Our second writer-in-residence this summer was South Korean writer Han Yujoo. Her two-month stay in Norwich UNESCO City of Literature was generously supported by Arts Council Korea.
Han Yujoo debuted in 2003 when her short story “To the Moon” won Literature and Society’s New Writers Award. In 2009 she also won the prestigious Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, which could be likened to the National Book Award, and whose past recipients include the Man Asian Prize-winner Kyung-sook Shin. Her books include the short story collections To the Moon (2006), Book of Ice (2009), and My Left Hand the King and My Right Hand the King’s Scribe (2011), as well as the novel The Impossible Fairytale (2013).
This past summer, I was in Norwich. Until then, for me the name Norwich had been connected to Norwich football club and W.G. Sebald. When I heard that my residency was confirmed, I pulled out a UK travel guide that had been stuffed in a corner of one of my bookcases and looked up Norwich in the index. East Anglia, near the sea, Norwich Cathedral, and Writers’ Centre Norwich. Even looking at the map printed small in one corner of the page, it wasn’t easy to make out the small city. It seemed you would be able to walk all the way around the centre in an hour, taking it slow. Through the internet, I was able to discover that the whole city had itself been designated a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site. On the screen, the cathedral was majestic and beautiful. More than anything else, the sky looked clear. It made me think that if I was in Norwich, I would be able to forget for a while time spent in Seoul, which was always a senseless hurry. Though my lifestyle wasn’t especially busier than others, it was hectic enough that, throughout a whole term, I never once had time for any coffee other than one from a can. A variety of manuscripts were pushed back like a notice of default. Let’s write those delayed manuscripts in Norwich. Finish them all, then come back, I thought.
And I headed to Norwich. It took two hours on the train from London’s Liverpool St station. Catching the train around 2 in the afternoon, the sky outside the windows hung low. Taking in the scenery I must have nodded off for a while, as when I jerked awake the train had stopped at Manningtree Station. I thought of the books I had with me in my bag. They were books I had brought with me to give to someone. One of them contained a short story with the title “Manning Tree”. It was by the author Hwang Jungeun, who had stayed at Writers’ Centre Norwich the year before me. Reading “Manning Tree”, I arrived at Norwich before I knew it.
I arrived on a Monday. I unpacked roughly and went out to get something to eat; the town was as quiet as a graveyard. It would have been around 6pm, and though it was still bright out, the streets were almost deserted. Wandering the maze of alleyways, I saw countless beautiful facades. There were churches and the cathedral. The scent of grass was in the air. There was a narrow river. A footpath. Walking aimlessly, I discovered a small supermarket that was still open. I wanted to buy a pack of beer, but the owner asked to see my ID. Getting out my passport, they checked my age and photo and burst out laughing.
Wandering the maze of alleyways, I saw countless beautiful facades
Time went by like that. There were manuscripts I had to write. I got up rather late in the morning, checked emails and messages, drank some coffee, and it was lunchtime before I knew it. After that, once I’d spent around two hours writing with a very lazy hand, I got to wanting another cup of coffee. Since I’d realised that most of the cafes closed after 5pm, I would hurry out of my accommodation at around 3.30pm. As this daily schedule repeated, I naturally ended up choosing a different route to walk each day. In Norwich there look to be as many churches as there are people. Hearing the cathedral bell ring out every hour, I ended up knowing the time quite naturally, and started to feel that I didn’t want to leave this place which suited me so well. Now and then there were occasions for me to meet people. There were also days when I went to London. And days when I went to the Writers’ Centre, located on the beautiful riverside. The Writers’ Centre building, still the same structure that had been used as a medieval trading hall, was in a very old style. Warm laughter. Hospitality. Each day walking and walking some more, I couldn’t get as much work done as I’d thought I would. To be exact, it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t as that I didn’t. Instead, I made a lot of memos while walking. Walking at least 5km a day, I thought I had just about broken free of Seoul time.
When there were only ten days left before I was due to return to Korea, I had to go to London. There was a Korean poet’s recital there. As soon as the event ended I headed to Liverpool St station, but in the end, due to missing the train I’d wanted to get, I had to wait for around an hour. There was a street vendor selling takeaway box meals, so I bought something to eat. I sat on a bench outside the station and opened the lid; three or four drunk youths came up and sat on the bench next to me. One of them thrust a bottle of wine at me. “Wanna drink?” I declined. At that, she urged the wine on me again, saying “I bought it, it’s not weird.” I turned her down again, laughing, and started eating my meal. Once I’d finished, I made to stand up when she offered me the wine bottle again. This time I didn’t decline. I drained the bottle, and the drunk youths applauded. One of them asked me where I was from. I swallowed the wine and said I’d come from Norwich. Another one asked where Norwich was. “Well…east?” I answered. Having realised from my English that I was a foreigner, the group asked where I was ‘really’ from, and I said I was from South Korea. They asked where South Korea was, and I answered: “Well…east?” And we all laughed.
In those two months, I read a lot more books than I wrote. Sarah Hall, Aoko Matsuda, Simon Critchley, Clarice Lispector, Catherine Merridale, Valeria Luiselli, Beryl Markham, Sebald…each of these names hold Norwich hours within them. Books I took there with me, books recommended to me by people I met there, books I happened across browsing in bookshops there, books I heard about at readings held at those bookshops, books I found in second-hand shops…I put those books and meetings and hours in my luggage and returned to Seoul. These things are still on my desk now. Promising that there will be a day when I go back to Norwich and meet those warm, friendly people again. Promising that there will be a day when I go back to Norwich and drink gin.