At the end of my second week at Toji I have got to know the countryside better and have learned more about the work of the Korean writers and artists resident here. Walking is an important part of the writer’s life at Toji and every morning or evening a group sets off up paths into the hills for an hour or so, stopping sometimes along the way to pick wild berries, cherries or apricots. There’s always something to taste, something to inspect but it’s also a time to be in our own thoughts and let whatever we’re writing spread out and move around a bit. Often I’ll come back with the answer to a question or problem that no amount of time at the computer would have accomplished. Walking together, even if language barriers prevent me from communicating well with everyone, reinforces the sense of purpose about the place.
At six o’clock this morning, while it was still cool, a group of us met and went hiking for two hours along a trail that looped up into the hills and forest. Every now and then the path opened out to give spectacular views of rice paddies, cornfields, farm buildings and woodland. At every turn were the bright butterflies and cuckoo calls I’ve grown used to and will now always associate with Toji. The other writers have been teaching me the Korean names for trees, animals and insects.
One of the writers has shown me English translations of her poems, another is a comic book artist so I can see her pictures at least. It is frustrating that, unless I spend years studying Korean (which I’m tempted to do), I will never be able to read the work of most of these writers. They’re successful and well-known in Korea and are part of contemporary literary culture. While some have seen their work translated into European and other Asian languages, the resistance of the English-speaking world to literature in translation makes English language editions unlikely for most authors. Excellent work is being done in the UK to promote work in translation and, recently, Korean work in particular, but there would have to be a fundamental shift in attitudes for the situation to change significantly. It’s everybody’s loss.
I’ve just read Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin, winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize 2011, a moving and detailed portrayal of motherhood and memory, beautifully translated by Chi-Young Kim. I was fascinated by its vivid account of rural family life in Korea contrasted with urban life in contemporary Seoul, the rituals of farming and such revelations to me as ‘mouse-catching days’ at school when every student was instructed to bring in the tail of a mouse to show that everyone had captured a mouse at home. It’s a powerful novel. I recommend it.
My time here is going too quickly. I’ve settled into a routine of writing, reading, walking. That’s all I have to do and, though I’m now way ahead of my target word count, it feels as though there still aren’t enough hours in the day.
Susanna Jones is taking a one month Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize Writing Residency at the Toji Cultural Centre in South Korea this summer, and this is the first of her weekly blogs about her experiences. Susanna’s book When Nights Were Cold was a Fiction Uncovered winner in 2012.