My Toji Journal From Wonju Residency
By Martin MacInnes
It's important to us at Edinburgh City of Literature to help people working in literature across Edinburgh and Scotland to use our global network to support creative development and allow space to hone their craft. Edinburgh-based author, Martin MacInnes, was selected for a four week residency in Wonju. You can read below a journal entry from Martin on the benefits of the UNESCO City of Literature residency programme.
4 December 2023
I landed at Incheon Airport 29 hours later than scheduled, stepping out into blazing heat and oppressively humid air. I had a head cold and hadn’t slept in days, but I managed to find Ilgeun, my contact, who turned out to be gracious and helpful and witty, and who would prove invaluable in the next two months. He took us to our driver and I struggled to stay awake in the back as our hydrogen car glided through vast areas of coastal scrubland, isolated patches of skyscrapers rising surreally next to the waves.
Arriving in Toji
Later that night, in darkness, we arrived at Toji Cultural Centre in the small village of Hoechon in the outskirts of Wonju. I could see the shapes of mountains, rice fields, scattered lights on the farms. Frogs leaped out ahead of us as we walked through the forest path, the pulse of the cicadas almost deafening. My room was one of ten on two levels, looking out impressively onto the mountains. This would be my home for the next two months. I said my thanks and goodbyes to Ilgeun and set about unpacking, feeling as tired as I’d ever been in my life.
Hours later I woke to what sounded like agonised screams from the forest - I walked out in a daze, leaned over the railings into the trees. ‘Hello?’ I called out, trying to work out what was happening. (Later, I learned this rhythmic screaming sound, which one of the other writers compared to someone being murdered, and which repeated roughly weekly, originated from an elk.) I stumbled back to bed, unsure if I was really awake or still dreaming.
The Toji Cultural Centre
Toji Cultural Centre was set-up a quarter century ago by the legendary Korean novelist Pak Kyongni, and hosts dozens of writers and artists every year. We all have our private living and writing space, and meals are served in the main building twice a day. I was particularly excited about the setting of the Centre, nestled in farmland and surrounded by mountains made up of precambrian rock, including archaean gneiss - land that was formed billions of years ago. I’m interested in agriculture and geology, and I hoped that this environment, which I would look out on every day as I worked, would be useful to me in the early stages of my new novel.
After some restless days battling the eight-hour time difference, and with the help of generous writers at the Centre who showed me how the transport system worked and where I could get groceries, I felt I was more or less acclimatised to the place, and I established a routine. I woke before dawn, enjoying the quiet and the dark, and worked on new scenes before breaking for rice and garden-grown vegetables in the canteen. In the afternoons I read, walked in the mountains or to the nearby University library, and invariably fell asleep in my room. I walked briefly with some of the other writers in the evenings when it was a little cooler, seeing the large, bright bee-striped Joro spider on every small tree we passed, and wild silk-worms spinning a sheath of fabric around the leaves. I fell asleep with the glass front open and the curtains pulled apart, waking again to the sound of the birds (and the many roosters and guard-dogs throughout the village).
Shaping the Project
Being outside of your normal environment can be helpful at the start of a project. As a child I holidayed on relatives’ crofts in the Hebrides and the north Highlands, and some of the farming I saw around me now made me think of home. Seen at a distance, the fields and the farm houses looked familiar, and I almost felt I’d been here before. Time felt uncanny - standing still, but rushing forward. I scalded my right hand, which came out in golf-ball sized blisters the colour and consistency of yellow Wine Gums. I had the biggest disappointment of my professional life. But the routine of life at Toji was soothing, and rejuvenating. Suddenly, almost without knowing it, a month had passed. Parts of my project were taking shape. The female Joro spiders were laying their eggs and dying off as the season changed. It was too cold to leave the glass wall open through the night, and the dark came on quicker every day. The rice harvest approached, and farmers spread the fresh crop to dry-out over mats on the large car-park below the Centre’s main building. A strong mint smell wafted through the buildings from the opened, freshly cut perilla leaves, beaten in clusters in the fields.
A Wonju Shaped Gift
For two or three nights a soft mist hung over the fields and the houses. There were no street lights lining the road, just smudges of light from the square windows of distant farms. Everything seemed to be drawn in the same soft, dark blue inky tone. I felt lucky to be here, to have had the time to be at peace in this place, and to develop a map and a beginning for my next novel. To get to know some of the other writers and their work - autobiographical and environmental poetry; lush, expansive rural landscape painting - and to adjust to the routines of this life. I’m very grateful to the Toji Cultural Foundation, as well as Wonju UNESCO City of Literature, and Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature, for giving me this gift.