[REVIEW] “Lamentable Conditions and the Decrepit Body: A Review of Kang Kyeong-ae’s 𝑇ℎ𝑒 𝑈𝑛𝑑𝑒𝑟𝑔𝑟𝑜𝑢𝑛𝑑 𝑉𝑖𝑙𝑙𝑎𝑔𝑒” by Suhasini Patni

{Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Kang Kyeong-ae (author), Anton Hur (translator), The Underground Village, Honford Star, 2018. 288 pgs.

The Underground Village is a collection of short stories by one of colonial Korea’s pioneer female authors, Kang Kyeong-ae, translated by Anton Hur. Written during her time in Manchuria, Kang’s stories detail the extreme hardship and poverty faced by ethnic Koreans under the Japanese occupation. But more than that, they provide an incredible reflection on the lives of lower-class women who suffered not just under colonial rule, but also a patriarchal system.

In her introduction to the collection, Sang-Kyung Lee, a professor of Modern Korean Literature at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, writes: “An unhappy home environment and extreme poverty gave Kang a different perspective. Male writers with such backgrounds were not hard to find, but in the case of women, opportunities to overcome such poverty and to establish themselves in the literary scene were extremely rare” (Sang-Kyung Lee xv). Kang was born into an impoverished home. Her mother worked as a servant, and Kang only entered primary school when she was eleven. She did teach herself Hangul, the Korean alphabet, at the age of seven; and her elder brother paid for her education at an exceedingly strict school, from which she would be expelled for protesting against unfair dormitory policies.

Kang’s work showcases class consciousness, transcending the trap of representing an incipient nationalism. Her stories portray a life of naked poverty, voicing the woes of people who have lost their homes and families at the hands of landlords, both Korean and foreign. She puts particular emphasis on the lives of women, who in the face of destitution are forced out of their confined domestic spaces and are consequently left at the mercy of strangers. The ethnicity of those who take advantage of women is not the main stake of the stories. The focus lies rather on a system that perpetuates the idea of treating a class of people as less than human.

Kang’s protofeminist stories usually have a distinctive visual element, such as parasols, yarn, fur; all described with a graceful elegance. The objects reveal the porous boundaries between what is desirable and what is reprehensible and add a profound element to the stories’ straightforward plots. It’s no surprise that Kang’s prosaic stories have an idyllic charm. She started off writing poetry in 1924, and was known by her pen name “Kang Gama” (Sang-Kyung Lee x). She only started writing fiction regularly when living in Jiandao in the 1930s. Many immigrants from the Korean peninsula settled in this border region, in Jilin province, and were a source of conflict for the Chinese and Japanese governments. The population of ethnic Koreans therefore faced two-fold oppression, which Kang’s stories draw attention to. While her characters are tenacious in their will to survive against all odds, they are not sensationalised. Nor do they emerge as hero figures. Kang is not concerned with victory over death. Her work instead exists at the periphery of death when women constantly run to shelters but shelters are always ephemeral: “They come in hope of finding something better than what they left behind. But one woman becomes a kitchen slave, while another is kidnapped to become the concubine of a rich man, each crying an endless lament as they wander these flatlands” (Kang 11). Women walk on the thin line between life and death and Kang captures the disruptions and anxieties of this thin line.

In “Manuscript Money”, a woman writes a letter to a character known as K. To him, she describes her life in the context of the money she had earned by selling her manuscript. Where she lives, in the cold northern country, she is surrounded by a lack of wealth and means. The money she has acquired causes her to fantasise about the prospect of obtaining material goods that have long been out of her reach. She dreams of buying herself a “fur coat, a scarf, and shoes” (Kang 6). Her husband mocks these material desires and is unwilling to be associated with a “high-and-mighty literary type” (Kang 8). He questions the sympathies she harbours towards communism, while she dreams of buying a parasol; a status symbol she could never afford when younger.  He slaps her and orders her out of the home. She wonders how she might make it on her own when writing is such a disreputable profession for a woman—the question of the female writer recurs thoughout the collection. Ultimately, she decides to spend her money on her comrades, who she believes need it more than her. This earns her the approval of her husband. It’s unclear if she complies out of love, or if she fears that leaving him would make her a “fallen woman” in the eyes of society (Kang 9). In the letter that she addresses to K, she ponders the meaning of love and whether it springs out of desire or helplessness.

Anton Hur, in his translator’s note, calls Kang’s plots “simple” and endings “perfunctory” (Hur 254). He writes, “the appeal for her in writing these sketches must have lain in characterisation and description” (Hur 254). Kang doesn’t seem to be very interested in leaving clues as to what might happen after her stories end. Her stories are snapshots of what life looked like in the 1930s for many Koreans, focusing primarily on the trials and tribulations faced by women. Drained and weakened, suffering a torrent of abuse and a life without dignity, they become objects merely to be glanced at by those who have the means to get by. Helplessly they live, and those who can help them look away out of self-preservation.

