Kim Sa-i (Korean: 김사이, born 1971) is a Korean poet. Departing from the pre-existing poetry about labor whose emphasis is on its purpose, she writes poems that fully represent the life experiences of the working people. Especially, her interest lies in the structural alienation of women workers engendered by patriarchy. Being a former laborer herself, she continues to participate in activism to support the working people.
Kim was born in Haenam, Jeollanam-do, in 1971. She left hometown and worked at the Guro Industrial Complex in Seoul. By joining the Literary Society of Workers in Guro, she first learned about poetry. Her career as a poet began after she published her poem "Seoreun yeoseotsal kkot (서른여섯 살 꽃, 36-Year-Old Flower)" in the summer edition of the literary journal Poetry Review. Her first poetry collection Banseonghada geumandun nal (반성하다 그만둔 날, The Day I Stopped Self-Reflection), published in 2008, was nominated for the Book of the Year Award for the Best Literary Work, held by the newsweekly Sisain.
She has actively engaged in the Korean society, contributing columns on current events to newspapers, taking part in themed anthologies, and visiting labor movement sites in support. In 2007, she joined the group of artists Realist 100, which pursues anti-capitalistic activities. Later, she worked at the Korean Contingent Workers Center in 2012. Her second poetry collection Naneun amugeotdo an hago itdago handa (나는 아무것도 안 하고 있다고 한다, They Say I'm Doing Nothing) came out in 2018.
Since the early 2000s, Kim has written poems full of her own experiences, such as leaving her hometown and living as a worker in the city. Unlike the conventional poems about the working people dominated by abstract ideas, her poetry contains their specific living experiences. She especially focuses on the undervaluation of work done by women, who are suffering from the double hardships stemming from insecure working environments and gender inequalities of the patriarchy. Her strong sense of self as a woman worker has developed her identification and solidarity with immigrant workers who are marginalized in the society. As such, she explores the possibility of poetry as a political means to represent the matters of the society at hand, and considers, through literature, the structural contradictions that bring about poverty.
Banseonghada geumandun nal (2008)
The expression 'stopping self-reflection' in the title of this poetry collection signifies the poet's changed attitude of facing reality in which it is difficult to offer an alternative to capitalism and refusing to blindly pursue the liberation of the working class. The poems are mostly set in Garibong-dong and the Guro Industrial Complex in Seoul, which were the center of the Korean labor movement and labor literature from the 1970s to the 1980s. However, they transformed into the capital of consumerism from the 1990s with the opening of high-end outlet malls in the area. She focuses on the changed appearance of the Guro Industrial Complex and simultaneously portrays it as a dark side of the metropolis, Seoul. In addition, the workers in this poetry collection are not described as an abstract concept like the agents of labor movement, but as realistic individuals who live their hard lives. Her poetry presents a new possibility for labor literature, which has declined since the mid-1990s.
Naneun amugeotdo an hago itdago handa (2018)
Kim's first poetry collection is entitled "The Day I Stopped Self-Reflection," but in her second book, she resumes self-reflection. In the poem "Dasi banseong-eul hamyeo (다시 반성을 하며, I Reflect Myself Again)," she suggests that, despite the reality being far from optimistic, she cannot give up her will to change the society in order to protect human dignity. Her self-reflection now goes beyond a pessimistic viewpoint and turns into her determination to delve deeper into the alienation of workers.
Above all, this poetry collection questions the ideology of patriarchy and the structural inequality which undervalues the work done by women. Impoverished women workers are exhausted from earning their livelihood and doing housework, deprived of their political right to express themselves, and invisible in political discourses. Her poetry regards both women workers and immigrant workers as minorities and seeks solidarity between the two.
