It was the bottlecap that did it. I couldn’t get it back on the bottle. I slammed the disobedient piece of plastic down on the counter. Other small fires that evening clued me in. I was snappish with my partner. My body and mouth felt heavy. Phrases with spiky meanings got stuck in my head. Something was wrong.
Most novels I read have no effect on me. (Apologies to their authors; getting a doctorate will do that to you). Some novels, though, still manage to qualify as an event. South Korean author Kang Hwagil’s first novel, Another Person, was one such novel, having snuck up on me when I least expected it. I spent one sunny day reading it start to finish, despite my recent inability to read anything else for more than a few minutes. My partner asked me how the book was. I was effusive in my praise, immediately rattling off the plot, its unexpected conclusion, the value for feminists thinking about sexual violence, and its critique of the university.
I forgot about the novel for the rest of the day. At least, I thought I had.
It may seem strange to begin with the first person (in a book review!), but Kang’s novel demands such a response. Around the world, resurgent feminist energy faces an unfolding backlash. And, in response, a feminist world literature—often called #MeToo or also, as in South Korea, #WithYou—is rising up to meet it. This is a literature that explicitly reaches out to readers, wherever they may be, by implicating that reader’s story and relationships into the text’s fictional story. Such feminist world literature deconstructs misogyny and its effects, while, at a deeper level, building worlds focused on women’s relationships. This is a movement dedicated to unwriting the stories of misogyny that have bound women’s lives, revealing the pervasiveness of what Kate Manne has called “the logic of misogyny” and its destructive force.
Entering into this struggle is Kang’s 2017 novel 다른 사람 [Others], translated into English by Clare Richards and published as Another Person in 2023. The novel’s formal and aesthetic figuring of misogyny, sexual violence, and class are unique and worthy of readers’ time and attention, because of the novel’s singular demands on the reader through its use of direct address. It is for these reasons that Another Person reveals how crucial is literature in the #MeToo era, specifically for building and sustaining publics against the reality of what violence does to our capacity for love, solidarity, and healing.
Reading is not a private experience but a social relationship, in this case, with other women who are the targets of misogyny, who are subsumed by class inequality. Another Person, like few other novels, asks something of the reader and of literature itself. In so doing, it disproves—in both form and content—contemporary arguments for literary uselessness or theoretical superiority, as well as an insistence on literary isolation from the everyday which are classed modes of reading.
Kang’s novel reaches across borders, touching the pervasiveness of sexual violence and querying the interconnectedness of women across the world as misogyny and inequality are not the problem of a single nation but all of them.
Kang’s Another Person contributes to a long, global line of feminist writing that reimagines the world not through speculative or fantastic aesthetics but simply through a capacity for love that is quickly diminished, if not lost, in a world of hierarchy and violence. The erosion of solidarity means we lose the ability to desire relationships, love, and solidarity with one another. These are, instead, displaced by a desire for privilege, a desire to protect oneself and one’s precarious position within the class hierarchy. Kang’s novel, in both content and form, reaches across borders, touching the pervasiveness of sexual violence and querying the interconnectedness of women across the world as misogyny and inequality are not, ultimately, the problem of a single nation but all of them.
In fact, Kang’s work creates a feminist public that is both able to read for violence and to conjoin that reading practice to a practice of love that could make a different world. The demand on the reader—within the context of a global retrenchment of misogyny and inequality—becomes a tool to build a feminist public capable of contesting this wave, of desiring something more than simply a place of privilege. Thus, Another Person’s project flies in the face of male violence, and actively seeks to build a world beyond misogyny.
South Korea’s situation exemplifies the world’s, but it is also uniquely dangerous. After years of organizing, feminists there achieved real victories—as documented in Journalist Hawon Jung in Flowers of Fire (2023)—specifically, the creation of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, sexual violence task forces, and women’s challenges to revenge counteraccusations, a form of harassment by which perpetrators accuse the victims of lying, steeping them in costly legal battles. Yet such victories have been met by a misogynist backlash.
This has included the 2022 election of Yoon Suk-Yeol, who harnessed anger over false accusations of sexual violence (a myth, and one that grips the misogynist mind in the US as well). This backlash grows out of a perceived disempowerment of men, which fails to recognize that, in South Korea, power is held almost entirely by men, whether in government, markets, or families. Interestingly, for my purposes, a large part of the backlash framed the stories of victims as lies: treating those who come forward as attention-seeking or as turning themselves into victims, as if this were a desirable position.
