On my final evening at Toji we had a party. Several of the others would also be leaving that weekend so we got together in the common room for a few drinks. A couple of writers read poems written during their time at the foundation and, through a collaborative effort, the group managed to summarise or explain them to me in English. I wrote in an earlier post that most of the writers have not had books translated into English but that evening I was able to gain glimpses into their work. It was a privilege to be part of this conversation and to see into others writers’ imagined worlds, catch fragments of voices. When I first went to live in Japan, in 1988, I went to the theatre sometimes. I had very little Japanese and couldn’t understand much, but I would take what I could from watching and listening and always came away feeling I had travelled at least part of the journey with the rest of the audience. I had the same feeling that evening listening to and watching these other writers.
I spent my last day in Korea sightseeing in Seoul before heading for Incheon Airport. It was a wrench to leave Toji and a bit of a shock to be in the big city after a month in the hills but good to have a day somewhere brand new before returning home to the familiar.
Now that I’m home again it’s very clear to me that the novel I’m working on is not only much further on than it would have been if I hadn’t had this residency but also quite different (and, I hope, better) from the novel it would have been.
Residencies are important for writers for many reasons. The most obvious, of course, is that they provide time and space in which to get the work done. A novelist can work anywhere and most of us are fitting the writing between jobs and other commitments. The novel gets written. However, the gift of a clear block of time and a quiet space, makes it possible to get to the heart of the writing much faster. There isn’t the constant adjustment of dipping in and out, of feeling you can’t always quite get to where you need to be. Other benefits of a residency can be more mysterious. The location of the residency is bound to provoke ideas, thoughts and feelings that you would not have had at home. Equally important is the combination of solitude and community, essential, I think, for most writers. Then, of course, there are the new connections you take away to keep, possibilities for future exchanges and collaboration, or just friendship.
The Toji Cultural Foundation was founded by a writer (I wrote about Pak Kyong Ni in my first post) whose influence is very much still evident in the life and rituals of the place. I think it’s special for that reason. I was sad to leave but have brought plenty back with me and will be unpacking for a while. And I’m just about to sign up for a beginners’ course in Korean so the adventure isn’t over yet.
Susanna Jones has just returned from 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.