In Seoul, there is an independent bookstore called “Dali Bom,” that aims to amplify underrepresented voices. “Dali” and “Bom” are the names of two of the owner’s cats, but together, it means to “look differently” in Korean. The store, a mere 33-square-metre space, is filled with feminist and LGBTQ books. Their customers are mostly women.
The bookstore is a breath of fresh air in a patriarchal country like South Korea, where women continue to face gender stereotypes and are still largely expected to conform to traditional gender roles.
The 30-year-old founder and CEO, Soyeon Ryu, has run the store with her 27-year-old boyfriend, Seungri Joo, since 2017. They not only sell feminist books but also publish women’s stories as books.
It all started with Soyeon’s conversations with her grandmother. Her grandmother’s everyday stories were far from ordinary. Her grandmother, born in North Korea in 1933, lived through the Korean War and was separated from her parents at age 16. She never saw them again. Inspired to share her grandmother’s story, she wrote her grandmother’s autobiography and eventually decided to collect and publish women’s stories.
VICE spoke to Soyeon about her motivations to tell untold women’s stories, feminism, and her beloved bookstore.
VICE: Why do you think it’s meaningful for women’s stories to be told?
Soyeon Ryu: There are people who change the world through revolutions. Whereas I would like to change the world by highlighting ordinary people behind the scenes. Women and minorities in a patriarchal society have small microphones that can barely make noise. For those who think that they can’t speak up, I want to tell them that their stories are valuable and worthy to be discovered. To help encourage them, more stories from diverse voices should be told in our society. Then, people who have never thought of expressing themselves might be more willing to share their stories. Their stories can be heard or read by many more people and hopefully change some minds.
What made you interested in feminism?
When I majored in History at college, I thought of Women’s History as a secondary study, not a major subject. But I started to think more about my identity as a woman and realised the gender inequalities in society, which made me feel uncomfortable. I wanted to expand this discussion to older generations as well as current generations. So I decided to record stories of mothers and grandmothers.
What was your most memorable achievement?
We published two books this year. The first book, “Her Autobiography”, was published in January and it’s a guide book with tips on how to interview mothers with sample questions. The other book about women empowerment, was published in April and it’s a collection of interview stories about women’s breasts, body, and the no bra movement. We also hosted book clubs, workshops, and lectures. We invited lecturers who gave lessons on cyber sex violence and gender equality in schools.
We organised small musical concerts as well and are planning to hold concerts more often to empower women artists. There is one guy who lives near our store and he pitched an idea to make stages for independent musicians who are women. We think there is still discrimination in the music industry. We want to support female artists and plan to publish albums and books that share women musicians’ stories.
What is the most fulfilling thing about owning this bookstore?
I feel rewarded when I see people feeling comfortable in our store. It represents a safe local community where people can drop by anytime and share their stories. I was told by one person that she can be fully herself here and it’s a place where she can cry.
Have you experienced backlash against your feminist bookstore?
One customer told me that her father had talked to her about us and described us as a misandrist group. And the girl came to me and asked whether we can do something to enlighten these middle-aged men (Laughs). Some neighbours might misunderstand us. Another time, there were some aggressive old men who came in and asked us to give them some books for free. Some drunk men also came in when I was alone. They don’t take us seriously.
Do you think that feminism is necessary in South Korea?
Yes, I think a feminist movement is necessary. There needs to be more spaces for different voices and lifestyles. I strongly believe the saying that feminism perfects democracy… I think we need the perspective of gender to see our society more accurately. To me, being a feminist is a reminder that our daily life shouldn’t be removed from politics.