Blood Sisters is unapologetically feminist.
“Writing poems in Korea as a woman is a kind of resistance,” says poet Kim Yideum in a recent interview with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. “Maybe it’s weird to call it a fight, but to put it boldly, it is a struggle.” In a country where women poets are expected to write “quite neat, logical, grand” poetry, Kim rejects all that. Her poems are often grotesque and jarring and by turns violent and surreal as they fight against poetic conventions. Kim remains unapologetically political, and the same can be said for debut novel Blood Sisters.
Set in ‘80s South Korea, Blood Sisters opens up in 1987, seven years after the Gwangju Uprising, a student revolt against martial law that ended in 165 deaths and has since cast a shadow over South Korean society. Indeed, the nation that Kim writes of aches with political restlessness and a potential for change. There are protests, intellectual salons to discuss the problems of society and a burgeoning “Feminist Student Association” at the local university, though none of this matters to the novel’s 21 year-old narrator, Yeoul.
When we meet Yeoul, she is temporarily staying at her friend Jimin’s apartment after running away from her father and stepmother. She’s apathetic and, as Jimin calls her, “irresponsible.” An art student, she never does finish a piece of art, finding it much “easier to erase and start over.” Summing up her life, she says, “I don’t care about finding myself or discovering my sense of identity. I just want to live anonymously.” Yeoul’s indifference is a stark contrast to her roommate, who belongs to the feminist Blue Stocking Club, reads Nietzsche and goes to protests, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.
Jimin provides stability for Yeoul, giving her free room and board and asking very little of her friend. She sometimes invites Yeoul to read a book or join a protest, to which Yeoul responds, “I’m so tired of that story.” Despite their differences, the two are close and, when Yeoul realizes their “period cycles started synching up” it becomes clear who the eponymous blood sisters of the novel are.
Unexpectedly, Jimin dies in an apparent suicide by sleeping pills. The event forces Yeoul to not only move out of the apartment but also investigate what really happened to her best friend. That leads to a violent and traumatic event that becomes a wake-up call for Yeoul to take a good, hard look at her life.
At its core, Blood Sisters is a coming-of-age story, a journey into finding who you are and who you want to be. Readers see Yeoul start off as one woman and eventually mature into someone different. Along the way, she meets women she could one day become—Jimin, the feminist; Eunyong, a coworker who’s comfortable with marriage and a traditional life; Hyunmi, Yeoul’s noncommittal lesbian sex partner; Inja, a doctor who leaves her husband to be with a woman.
At the same time, Kim gives a sense of who Yeoul is under her mask of apathy: a rebellious young woman who longs to live life on her own terms outside of the approved structures of society, like family (ironically, her own fell apart, suggesting these institutions are far from ideal). Yeoul, for instance, refuses to use proper honorifics in a society whose very language suggests hierarchy, though this somewhat gets lost in the translation to English. Yeoul is also not afraid to speak her mind on female sexuality, gender roles and even religion.
Unsurprisingly, Kim’s poetic voice can also be found in her fiction. As in her poems, her imagery mingles the dark with the beautiful: “The magnolia flower buds break off their branches as if they’re being decapitated,” she observes at one point. At another: “A black plastic bag soars above my head. It’s majestic, like a raven midflight.”
It’s clear that Jiyoon Lee, who has also translated Kim’s poetry, not only understands the novel but the author’s work in general, from linguistic inclinations to politics. A translator’s note indicates a personal as well as an intellectual connection with the text, and perhaps this makes all the difference. One wonders how different it would have been had a man translated it instead—would it have the same fearlessness or ease, especially in the book’s most unapologetically feminist passages?
In the end, Blood Sisters, like Kim’s poetry, is indeed unapologetically feminist. Following Yeoul we see what it means to be a woman in a society that would rather have them silenced. In every step of her journey, the protagonist resists that. She charts her a path filled with more challenges than victories, but through her story we can see what it means to be resilient. The novel has as much to say about the contemporary #MeToo era as it does ‘80s South Korea.