For the second year running, a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize writer has taken up residency at Toji Cultural Foundation, South Korea. The residency is supported by the British Council.
Only a week ago I was at Toji, and now that I’m back home, and back to the hustle and bustle of London and life in general, its constant noise and interruption, I think how lucky I was to spend that time in the mountains outside Wonju. I was only really beginning to settle in when I had to leave, and I spent part of the second week sightseeing to some extent.
On Tuesday we went to visit Pak Kyongni’s house in Wonju, where she wrote much of her epic, Toji (Land). It’s a beautiful place, where she fed her cats and worked in her garden, spending the rest of her time in the company of her creation, alone in a beautiful work room. She closed herself off from the world in order to write her book, and it was touching and inspiring to, later, watch a short video about her life, when you see her emerge, blinking, into the glare of cameras and people who came to celebrate with her after 25 years!
We also went to the SAN Museum of modern art, a beautifully sculpted mix of nature and architecture by Tadao Ando, with an incredible installation by James Turrell. The displays change throughout the year, and on our visit there was an exhibition of prints, from both Korean artists and foreign artists who have worked in Korea.
I spent some of my time with Singaporean writer and gay rights activist Ng Yi-Sheng, who was great company, and on Wednesday the two of us went off to see a nearby monastery in the mountains, accompanied by a local volunteer, a retired engineer who asked us to call him Brian. After the monastery, and seeing a display of mulberry paper art (and not before satisfying our craving for Korean fried chicken), Brian and his wife welcomed us to their home, before we went for traditional, and scrumptious, dinner of Korean sashimi, accompanied by much soju, a mellow spirit distilled from sweet potatoes. We made a valiant effort with the steamed silkworm grubs starter, too…
The artists at Toji have special workspace in the house Pak
Kyongni constructed at the site, and on Thursday I had tea with Shine Kong, a fantastic artist who creates models in clay before using them as inspiration for her oil paintings. The rest of my time was spent finishing a chunk of a new novel, and making notes for a new project inspired by the work of Pak Kyongni. On Friday, sadly, I had to return home, already missing my stay…
I found the whole visit inspiring and I very much hope to come back to Korea in future. It was fun hanging out with the other writers and artists, and great to have so much peace to work in, and so much to find inspiration in. Everyone, from the British Council in Korea to the Literary Platform to Toji itself, all went out of their way to make my journey and stay perfect, and I am already envious of next year’s author!
I am back home now, where autumn is well underway. The leaves are turning deep red colours, the nights grow long, and a hundred things demand my attention – but I’ll carry that core of quiet left from Toji with me for a while yet, I hope, and I’m grateful for that.