Included within this is an insistence that women are lying about being oppressed, and that it is men who are now truly disempowered. This is one point where class inequality and misogyny meet: the eroding conditions of all workers and people within South Korea manifest as men turn their anger on women rather than toward capital and capitalists, including the right-wing governments that provide them cover and coerce labor on their behalf.
We live in a moment when, worldwide, male privilege is consolidating itself, sexual violence of all kinds is rising, and class inequality is deepening. Kang’s novel provides a way to think about these forces together.
In Another Person, three young, working-class South Korean women are victimized by the same man. The book traces their experiences and relationships with one another as the violence they experience starts to erode their worlds. One woman, dead. Two women, both unable to work, obsessed with what has happened and struggling to move on, profoundly isolated from the world and alienated from themselves.
These events take place within a university department dedicated to literature and other cultural content, explicitly thematizing the relationship between oppression and South Korea’s lauded cultural output. (These echo the #SchoolMeToo movement, documented in Hawon Jung’s Flowers of Fire, in which female students exposed rampant abuses within schools, including from teachers.) The devastation of these women’s victimization—by a man who ostensibly shares a subordinate class position—is compounded by the perpetrator’s continued relative success and protection within his department, including by a female professor. In an all too familiar story, he is simply moved to another school, scandal avoided.
The novel takes the familiar shape of a detective novel, deftly using suspense, shifting points of view, and misdirection to build to a conclusion that is both shocking and not. Shocking because a final piece of the puzzle falls into place and characters act in ways that defy our own norms. Not shocking because it conforms to what we know about sexual violence: the way it disorders women’s lives, that one perpetrator often has multiple victims. These generic features serve an important purpose: they implicate the reader in the epistemological game of the novel, where your assumptions and background beliefs are questioned and brought into full view, depending on who you think the perpetrator is or what crime you think has taken place.
Kang adapts the detective genre for feminist purposes by suggesting that the novel’s shocking conclusion is not, in fact, who the perpetrator was, but the fact that the victims were so isolated and so cruel to one another. Violence transforms the self in ways that are not appetizing, troubling our ability to identify with one another rather than simply with ourselves and the system within which we are trapped.
The story of Another Person, though plotted like a mystery, is straightforward: Jina, one of the narrators (and the only narrator given the first person), posts publicly about her physically and sexually abusive husband whom she is divorcing. In response to the long, detailed post, someone tweets that she is a “liar” and uses a phrase she hasn’t heard since her college days: “vacuum cleaner bitch.” This phrase was once used to describe a young woman, Ha Yuri, whose death a decade earlier haunts the novel.
Jina sets off trying to track down who sent the tweet, reconnecting with people from her school days, like Sujin, now married to a successful man, and whose connection to Jina and Ha Yuri is not just acquaintance, but also her own victimization. Jina suspects Sujin sent the abusive tweet, but discovers it was not Sujin. It was the man who victimized them all.
This is not a spoiler, as we are privy to this information early on: it serves to heighten the dramatic irony of women’s relations under patriarchy. It is only the man’s identity that is in question. Each of the young women—Ha Yuri, Jina, and Sujin—are targeted by an older student whose age and gender entitle him to their bodies in such a way that what they experience as violence, he sees as entirely normal, if not consensual. (And any failure of deference from women leads him to compulsively repeat, “Bitch,” a word that makes me flinch even reading it. I had a colleague once with the same linguistic tic.)
Instead of narrating this as a sociological case study, Kang instead traces what happens to these young women as a result of these attacks, focusing on the felt experience of their world. Their relationships with one another are destroyed. Jina suddenly is no longer friends with Ha Yuri, whom she humiliates in public. Jina then enters into a relationship with an upper-middle-class man, who is a domestic abuser. Sujin is briefly drawn into a close friendship with Ha Yuri after Ha Yuri finds her distraught following an attack—this only lasts until Sujin decides that allying herself with a powerful man will be the key to her survival and salvation, leaving Ha Yuri behind. Jina and Sujin’s relationship had long ago been broken by Jina’s class condescension toward Sujin, one of the poorest kids in school, the product of a single mother. Ha Yuri’s own story is the missing puzzle piece, as she died eleven years prior, and the details we know are mostly secondhand. Ha Yuri’s story only emerges through a coded diary in which she records, in x’s and o’s, when she is raped by the attacker involved in all their misery. Sujin is the safekeeper of this diary, discovering not only the attacker but her husband’s own complicity. Confronted with the data in the notebook, Sujin struggles to credit them: these 26 o’s and 17 x’s can’t all be assaults, can they?
