Thanks to a new residency from Jerwood Fiction Uncovered and the British Council in Korea, I’m spending a month at the Toji Cultural Foundation in the village of Hoechon near Wonju city in South Korea. It’s a tranquil place, tucked away in pine-covered mountains, with little noise to distract me but birdsong – cuckoos in particular – and the frogs in the pond beneath my window. I’ve just reached the end of my first week here and have settled in so comfortably that I already dread leaving.
The centre was founded by the novelist, Park Kyong-Ni author of Toji (Land), an epic in five parts (17-21 volumes, depending on edition) and written over a period of twenty-five years, which chronicles the lives of a Korean family from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Park Kyong-Ni bought the land here and set up the foundation to provide an environment conducive to writing and artistic creation. She continued to live here and run the centre until her death in 2008, writing, growing vegetables on the land and preparing food for the writers and artists. Around the buildings are crops of peppers, corn, and sweet potatoes. There are rows of huge ceramic jars containing fermenting soy bean paste and soy sauce. Park was an influential environmentalist and life at the Toji Foundation reflects her commitment to a life rooted in the appreciation of nature.
About fifteen writers and artists work here at any time, staying for between one and four months. Most are Korean but the centre has a rich international programme too. The current group consists of playwrights, novelists, poets, a songwriter and a comic book artist. I’ve only learned a few words of Korean so far but a couple of writers here have, like me, lived in Japan so I’m communicating in a mixture of English and Japanese and getting by fine.
The view from my room is beautiful. It’s fortunate that my desk faces the wall since I could easily spend the day just ogling the scenery and watching the light change over the mountains. When I want a break from writing I follow one of the walking trails into the hills. The forests are deep green and busy with bright butterflies and birds. Only when I arrived from my first solo walk did I spot the notice at the centre advising us not to walk alone because of the possibility of meeting wild boar, deer, snakes and worms. Ah well. I didn’t meet any. I’ve also been walking with the other writers and discussing writing, as best we can in the mix of languages we have.
I’m here to try and finish a draft of my current novel in progress. I feel I may have made more progress in the last few days than the last few months. It’s not that there isn’t time during the normal working week to write – one can always stay up a bit later, get up a bit earlier – but the lack of any distraction and being so far from my usual life, my stuff, my routine means that it’s no effort all to get deep inside the work, spread out in it and, when I hit a problem, there’s nothing to do but keep working away until I solve it. I’ve brought a pile of translated Korean books with me, including novels by Hwang Sok-Yong, Kyung-Sook Shin and Jung-Myung Lee and once I’ve read them I’m looking forward to getting started on the first volume of Toji.
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.