by Kim Heayeon, translated by Rachel Park

This is part of the Walking Norwich series.

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When I applied for the National Centre for Writing’s residency program from South Korea, I had a lot on my mind. It is likely the hope of all writers of children’s literature to weave a story that will immediately captivate children’s imaginations, gluing them to the spot. I was, of course, no different. Yet I couldn’t shake off the feeling that my writing was gradually becoming more and more boring. One day, I heard a familiar voice whispering into my ear: “Everything you come up with is so mediocre, are you really going to insist on continuing to write? Why don’t you just quit?” It was at this moment, listening to this internal voice that pressed me for an answer and hesitating like a contestant on a quiz show that couldn’t press the buzzer to respond even as I knew the answer, that I heard the news I would be going to Norwich. The United Kingdom is the country of many authors that influenced my decision to become a writer of children’s books. Thinking that this may very well be some kind of sign, I packed my things.

During my stay at Dragon Hall, I went for a walk around Norwich nearly every day. The first few days, I would enter a fixed destination in Google Maps and set out, but slowly, I started to mindlessly follow wherever my feet took me. My favorite course went from Dragon Hall, across the Lady Julian Bridge, along the left riverbank, across Bishop Bridge, to arrive at Norwich Cathedral. The November riverside was lonely and melancholy. There were barely any people in the streets, and a flock of wild ducks was paddling amid the dead leaves floating on the river’s surface. After entering the cathedral through the tranquil Bishop Gate and wandering the stunning corridors, I felt proud—even if I hadn’t done anything—because I felt like I had spent a day lived to its fullest.

When I became slightly bored of that route, I discovered an amazing garden beyond anything I could imagine. To tell the truth, I did not discover it on my own; rather, it was recommended to me by a staff member at the National Centre for Writing. If you walk along the Chapelfield Gardens from the Norwich Library, go up and cross the pedestrian overpass, the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Baptist appears. Near the back, in that forlorn place, lies Plantation Garden—a place which draws a cry from the one who wanders in inadvertently. 150 years ago, it was apparently the personal garden of a man named Henry Trevor who ran a furniture business in Norwich, and at the entrance, there is a phrase attributed to him: “A man’s home should be the dearest and happiest spot on earth to him.” Knowing only these words, his occupation, and this charming garden, I felt that I knew exactly what kind of person he was, even if we had never met (moreover, a person that had lived in the 19th century).

Strolling through the garden, I think to myself that if I were to insert a rest stop on my itinerary as a writer, it would be at this very place. I belatedly realized the charms of children’s books only after I became an adult. For me, the book that broke the stereotype that children’s books are only for children or consist solely of immature stories was Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden. The story traces a young boy who loves playing in a garden, as he enters the dreams of the grandmother who lives next door and misses the garden of her youth—an exciting yet sorrowful fantasy tale for children. Though I’ve read this book countless times, with each reading, the part that draws me in changes. At times, I empathize with the feelings of Tom, who is staying in his stuffy aunt’s townhouse without a single friend to play with; other times, it is the circumstances of the lonely orphan girl Hatty who depends on her relatives. But no matter how many times I’ve read the story, the garden in which Tom and Hatty run around and play together never quite grabbed my interest. Perhaps because I have almost no personal memories of gardens. Every night, Tom goes out to meet Hatty in the garden and eventually, he figures out that she is from the past and tries to deduce the time period to which she belongs. Based on Hatty’s speech, clothes, and so on, he discovers that she is from the age of Queen Victoria. Plantation Garden was also created during Queen Victoria’s reign. I think that Tom and Hatty’s garden would have been something like this. The garden is filled with yew and apple trees that frequently appear in the book, as well as a cabin where the gardener Abel must have stored his gardening tools, along with a greenhouse. In Plantation Garden, I am transported back to the time when I read Tom’s Midnight Garden and was enchanted. And I remember the feelings of the person that I used to be then.

I have since then left Norwich and returned home. The topography of Norwich still remains vividly engraved in my mind. The map may grow faint as time passes by, but the places, the people, the scenes of Norwich will continue to emerge in my writings in various forms—this much is certain.

Kim Heayeon was born in Seoul, Korea. She majored in German literature and after a long period of working for a publishing company,  she became fascinated with children’s books from England, especially the works of Roald Dahl and Philippa Pearce. In 2004, she won the Hans Christian Andersen Award in Korea with A Farewell Gift, and the Golden Goblin Award in 2009 with I’m a Cuckoo.

She has written approximately ten books for children and teenagers, including The Bakery of Coincidence. She was writer in residence at Dragon Hall in November 2019.

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