Wonju Residency

Wonju Residency

I took a chance and applied for a residency in Korea via Nottingham City of Literature: here’s what happened next….

I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few workshops, both face to face such as Clarion West in the US, or Milford in the UK, and online, however, I’d never attended a residency before. As an author, I worked from home, surely I didn’t need to go away to write? What could I contribute if I did? Then I saw the call for the UNESCO City of Literature in Wonju, South Korea.

During the pandemic, when multiple lockdowns hit the UK, and the rest of the world, people started to bake. I cannot bake. I could make sad, flat, bread, or unhappy cakes. Baking was not the pandemic hobby for me.

So I took up learning Korean. Nothing fancy, a couple of apps on my phone, but it was a nice daily task with the reward that I could pick out the odd word or two as I also lockdown binged k-dramas. I wasn’t exactly fluent, but I could manage a polite introduction and a simple conversation. A residency in South Korea sounded perfect.

I downloaded the application form. I fretted.

Would I use the time well? What benefit could I offer? Why was I the right person to go over any of the other many applicants? However, one thing I have learned while writing is that we get enough rejections without adding self-rejection to the list.

I wanted to visit the Toji Cultural Centre. I wanted to write there, surrounded by the beautiful countryside while interacting with a range of other international artists. I wanted to explore Wonju, and live in another city of literature, twinned with Nottingham. That was enough.

I applied. And I was successful.

I had an idea of what I wanted to do with my two months in Wonju. Start a new science fiction novel. Make friends with the other writers. Explore Wonju, and other parts of South Korea. Read. Sleep.

I managed most of those, except for the science fiction novel. Typhoon Hinnamnor arrived, and inspired a fantasy novel about sustainability. My room faced the forest, my soundtrack was of birds calling to each other, dogs barking, and the hard working farmers. I wrote my novel until it was time for lunch, then wrote until dinner, then rested.

The first month was interesting. There were twenty artists staying at Toji, including myself, and we met during lunch and dinner, even if the room was still carefully sectioned out per covid rules. We were split across three different buildings, but we met up in one of the social spaces. To share a meal for Chuseok, or to listen as Hawaiian-born Korean Gary Pak played the piano, or for Hector from Catalonia’s birthday. Some of us could speak no Korean, while most of our Korean friends could speak English well, but with translation apps and many gestures, we managed. I was regularly complimented on my Korean, while at the same time I realised how little I spoke.

Month two was different. Many of us had completed our writing goals, or they were at least in sight, and so while we still wrote, we also took days off to explore. We visited a gallery to hear our composer friend’s piano piece. We went to a concert and listened to Forestella sing while handing out literary awards. Dragon temples and art galleries and meals out all inspired long conversations. Every meal, we named an author we respected as we took a sip of soju. I have a long reading list now.

I visited Seoul to see the mix of beautiful palaces and high-tech buildings. I walked around the palace of Gyeongbokgung with many other tourists in Hanbok and bumped into a k-pop idol in the theatre district of Daehangno.

Every experience led to conversations and questions. Ideas for books to read and stories to write. This residency was, first and foremost, a shared experience with nineteen other artists, who all taught me something or influenced my ideas.

I’d planned to write a science fiction novel. Instead, I came home with a solid draft of a fantasy one, and a kakaotalk messenger app full of new names. I’ve already shared stories of my visit to London, and received back photos of Imyeon’s family making kimchee, Suk’s photos from the sea, and Hector’s tales of travel around Incheon. I’m sure there will be many more.