These events unfold at Anjin University, a regional college that is home to a new department called the Eurasia Cultural Content Department, which includes English and Korean literature. Here we get a glimpse of the “world,” in the broad descriptor of “Eurasia” and the transnational relationship between the English and Korean languages. As its own world, the cultural content department is the site of multiple hierarchies, such as patriarchy, class, and age. The cultural content that it exports directly reproduces such hierarchies. Literature, as one form of content, is thus not an innocent realm of escape, but, instead, the site for struggle and contradiction.
Part of South Korea’s bid for political power on the global stage has been through cultural export (who hasn’t seen Parasite?). And yet, critics such as Hawon Jung have pointed out that the exported culture by and large tends to be masculinist and chauvinistic in content, and reproduces inequalities through its very production. The novel draws our attention to the class machinery that produces such cultural content, a machinery which reifies competing hierarchies of class and gender. Instead of turning a blind eye, Another Person resolutely looks at the sacrifices such a machine requires: the lives and minds of poor and working-class women.
This is the point of the classed and gendered hierarchies. One person’s success is purchased, absolutely, by the immiseration of another. Thus, there is no easy connection between literature, being a reader, and morality. Put another way, by spotlighting this particular abuser, the novel demonstrates that being a reader, even of great literature, does not make one moral.
Literature is a classed relation, not just in its production, but in whose careers it buoys, what environments it exists in. One of novel’s professors, Lee Kanghyun, teaches women’s literature and earned a reputation as a feminist; yet, in the department, she perpetuates violence. She discourages women from speaking up in order to protect the department’s image and her job security. Further, she also actively and knowingly abets harassment and engages in a relationship to protect the perpetrator because it suits her purposes. Kanghyun’s ambition to be a professor, itself is not a problem, except that it is purchased at the price of other women’s lives and subjectivities. Just because Kanghyun is a woman and teaches women’s writing does not then make her, or the department, feminist. This is Kate Manne’s point about the historical and environmental aspect of misogyny, the fact that it is institutional rather than psychological.
Not only does the department cost women their lives by protecting a perpetrator through intimidation and opaque reporting processes, it also leaves them with little to no tools for grappling with violence. In other words, students are given no skills for reading or using literature in ways that help them in their lives. Sujin, for example, turns to novels in extreme emotional distress in the aftermath of her rape, but finds she has no reading protocols with which to understand what to do next. In her classes, there is talk of “connecting novels with wider discourse and ideas, but Sujin had no interest in that.” Instead, she is interested in “one person’s voice; their own story.” She reads for comfort, identifying with the sexual assault victims of literature who “eased her loneliness.” Eventually, though, “Sujin grew to loathe novels” and the way they aestheticized violence, the way characters were “locked in the chains of unending violence.” Further, “she loathed the voices that could speak in no other way.” The only thing the novels do is encourage Sujin to fantasize revenge on her attacker. In fact, “she was out of her mind wanting to rape him.”
If Kanghyun uses novels in a bid for career mobility, Sujin attempts to use them as a kind of medicine, to sedate herself. Yet she finds that she has become trapped by a logic that does not serve her, without the tools to imagine different kinds of relation that do not reproduce violence. Ultimately, Sujin’s experience remains circular.
Kang’s characters use literature in unappetizing ways. Perhaps, then, my assertion that literature can power feminist world-making runs against the grain of the novel, which seems to doubt that the aesthetic can help heal and repair.
Literature itself does not administer justice. And yet, Kang offers one other, final, version of reading that gestures toward something more:
But that’s not how the story ends. The person to end this story is you. The person at the start of the whole story, who opened back up an old future. And maybe this is where the real story begins. Because in the final chapter of the story, the moment everything came to an end, the person to respond is you. That’s right. Now it’s your turn.
This appeal to the reader makes Another Person unique among contemporary feminist literary novels that seek to address the problem of sexual violence. This is because Kang so forcefully names the relation between a reader and a text, which is often left implicit. This appeal is not a collapse into the polemic or the propagandistic: it is the reader’s freedom appealed to here, as well as her own world.
In other words, there is no political program or politically correct action to follow or consume. Another Person’s conclusion implicates the reader in what they have just witnessed. And it does so by gesturing toward “an old future,” a phrase that kept coming back to me in the shaky days after reading the novel. Is it feminism that is an old future? What does it mean that the reader is the one to “end” the story? What is it my turn to do?