《반성하다 그만둔 날》, 실천문학사, 2008 / Banseonghada geumandun nal (The Day I Stopped Self-Reflection), Silcheon Munhaksa, 2008
《나는 아무것도 안 하고 있다고 한다》, 창비, 2018 / Naneun amugeotdo an hago itdago handa (They Say I'm Doing Nothing), Changbi, 2018
<하루>, 백무산, 조정환, 맹문재 외, 《완전에 가까운 결단》, 갈무리, 2009
(전태일 열사 탄생 60주년 기념) / "Haru (A day)," Baek Mu-san, Jo Jeonghwan, Maeng Moonjae et al., Wanjeone gakkaun gyeoldan (Determination Close to Perfection), Galmuri, 2009 (Anthology commemorating the 60th birthday of the labor activist Chun Tae-il)
<숨을 쉴 수가 없어>, 작가선언 6.9, 《지금 내리실 역은 용산참사역입니다》, 실천문학사, 2009 (2009 용산참사 헌정문집) / "Sumeul shwilsuga eobseo (I Can't Breathe)," Announcement of Writers 6.9, Jigeum naerisil yeogeun yongsanchamsa yeogimnida (This Stop is Yongsan Disaster), Shilcheon Munhaksa, 2009 (Anthology dedicated to the Yongsan disaster in 2009)
<어떤 인사>, 고은, 강은교, 곽재구 외, 《우리 모두가 세월호였다》, 실천문학사, 2014 / "Eoddeon insa (Certain Greeting)," Ko un, Kang Unkyo, Kwak Jae-gu et al., Uri moduga sewolho yeotda (We Were All in the Sewol Ferry), Silcheon Munhaksa, 2014
<그 날>, 신경림, 백무산, 나희덕 외, 《언제까지고 우리는 너희를 멀리 보낼 수가 없다》, 걷는사람, 2019. (세월호 참사 5주기 추모시집) / "Geu nal (The Day)," Shin Kyeong-nim, Baek Mu-san, Ra Heeduk et al., Eonjekkajigo urineun neohuireul meolli bonael suga eopda (We Cannot Let You Go So Far Anymore), Geotneun Saram, 2019 (Anthology commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Sewol ferry disaster)
- Her real name is Kim Mi-sun. ("Author Profile of the Poetry Collection Banseonghada geumandun nal," Google Books, accessed November 27, 2019, https://books.google.co.kr/books/about/%EB%B0%98%EC%84%B1_%ED%95%98%EB%8B%A4_%EA%B7%B8%EB%A7%8C%EB%91%94_%EB%82%A0.html?id=dRU8OwAACAAJ&redir_esc=y.)
- The Literary Society of Worker in Guro, a club dedicated to labor literature, was located in Garibong1-dong, Guro-gu, Seoul. It was the first literary club made up of workers in the Guro area, which started with the idea that literature did not belong to professional writers and that workers could also talk about their lives. With the financial help of Silcheon Munhaksa and the Chun Tae-il Organization, it was founded on June 25, 1988. Subsequently, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, literary clubs of workers were organized in many places including Yeongdeungpo, Incheon, Bucheon, Masan, Changwon, and Ulsan, and more than ten clubs actively operated throughout the country. However, with the dramatic decline in the number of members, the club in Guro closed its office on February 25, 2006 and stopped all of its official operations. More than four hundred people were once its members and it published more than 40 books. ("The Literary Society of Workers in Guro," Grand Encyclopedia of Korean Indigenous Culture, accessed November 27, 2019, http://www.grandculture.net/ko/Contents?dataType=01&contents_id=GC03001647.)
- Cha Hyeongseok, "Kim Yeonsu's Major Work Is Always His Latest Work," Sisain, December 15, 2008, https://www.sisain.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=3448.
- Kim Sa-i, "Jeju Island to Be Destroyed Like the Four Main Rivers—What Is Next?," Pressian, June 21, 2011, http://www.pressian.com/news/article/?no=66460. Kim Sa-i, "You Have to Risk Your Life, If You Are to Love," Pressian, August 22, 2011, http://www.pressian.com/news/article/?no=108540. Kim Sa-i, "Writing in the Midst of the Thorny Path of Long, Hard Life," Pressian, March 2, 2012, http://www.pressian.com/news/article/?no=106072#09T0.
- Lee Jubin, "Why 100 Writers, Including Gong Jiyeong and Ahn Do-hyun, Walk in the Cold on Route 1: 'to Let People Know About the Unjustified Establishment of the Navy Base in Jeju'," OhmyNews, December 21, 2011, http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/View/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0001673277&CMPT_CD=SEARCH. Yuk Junsu, "The Association of Writers for National Literature's Young Writers Forum and the Committee of Free Actions Hold a Festival in Solidarity with the Employees Fired from Samsung," News-paper, June 28, 2019, http://www.news-paper.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=53552.
- Choi Yeong-jin, "The Organization 'Realist 100' Noted by the Literary World," Weekly Kyunghyang, January 22, 2008, http://weekly.khan.co.kr/khnm.html?mode=view&code=116&artid=16613#csidxf35366dbc1049c0af27276b24d011c6. Lee Sang-gyeong, "One Whole Year with the Group 'Realist 100'," OhmyNews, December 2, 2008, http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/view/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0001022376. "[Participants Wanted] Trip with Writers and Artists to the Nakdong River to Stop Its Destruction," Naver blog, July 14, 2010, https://blog.naver.com/kkarak2004/50092193995. Kim Jisu, "'I Am Sad as I Never Considered Myself Unemployed'—'Hopeful Walkers' and Writers Hold Hands at the Night of Reading Literature," OhmyNews, February 8, 2012, http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/View/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0001695072&CMPT_CD=SEARCH. Yun Jiyeon, "Golden Bridge Denies Oppressing Labor Unions, Saying 'It Has Nothing to Do with Changjo Consulting'," Newscham, November 21, 2012, http://www.newscham.net/news/view.php?board=news&nid=68352. Jo Hyeoksin, "'The Night of Literature' for the Workers of Cort," Incheon Ilbo, December 18, 2012, http://www.incheonilbo.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=476408. Kim Sanghun, "The Writers Group 'Realist 100' Officially Ends Operation, Decided at the General Meeting," News-paper, December 18, 2017, http://www.news-paper.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=21510.
