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[GERMAN] It’s All about Dignity

by Rasha Khayat June 14, 2022

Die Tochter

  • Hanser Berlin
  • 2022

Kim Hye-jin

Kim Hye-jin debuted with the short-story “Chicken Run,” which was the prizewinning work of the 2012 Dong-a Ilbo New Writer’s Contest. She has authored the novels Central Station, Concerning My Daughter, The Work of No. 9, the novella Fire and My Autobiography, and the short story collections Eobi and A Life Called You. She has received the 2013 JoongAng Ilbo Award for Long-form Fiction, the 2018 Shin Dong-yup Prize for Literature, the 2020 Daesan Literary Award, and the 2020 Lee Hochul Literary Prize for Peace Special Award. The English translation of Concerning My Daughter is forthcoming from Picador in 2022.

The most astonishing fact about Kim Hye-jin’s novel Die Tochter is this – the writer manages to tackle so many subjects and achieve so many layers of complexity in just one hundred and seventy pages that it becomes almost necessary to read it twice to give a proper review.

On the surface, this is the story of two generations of women with different value systems who struggle to understand each other. The nameless narrator, the mother, is miffed about her daughter’s life choices, about the fact the daughter – thirty-something-year-old Green – openly loves another woman, her partner Rain. Furthermore, the mother is unable to understand why her daughter engages in activism, taking part in protests when another gay university worker gets fired. To all of this, the mother reacts in a hostile way, again and again repeating to herself (as well as to her daughter and her partner), that she wishes a good, respectable life for her daughter, one with a husband and children, as she is still just about young enough to hopefully have that. And it gets worse. When Green loses her job and can no longer afford her own apartment, she and her partner move in with the mother. The discomfort this causes the older woman is brilliantly portrayed and makes the reader cringe.

But there is another layer to this seemingly hostile mother and to this novel. The mother, who used to be a teacher but is now working in a nursing home, is deeply attached to one of her patients, an old woman named Tsen, who has no family or relations and is now in danger of being shipped off to another facility as her dementia and her declining health make her a burden on the staff of her current more luxurious facility.

The mother is shaken by this great injustice and the blatant economisation of a human life. Since Tsen is no longer valuable to the home, let alone to society, and because she takes up much more resources because of her health, the system gets rid of her to die in some remote home, three bus hours away from the city, on the margins of society, on the margins of humanity.

The mother fights with her supervisors for Tsen’s dignity in vain. So in the end she has no other choice but to kidnap the old lady to take care of her in her own house. This is the moment in the book where absurdity could have taken over, or even worse, sentiment. But the author, wisely and in a very disciplined way, sticks to her very formal, sober and detached tone of voice to tell us about this brief moment in time where four women of different ages and values and life styles live under one roof.

The mother is the obvious antagonist in this story and it might be easy for a reader to dislike or judge her. But I can only see a woman who is deeply scared and has no way of processing her profound fears in a changing world she no longer understands. She fears for her daughter and her daughter’s wellbeing, she wants her child to be happy and more importantly, safe, and not an outcast to society. Only, it is beyond her imagination that happiness could mean a relationship with another woman, or that a chosen family of close friends could provide as much safety as blood relations.

She is deeply afraid of ageing too, as she sees in her workplace every day that there is no dignity, no respect and no security in ageing and ailing. She fights for the dignity of her patient Tsen as much as for her own. And in the process, she understands that she needs to respect her daughter’s life choices too, to try and see the dignity in a same sex partnership. Because otherwise, as she muses towards the end of the book, she might lose her daughter.

By no means is this book a tale of redemption. At no point does the mother apologize for her rudeness. She is not a warm person who is able to share her emotions the way the younger generation can. Still, there is hope in the end, as she says herself, that maybe one day she will understand the children. After all, she is no villain, only a very insecure mother who is stuck in the rules she was brought up with.

Personally, I feel the storyline along the mother in her work environment and her care for Tsen was more successful than the storyline surrounding the daughter and her love life, only because the dialogue between mother and daughter as well as the mother’s musings often seemed cliché and overly simplistic. The scenes also sometimes lack depth and originality whereas the parts in the nursing home and the work environment show the mother’s struggle with her daughter, with her own upbringing, painfully well and with great depth despite the very reserved tone. It is those scenes that make the reader want to give this woman, the narrator, a long hug and tell her she’s a good mother regardless, and her child will be alright.

For a German reader, the language seems all together a little too sober and too pragmatic, and I am not entirely sure if this relates to the translation. Especially in the beginning, the dry tone makes it hard to dive into the book. That said, I believe the pragmatic language is a good fit for this particular narrator, especially given the themes of this novel.

Rasha Khayat

German novelist and literary translator

Host of the feminist literature podcast Fempire 

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