated harshly in the institution. In one case, she is forced to use diapers again, which worsens the wound on her back.

This situation frustrates Majka because she thinks Jen is spending her last days in limited solitude, denied the respect and quality care she deserves as someone who dedicated her youth to the betterment of society. The narrator questions the value of aging, especially when you are alone. This is precisely why she wants Green to have a family and children who will be able to take care of her: “The thought that my daughter will suffer the same fate as Jen is enough to stop my heart.”

In one incident, Green was involved in a protest at her university following the unfair dismissal of a fellow gay lecturer. He actively participates in protests asking the authorities to ensure the basic right to work for everyone, and to separate professional and private life. The mother is taken aback by the event and heartbroken by the discrimination faced by those in the same position as her daughter. Although he doesn’t say it out loud, he finds a similarity in the treatment of Jen and Green.

She begins to express a desire for change, something she has not cared about all her life. “I was born and raised in this culture where it’s polite to turn a blind eye and keep your mouth shut, and now I’ve grown old into it. So why am I suddenly seeing these things for the first time at this point in my life when I’ve already spent my entire life going along with it and not saying a word? Why make such a big deal out of this?”

A mother wants to meet her daughter, whom she feels has become distant from her. Although he is afraid of the answer — “Without expectations, agenda or fear, I want to ask anything and wait for an answer. But how frightening it is to become aware of things.” — doesn’t want to be the runaway parent.

A hard-working person who has financial difficulties, the mother is aware of the difficulties that everyone faces in order to keep their heads above water. A person’s sexuality should not be the reason they are denied a job or treated unfairly in the workplace, she argues. “What if he gets fired from his job, becomes a slave to making ends meet, falls into poverty and has to continue doing grueling manual labor until old age like me? I’m afraid that won’t happen to her. And it has nothing to do with my daughter liking women. I am not asking you to understand these children. Just let them do the work they’re good at and compensate them for it.”

As for my daughter it can be challenging to read because of the lack of quotation marks, but readers don’t have a hard time getting along because Kim gives her mother the biggest voice in the entire story. Will he finally come to terms with his daughter’s life choices? It’s an “endless, recurring battle” that she’s not sure she can win.

Buy a copy of ‘About My Daughter’ priced at RM95.90 from Kinokunia here.

This article first appeared on 9 January 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.

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