- Kim Seongman, "Beautiful Interaction Between Poems and Songs About Life: Banseonghada geumandun nal," Digital Center of Labor Culture and Welfare, March 14, 2012, http://www.samchang.or.kr/bbs/zboard.php?id=music_ksm&page=1&sn1=&divpage=1&sn=off&ss=on&sc=on&keyword=%B9%DD%BC%BA%C7%CF%B4%D9&select_arrange=headnum&desc=asc&no=271.
- Lee Yeongkyeong, "Seoul, a City of Poverty and Discrimination Built with Workers' Blood and Sweat," Kyunghyang Shinmun, November 1, 2010, http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?artid=201011010040525&code=960205#csidx33a24ac42daec8bb0eb25763c38810f.
- "Naneun amugeotdo an hago itdago handa Book Description," Aladin, accessed November 27, 2019, https://www.aladin.co.kr/shop/wproduct.aspx?ItemId=175629902.
- U Juyeong, "The Aesthetics and the Politics, Perhaps New Thinking Lies There," Kyosu Sinmun, June 21, 2010, http://www.kyosu.net/news/articleView.html?idxno=20645.
- Kim Jungsik, "Everyone Is Poor, but No Literature Deals with Poverty," Kyunghyang Shinmun, August 13, 2006, http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?artid=200608131744451&code=960205#csidx696ee1e8ace6208b09c78c3ad9af39b.
- Kim Sa-i said during an interview: "Poor people are not regarded as human beings in this world where money and power are respected. They are not poor because they are lazy, but the country is neglecting them. People say poverty is only a discomfort and there is nothing to be ashamed of it, but I think that is absolutely a worthless pity." (Mun Jongpil, "[Interview] The Realists of Our Times 3: Passionate Conversation with the Warrior Kim Sa-i," News-paper, June 17, 2019, http://www.news-paper.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=50501.)
- Garibong-dong is often mentioned as the example of declining towns, but that was only true for a decade, in the 1990s; from the 1970s to the 1980s, it was one of the most dynamic neighborhoods in Korea. The Guro Industrial Complex led the economic development of the country, and the history of the labor movement was born and flourished here. For this reason, the Guro Industrial Complex and Garibong-dong are viewed as 'the symbol of the industrialization,' 'the center of the labor movement,' 'the hometown of the poor' and they appear quite often in literary works as their title or setting. (Pak Samun, "The Cradle of Labor Literature, the Guro Industrial Complex and Garibong-dong," Grand Encyclopedia of Korean Indigenous Culture, accessed November 27, 2019, https://terms.naver.com/entry.nhn?docId=2584887&cid=51879&categoryId=53193.)
- On the other hand, Garibong-dong can now be called "a small China in Korea," with a great number of Korean Chinese residents who have moved there since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1992. After the Guro Industrial Complex was practically removed in 1988, the area was filled with the Korean Chinese, or joseonjok. Garibong-dong is now the place where the national, ethnic conflicts caused by globalization are bubbling up, while the class conflicts of the past still exist. (Pak Samun, "The Cradle of Labor Literature, the Guro Industrial Complex and Garibong-dong," Grand Encyclopedia of Korean Indigenous Culture, accessed November 27, 2019, https://terms.naver.com/entry.nhn?docId=2584887&cid=51879&categoryId=53193.)
- Yun Hui-jin, "[Complete Digital Collection of Culture in Guro] Banseonghada geumandun nal," Grand Encyclopedia of Korean Indigenous Culture, accessed November 27, 2019, https://terms.naver.com/entry.nhn?docId=2585095&cid=51879&categoryId=53227.
- Labor literature encompasses the literary works that, while dealing with the labor-related issues overall, especially focus on embodying into literature the positive values embraced by the lives and works of the working people. Since modern capitalism was established in the country and labor became a subject of literature, labor literature has developed by stages. It first appeared in the 1980s and directly pointed out all the absurdities and problems in the working environments, the impoverished lives of workers, and all kinds of ills engendered by capitalism, and also criticized the establishment through sarcasm and satire. Also, it pursued 'the literature of the workers,' not 'the literature for the workers' written by cultured intellectuals and described the sentiments of the real workers. However, labor literature started to decline from the mid-1990s and has been assimilated into other genres or seeking other possibilities. ("Labor literature," Encyclopedia of Literary Terms, accessed November 27, 2019, https://terms.naver.com/entry.nhn?docId=1529744&cid=60657&categoryId=60657.)
- Lee Seonghyeok, "Reading Two Poems Thinking About the Universality of Feminism," Webzine Munhwada, September 6, 2017, http://www.munhwada.net/home/m_view.php?ps_db=letters_ko&ps_boid=155.