Montreal-based Korean Canadian writer Jeff Noh stayed in Bucheon, UNESCO Creative City of Literature between 8 October -23 November. The following is his note to Bucheon.
On the rainiest day of November this year, in the final week of my Bucheon Residency, I visited the recovered site of Heungdeoksa Temple, the place where Baegun Hwasang Chorok Buljo Jikji Simche Yojeol, a collection of Buddhist teachings, was printed over six hundred years ago. I had spent the previous weeks going on field trips organized by Bucheon’s City of Literature Office in an attempt to fill in the blanks of the novel that I have been working for the past eight years – an experimental work that tries to understand the unique entanglements of history, both personal and national, that characterize the Korean diaspora. But the trip to the Heungdeoksa Temple site and the Cheongju Early Printing Museum was particularly meaningful to me. I had first learned of Jikji – a product of movable metal-type that precedes Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible by nearly seventy years – while researching the historical connections between France and Korea as revealed in the circumstances of its departure from the Korean Peninsula (the only copy of Jikji is currently held at the Bibliothèque Nationale in France). I had used the story of Jikji as a way of thinking, in an oblique way, about the circumstances in which someone born in Korea might end up in the province of Quebec. Returning to my country of birth and visiting the site of Jikji’s printing was to approach the object from the opposite direction in history.
The temple where Jikji was printed is thought to have burned down shortly after its printing. The site of Heungdeoksa Temple was recovered in the 1980s, when a real estate development project unearthed a bowl and a gong bearing inscriptions of the temple’s name. The site has since been reconstructed, and visitors to the site can even climb the set of rope stairs – as I did, on that rainy day – up the hill and try to imagine how Heungdeoksa Temple might have looked, against the mountains, in the Goryeo Dynasty. As I learned at the Cheongju Early Printing Museum, Jikji [直指] means to point someone in the right direction.
In 1982, at the Fifth International PEN International Festival in Lugano, Switzerland, the Korean American novelist Richard E. Kim described an aesthetic project based on the “remembrance of things lost” in Korean history. “That – the proof of life – not of death – is what I am trying to retrieve from among the ruins and shambles of the twisted, distorted, stunted histories of our people in our recent past.” Kim’s life-affirming project involved the recovery of “things lost” from Japanese colonization, the 6.25 War, and the subsequent division of the Korean Peninsula. As a member of the Korean diaspora, and thus someone whose life has been shaped by this history at a distance, I am struck by the way thinking about the past in Korea always involves something like the recovery of the Heungdeoksa Temple site: an excavation of pieces from the past that, pieced together and glinting through time, attest to the endurance of lost things.
What makes a Korean person “Korean”? This is a question that I’ve struggled with, in one version or another, my entire life – and not always in circumstances where the weight and full significance of that question was apparent. Yet, that project of retrieval, articulated by Richard E. Kim and which has been an inspiration for my novel, suddenly came into focus in a field trip that I took to Icheon’s pottery village, where I had the opportunity to speak to Master Lee Kyu-Tak about his practice creating dawan teabowls. Master Lee, whom I had the pleasure of meeting through the introduction of Icheon’s Creative City Office, invited me to his studio and showroom, where he shared with me his dawan philosophy as well as his knowledge of Korean and Japanese pottery techniques, histories that connect with the Imjin War (1592-1597) and anonymous potters from the Korean Peninsula who created everyday objects that would come to be treasured in Japanese tea ceremonies.
Master Lee, who studied under Takatori Sezian XI, a descendant of an anonymous Joseon-era potter who was taken to Japan, described the unspoken promise between the person who creates a teabowl and the person who drinks from it. The dawan pieces made by Master Lee – the result of his study of the art of teaware in Japan and the subsequent development of his practice with his return to Korea – attest to this anonymous relationship that can connect people separated by time and space. As Master Lee brought out his own dawan bowls from his private archive, stacked inside individual wooden boxes inside of a cabinet in his showroom, I marveled at the irreducibly singular nature of each object, movements in clay and the pools and cracks of the glaze bringing up memories at once private and collective, involving the vicissitudes of history and individuals far from home. The ridges along the rim of one bowl might, he said, remind someone of the switchbacks of a particular mountainside. The craggy surface near the “face” of a different bowl, burnished by fire, might remind another person of the walls of a traditional Korean kitchen. Stepping out of the door of the showroom and into the complete darkness of Icheon, peering across the yard to the car that was waiting for me, I felt transformed by my conversation with Master Lee. I wondered if the promise that connects the potter and the tea-drinker could be a metaphor for the relationship between all people who are caught up in complicated histories otherwise difficult to access directly, an inspiration for a project to retrieve “lost things.” In the case of the koraimono pieces that are treasured in Japanese tea ceremonies, that promise bridged people separated by vast distances and hundreds of years, people who do not know each other’s names but who are nevertheless connected through the singular history of a particular teabowl, which is also the difficult history of nations and peoples.
A writing residency typically comes with the promise of a desk and some time to write – some opportunities, perhaps, for perfunctory tourism and the chance to meet fellow writers. The residency in Bucheon offered me so much more in the way of support for my work. Here, I not only had plenty of time to work on my novel, but also opportunities for research that exceeded every expectation. Learning about Bucheon’s fascinating local history with the help of Shim Ji-young at Bucheon’s Pottery Museum and Pearl S. Buck Memorial Hall; touring the DMZ with the poet Rory Waterman from Nottingham, UK, my fellow writer-in-residence; learning about contemporary Korean publishing and literature from Alex Lee at the Milkwood Agency: my residency was filled with unforgettable opportunities to explore Korea’s culture and history. I return to Montreal with an enormous debt of gratitude to Jung Seo-young, Lee Sunmin, Park Chung-hwa, and everyone else in Director You Seong-jun’s incredible team at Bucheon’s City of Literature office.