Some contemporary critics express fatigue with survivor stories or deem trauma narratives merely passé.1 But Kang’s appeal to the reader here shows how indispensable survivor stories remain to a movement like feminism. Almost thirty years ago, Rita Felski, addressing the exact same kind of (classed) fatigue, argued that the “appeal to a shared experience of oppression provides the starting point from which women as a group can open up the problematic of gender, at the same time as this notion of gendered community contains a strongly utopian dimension.”2 Felski helps us see the utopian dimension of Kang’s work: the attempt to remake our relations, to reimagine and realize our connections to one another despite the violence and differences that keep us siloed. In other words, the meaning of trauma is determined not by the book itself, but its audience and what it empowers them to see and do.
The appeal to the reader, as a world-building feature, is coupled with a rare statement of commitment from the author herself. For Kang, the novel seems to be a kind of remembrance, as the Author’s Note to the text reads: “I won’t set myself limits; I live each day in that expectation. Rest in peace, Yuri.” (The Author’s Note is ambiguous: its page number suggests it is still part of the novel; its header suggests it is paratext from Kang herself.) In either case, Ha Yuri’s story serves as a catalyst for some personal change on the narrator’s part, a real commitment to a different world. Her story, perhaps, was the catalyst for Kang writing Another Person, a real action making good on Ha Yuri’s story.
Such a commitment, regardless of whether we understand it as the author Kang’s or the character Jina’s, recalls Cassandra Falke’s assertion in The Phenomenology of Love and Reading: “Works of fiction or poetry encourage us as readers to let ourselves be overtaken because they call to us with an individual voice. … Through the narrator or lyric speaker they voice another way of seeing that offers more than just understanding” (my emphasis).3 Falke names this state of “being overcome”—of being moved by the voice of another—as love. Such a practice of love is useful for feminists, as Jennifer C. Nash has argued. I’m arguing that reading as a practice of “mutual vulnerability and witnessing” that can make real “a commitment to be intimately bound to the other (or to others), to refuse boundaries between self and other.”4 Nash affirms that “witnessing, for self and for others, for naming what others seek to ignore or normalize is a practice of love, of tenderness, and of political world-making.”5
It is through voice, then, that literature can effect change in us. Truly hearing another’s story, witnessing it, is transformative of self and world. Sujin sought this kind of remaking, sought love and connection through literature, to no avail. For the reader, the voices of Jina and Sujin call us to a different kind of world, a different kind of reading that isn’t about knowledge but about a deeper understanding called love, a love that does not lose sight of the violence to which such love would have to respond.
I was overwhelmed by the novel: overcome by the voices of Jina and Sujin, by the bleakness of their existence, and by seeing the way that misogyny and class inequality structured my own relationships, past and present. I saw the myriad ways in which connection felt impossible, because of the compelling force I confronted every day. I felt grief at my own complicity with misogyny, the way I failed other women and myself.
I have developed very careful reading defenses: rationality, critical viewpoint, sociological focus. But the novel routed them all, by reminding me what reading is or can be: an act of love, an opening of an old future, in which a reader holds the testimony of another woman, fictional or otherwise, in her head and in her body. But the act of love, the moment of reading, is an event in the strictest sense: the outcome of which we cannot know.
Perhaps sexual violence is as much a problem of silence and isolation as it is of entitlement and harm. If so, stories like Another Person have a unique role to play in connecting real lives, even when trapped within a hierarchy that demands we compete with one another. Kang locates the project of love firmly with the reader: the reader with the world-changing, world-building power to let go of their position within the hierarchy, to turn to the person beside them, and say, Yes, I hear you. Yes, I am with you.
- For what it’s worth, the perpetrator within the novel also expresses fatigue with feminist critiques of male violence. He even thinks that Lee Kanghyun’s feminist research, which is dedicated to pointing out patriarchy, is itself a form of violence, lamenting how she has come up with no new arguments. Alas, if only the reality of male violence had truly become outdated. ↩
- Rita Felski, Beyond Feminist Aesthetics (Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 169. ↩
- Cassandra Falke, The Phenomenology of Love and Reading (Bloomsbury Press, 2017) pp. 163–164. ↩
- Jennifer C. Nash, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality (Duke University Press, 2019), p. 116. ↩
- Jennifer C. Nash, p. 119. ↩