I’ve been to so many literary festivals. Maybe about seventy-five of them now, in thirty countries. They are my favorite part of book touring, because rather than moving quickly from city to city and hearing only myself speak on stage or in interviews, I have a chance to spend a few nights in one location and be in conversation with other writers and journalists and everyone working for the festival. So I expected to enjoy the Seoul International Writers’ Festival, but still I was surprised by how great the experience was and how unique.
Each evening on stage we had not only the writer reading from his or her work but also a mirror performance in another art form, dance or theater or puppetry, film or magic or music. I had never seen this format before at a literary festival. It started with the welcome dinner at the very beginning, when we heard a woman sing the most haunting songs in low tones. The strangeness of it was what I loved. Other nights we heard more traditional Korean music, another woman with such a clear sharp voice accompanied by a man on a drum. My own story was accompanied by two dancers, modern and ballet, choreographing an alternate version of my father’s suicide, and again it was the strangeness, cast outside my own story to watch as a member of the audience, that I will remember. What was important about these other performances is that they weren’t mere accompaniment but were art in themselves, as fully formed and captivating as anything we had written, and more immediate and pleasurable in their impact because of the advantage these other forms have over writing on stage.
There was such a range in what we experienced each night, from the power and protest of a piece about “Comfort Women” to the wonderfully funny and unforgettable “Belorussian Man.” Each night was a surprise and shock that would become lasting memory.
And these evenings were only one part of the experience. Each of us visiting writers was paired with a Korean writer, and I was lucky to be with Cheon Myeong-kwan. We were interviewed together on stage and also for media, and we read each other’s work in the excellent anthology the festival put together. Mr. Cheon is a prize-winning writer and quite big in South Korea and important, but he’s so modest I never would have known if others hadn’t told me. He was easy and friendly and had the best self-deprecating sense of humor, and I loved his stories. But what made the experience special for me was the hospitality he showed outside of the regular events. We went out late nights dancing and singing karaoke with another famous Korean writer from the festival, Jeong You Jeong, and two of the festival volunteers, Areum and Minhee, and this group I hope to keep in touch with for a long time. I’ve invited them to visit me in New Zealand this winter. They felt like close friends after our eight days together.
All of the visiting writers commented on how well and generously they were treated by the festival overall, as well as by the volunteers and their writing partner. The festival is truly exceptional in that way, and Korean culture seems to have stronger traditions about the treatment of guests than any other place I’ve been. It’s a culture both formal and personable, the very best combination, as I knew from my earlier book tours in Korea and residencies at Seoul Art Space Yeonhui, but this was my first time coming so close to Korean writers and having so much time together. Eight days is twice or even four times as long as my visits to most festivals, and the exchange felt much deeper and lasting.
The editor who introduced my work in Korea, Cho Dongshin, has been so generous to me over the years, and introduced me to so many professors, such as the wonderful Professor Sohn from Seoul National University, and writers in South Korea, I already knew I wanted to keep returning to Seoul, and I’ve been very lucky to have a great publisher, Book 21, and two residencies in Yeonhui and even an experience traveling around the country with a filmmaker, Mr. Kim. We visited the women’s fish market in Busan and cliffs by the sea, the Cheonmachong tomb in beautiful Gyeongju, where it was interesting to compare the burial rites to Anglo-Saxon burial rights 1,500 years ago, and incredible temples, and at one of these temples, Unmunsa, the head monk was so inviting and generous she let me enter the temple and meditate after their evening ceremony. This was a great gift, and I came to like Mr. Kim and his film crew enormously, and of course loved the time spent with Dongshin. I couldn’t imagine having another experience in South Korea that could feel as full, but now it has happened again in this amazing country. I hope I’ll have the chance to keep coming back.
by David Vann
Author of Legend of a Suicide and Aquarium