Culture Vulture

Lessons for Singapore’s nascent writing scene learnt at a Korean residency

Giving aspiring writers a place where they can live, work with and learn from established ones may help bolster the support network in the literary circle

"We've been shortlisted, but have never won a major award such as the Nobel Prize for Literature. What is wrong with Korean literature?"

The Korean undergraduate who just asked the question stares at us earnestly behind her serious, round-rimmed glasses.

We are at a dialogue session between international writers at Toji Cultural Center and the American literature cohort at Yonsei University's Wonju campus, and I am on the panel with British poet Sue Butler.

"Nothing," we reply, shrugging. Awards are either a kind of lottery, dependent on a small jury's tastes, or a kind of old boys' club with more sinister overtones of intellectual snobbery.

The world has yet to catch up with the brilliance of Korea's writers, I add.

A few days later, this year's Man Booker International Prize was awarded to South Korea's Han Kang for her novel The Vegetarian.

Another South Korean writer, Shin Kyung Sook, won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011.

I imagine that the latest award would go some way towards allaying the student's anxiety about the state of fiction in her country.

Then I remember that it is not the Nobel Prize.

Writers are a complicated lot.

They are solitary creatures, by nature or by the conditions they need to produce their work. They are hard to organise, according to cause or consensus; and belong to no professional body governing freelance or creative writing.

Yet, they also require occasional feedback and encouragement and thrive in an informal system of mentorship and a loose literary community.

And readers? Who can predict what readers want - beyond being entertained, informed, challenged and/or enlightened?

Throw institutions or promotional boards into the mix and the scene starts looking very complex.

Having spent the past two months in Toji on a writing residency, I am struck by the many similarities, as well as key differences, between South Korea and Singapore's literary scenes.

In January this year, The New Yorker ran an article asking: "Can a big government push bring the Nobel Prize in Literature to South Korea?"

In a country with a literacy rate of 98 per cent and a local publishing industry doing US$2.7 billion (S$3.8 billion) in annual sales, the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, a government agency, is on a mission to subsidise translations and publications of Korean books abroad, in the hope of producing a Nobel laureate.

Singapore's literary ambitions are slightly more modest, with the National Arts Council providing support and grants to writers and publishers, as well as a well- regarded Singapore Writers Festival which draws a crowd of about 20,000 each year.

Singapore's book scene is obviously nascent, in terms of production and reception, when compared with Korea's long literary tradition.

Paju Book City, occupying 18,000 sq m of land 30km outside of Seoul, is a government- sponsored complex housing scores of publishers.

While one could major in "national literature" at a South Korean university, Singapore literature is often just one or two modules on an English literature undergraduate or graduate course.

A recent article in this paper about "Singapore's literary scene enjoying revival" noted that "no writer here has managed such a feat (of being longlisted for a Man Booker) yet".

My impression, from speaking to my Korean writer friends, is that the South Korean literary scene is perhaps harder to penetrate.

Newspapers and literary magazines run writing contests and major publishers consider publishing you when you've won one.

Korean writer biographies on book flaps or in journals invariably mention the year in which a writer made his or her literary debut - that is, the year he or she was first published - and "senior" writers sometimes expect "junior" writers to accord them respect.

What I love about Singapore's literary scene is that anyone who devotes years of his life writing a book can call himself a member and no one really cares if you came into writing really late, because most of us had to slog at other pragmatic careers to earn a living before that.

I say this as an outsider, having zero books to my name, to date.

Our literary system often runs on fun, innovative private initiatives: BooksActually's book-vending machines; Singapore Poetry Writing Month (SingPoWriMo) bringing together poets on Facebook and the resulting anthology; just to name a couple. The agenda, if there is one, is fluid and ours to set.

On the other hand, writers in Korea are respected in a way that is new to me.

Poetry groupies have driven hours to visit my Korean writer friends for autographs. Writing residencies and creative incubators dot the country.

In Toji, a writers' commune set up by best-selling author Park Kyong Ni and named after her epic novel series of the same name, kitchen and maintenance staff members are told not to speak to any writer roaming the grounds - they may look as though they are not doing anything, but you could be interrupting an important thought process.

I think about doing nothing back home. The chances of someone whispering in awe, "Don't disturb her, she's a writer"? Probably nil.

I wonder if the Korean model will work: the copious amount of investment and support, in the hopes of producing something great. The rising tide that lifts all boats. Or is independent and unhurried the way to go?

Lots of talk about creativity and entrepreneurship has led to networking and co-working hubs for tech start-ups, as well as housing for performance arts groups. But what about a writing hub?

The greatest value of a place like Toji, I have realised, is not so much the peace and quiet that it affords writers to compose sentences in (although that helps immensely, of course), but the chance for younger writers to live with and learn from more established ones.

Writers in Toji eat lunch together, on the dot, at noon and dinner at 6pm. They take long walks and climb mountains together. They prepare weekend meals in the common room and clean up afterwards together.

They take care of one another. They show that life needs to be lived and bodies need to be nurtured before one can devote one's self to art.

No point burning out before one matures as a writer.

On a trip to Jeju - on a four-day vacation from my writing retreat - I climb Sunrise Peak at dawn and watch a tree in its crater disappear and reappear in the mist.

That's what being a writer is like, I realise, in this vast, impermanent world: Sometimes, you are the viewer and, sometimes, the tree. You just stand your ground until someone comes along and takes notice for a short while. All we can do, as writers, is to keep writing. Prizes be damned.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2016, with the headline 'A hub to grow Singapore's writing scene?'. Print Edition | Subscribe