Excerpt from 'The Authoress' by Kang Kyeong-ae (1932)

Detail from  The Underground Village  cover illustration (Copyright Dal Sang 2018)

Detail from The Underground Village cover illustration (Copyright Dal Sang 2018)

The woman suddenly raised her head and opened her eyes wide. She looked about her. Only when she realized she was alone did she let go of some of the tension in her body. She had woken up to the sound of birds – chi-rrup, chi-rrup – and wondered if she were still dreaming. She must look a fright.

She sat up in bed, staring at the door.

The chirruping of the birds, as if it were a serenade to her youth, infused her with a sense of new energy. All the beauty and glory of the world seemed to exist just for her in that moment.

She caressed her breast and thought of how wonderful it would be if her hands were a man’s. She blushed at the thought, and though she quickly removed her hands, a glow of pleasure remained. As she pulled on her clothes and looked in the mirror on the wall, she caught a glimpse of her lovely shoulder and the curls of her hair, black as ink, tumbling behind it. She stood still for a long time, possessed by her own reflection.

Light began seeping into the dreamy, dim room. The street lamps blinked off. She came out of her reverie and finished dressing.

She opened the back door. The fresh wind that swept over her whole body made her feel as if she had wings. The dewy poplar forest emanated a green fragrance of spring. She leaned on the door and looked up at the crown of leaves, like stars on a crescent-moon night. The blue sky showed through, as did red rays of sunlight. She was flying among them.

She thought of that pretty shoulder of hers in the mirror and of the faces of the countless men who were in pursuit of her. She thought of her photo in the magazine and her poem that had been published with it.

She smiled at herself and mumbled, ‘Those idiots. They’ll never pin me down.’ The smile shaded slightly to a sneer.

The more letters she received from men and the more her writings were published in magazines, the greater her pride grew. She felt herself standing tall atop a pedestal.

The woman was as sensitive as she looked. Everyone has a period of time in which they might write a line of poetry or be swept up by a novel or two. She had been going through such a phase, and so she would turn first to the literary section of whatever newspaper or magazine she happened to be reading. She playfully wrote a few verses, and a poem she had written in response to a man’s love letter had ended up being published, making her an ‘authoress’ overnight.

She did not try to think seriously about how easily she had become an authoress. All she knew was that she had an uncommon talent. It got so that she assumed every person she met knew her name – Maria – even the ones who did not utter it in her presence. When she walked the streets, she was sure that everyone was looking at her because of the immense talent that shone through her. She admitted to herself that this must be, as writing talent in a woman was so rare and herself so singular.

Pride filled her heart at the thought of this. She eagerly observed the scene before her, looking for a possible writing prompt. There was some potential here and there, but once she picked up her pen to write, the idea vanished from her mind.

‘Miss, breakfast is served.’

Surprised, she glanced up at where the student stood and then looked back down at her wrist. Her wristwatch was not there, just the pale skin where the watch face would have been. She felt a touch disconcerted until she turned her head to the mirror and her watch lay on a shelf next to it, cheerily ticking away.

She smiled, her mood lightening. ‘What sort of breakfast is served this early?’

‘Miss, you’re supposed to go out of town today.’

‘Oh, yes … I forgot. I’ll be right there.’

In that moment, she recalled how she had stayed up late the night before trying to remember a certain Bible verse. She then remembered the place she was to go, the name of which translated to ‘Two-Headed Village’.

The student turned and left. Her braided ponytail fell in a neat line down her back, making the woman nostalgic for her own time as a student in this school.

As the student’s footsteps faded away, she washed her face and approached the mirror in her room again. She could see her voluptuous shoulder once more. She applied some cream to her hands and massaged it gently into her flushed face. The room filled with the scent of the cream.

A lone ray of sunlight flickered in the middle of the room as the leaves outside her window shook lightly in the breeze. The room brightened. As did her face.

Once she was done with her makeup, she picked up her Bible and gave herself another look in the mirror. I, too, would fall in love with you if I were a man, she thought and nodded her approval. Even when she was alone, she always took a quick glance behind her during these moments in case anyone was looking.

She flicked through the Bible until she came to the verse she had searched for the night before and was lost in thought. A vision of the peasantry going about their lives. The faces of the familiar peasants from back home. Would they understand what I mean? She frowned.

The peasants she had known seemed to know only about eating, having children, and work. The ones that knew a bit more had a scattering of old proverbs and stories, but otherwise, they were not aware of what was happening in their own country or to their people. All was peace and quiet for them.

They had wrapped up a few gourds for possessions and led their children out of their beloved homelands without even thinking about why they were being banished or what was to become of them. All they could do was cry and trust that there may be a better fate for them soon.

She was having second thoughts about going to the Two-Headed Village. Peasants were peasants everywhere you went, after all. They were the most pathetic people on earth, and also the most pitiful. They could not be saved no matter what you did.

Maria ate her breakfast, and her students escorted her to the carriage. An older missionary lady carrying a black book bag followed her inside. A whiff of horse manure made Maria hold a handkerchief to her nose, and the light scent of cream on the handkerchief made its way even to the missionary lady sitting next to her. The harsh-looking carriage driver shouted something and cracked his whip. The horse broke into a trot.

She had already said yes to this trip, and it had been ordered by the principal no less, so she was more or less forced to go. It irritated her, but presently she decided that every literary personage needed to travel once in a while and that mingling with the peasants and the natural beauty of the countryside might inspire her to write a masterpiece. Her spirits lifted.

This was the first time she had left Longjing since coming to the city. A Christian wives’ society had asked the principal of Jeonghwa Girls’ School to send a lecturer, and this was why the woman was setting off so early.

She looked back. There were still students waving at her. As she waved back and smiled, the carriage turned around the corner of a house. The smell of vegetable oil assaulted her nose and the crackling sound of frying food filled the air. Through an open gate, the woman glimpsed the red mouth of a kitchen furnace.

Maria was struck by a sad mood. She turned to look once more over the rooftops at the green canopy of the line of poplar trees that served to fence in the school, before facing forwards again.

What if I were to be sent home, never to work at the school again?

The thought made her look back yet again…

Translated by Anton Hur

Anthony Bird