In The Underground Village, Kang confronts the reader with their own relationship with poverty, sickness and hunger. In the story “Darkness”, the protagonist Young-sil is reminded of what her brother told her when he left home to fight for the communist cause: “We are the have-nots, and we have to look out for other have-nots. And more than that, we have to keep fighting to get out of this living hell” (Kang 69). Her brother is later executed for being a communist, and Young-sil is in disbelief over his death. At the end, she is portrayed as if in a fit of insanity. She works as a nurse in a hospital, and upon learning of her brother’s death, she starts to see his face in every patient. While assisting in an operation, she starts believing that her brother is lying in the operating theatre and that the surgeon’s scalpel is being used to kill him. One doesn’t get a chance to question this idea of insanity, nor does one see Young-sil’s reconciliation of it as if Kang is unconcerned with the conclusions her readers may draw from her stories. Her work isn’t as much about reading between the lines as it is confronting what is right under one’s nose; as if wanting to deliver sharp blows to the reader.

Kang cast light on the lamentable state of the poor by focusing on the body. In the title story, the protagonist Chilsung is crippled at a young age because of a lack of access to healthcare. He is forced to go out and beg, while his aging mother is pushed into hard labour to support her family of three, which includes an infant daughter. Chilsung believes the infant should just die. Its incessant crying and intense hunger are only burdensome. There is no way to feed her— at one point she is so thirsty, she is described as “lapping up” her own urine (Kang 238). Maggots spill out of her body at the end, as she refuses to sleep, crying in pain, much to the annoyance of her brother who keeps hoping for her death. Nothing can be done for her; it’s better for everyone if she just disappears.

In “Salt”, this same notion of suffering ending only in death is repeated with a focus on the state of the body:

There was nothing to be done for poor people like them; their only way out of their suffering was death. What could they do except die? She found herself scratching at the wall in agitation. She looked down at her fingernails, cracked and ugly. It was so easy to be killed, and yet so difficult to die. Such was life.

—Kang Kyeong-ae’s The Underground Village, translated by Anton Hur.

Cover illustration by Dal Sang

Kang’s stories explore what it is like to exist at the edge of humiliation, depravity and a complete collapse of the body. Her work is dreamlike, the macabre details delineated with elegance and charm. The dreamlike quality is captured by artist Dal Sang who provided the illustration for the book’s cover. An impoverished man is depicted from behind, staring into the distance, where lightning streaks the sky. Superimposed on his figure is a landscape of the underground village. Hur too recognises the dreaminess, stating that “Kang is enjoying her talent at making objects appear at the tip of her pen, enjoying the pleasure of creating a tableau of words” (Hur 254). While writing the stories of the people, Kang gratifies her creativity. A bulk of her work was written during the time she spent in Jiandao with her husband, “maintaining the household while steadily publishing her fiction” (Sang-Kyung Lee xiii). Although her stories are undoubtedly bleak, she humanises struggle in a way that the reader is unable to completely otherise the characters inhabiting the pages.

Though Kang does not write autobiographical stories, many of her characters are women writers.  In “The Authoress”, a pretty young “educated New woman” (Kang 63) delivers a lecture to peasants in a church. The authoress is narcissistic and obsessed about her beauty and fair complexion. Ever since her poetry has been published in a magazine, she believes that her position as a female author is so rare, everyone must know of her existence. When she walks the streets, she believes the people all know her name and desire her beauty. In her lecture to the peasants, whom she sees as “pathetic” and “pitiful” (Kang 60), the authoress talks of verses from the Bible and shifts to a criticism of the Korean society, urging her audience to “live and die on your own land” (Kang 63). The humiliation the peasants have felt at being expelled from their homes and working for heartless landowners is redoubled in the words she addresses them with. The sole benefit is they realise “she was the kind of rich little girl that they detested above all else” (Kang 65). Kang seems to admonish the authoress who “felt like a phoenix among chickens, a white person among black” (Kang 63). While the authoress sneers at her audience, they jump to their feet to attack her. She is ravaged by the audience, her clothes torn apart as she helplessly covers her face to protect her beauty. The writer becomes the object of ridicule and her vanity is awarded with violence, much like the writer from “Manuscript Money”.

Although this collection of stories does not have recurring characters, they thematically converge at the intersections between feminism and social justice. In Kang’s stories, women are either sold at a young age into prostitution or engage in hard labour to make a living under the constant threat of sexual abuse. While men leave to dedicate themselves to communism, women scramble to survive and eventually die from a lack of care. Kang herself died young, in 1944 at the age of thirty-eight. Men have the agency to leave to build a life for themselves, but when women are pushed out of the domestic sphere, it is because of harsh circumstances and under duress. There are echoes of authors such as Meena Kandasamy and Toni Morrison in this collection, where the economic and social confinement of women occupies the central narrative and political upheaval informs the background. But what truly makes Kang’s work complex is that although class conflict lies at the heart of her work, the contradictory material desires felt by the characters are not quenched in the narrative. Her ultimate commitment seems to lie towards feminist politics, which has helped establish her canonical status in Korea. The aesthetic intricacy of her work, which remains relevant to feminist politics today, has been well served in this deft translation.  

How to cite: Patni, Suhasini. “Lamentable Conditions and the Decrepit Body: A Review of Kang Kyeong-ae’s The Underground Village.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 20 Jul. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/07/20/underground-village/.

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Suhasini Patni is an English and Creative Writing graduate from Ashoka University. In 2019 she graduated summa cum laude from the Ashoka Scholar’s Programme and since then she has worked as a teaching fellow for various professors and as visiting faculty at Nirma University. Her writing was shortlisted for the Toto Funds the Arts, Creative Writing in English award, 2021. Her work has appeared in Scroll.in, AsymptoteFeminism in India, among other places. (Photo of Suhasini by Glory Kaushik.)

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