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Talking Location With author Clifford Garstang – Korea

4th May 2019

#TalkingLocationWith… Clifford Garstang, author of The Shaman of Turtle Valley. He chooses to share his thoughts on Korea, a significant influence in his novel.

In my writing, I have always taken inspiration from the places in which I have lived and traveled. I currently live in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Alleghenies, and from the moment I landed in the region I loved the setting—forest-covered hillsides, meandering creeks and rivers, endless varieties of flora and fauna—and knew I would write about it. For my first collection of short stories, In an Uncharted Country, I created a small town nestled in the Valley, and projected my own sense of disorientation onto many of the town’s inhabitants, good people just trying to get by and fit in.

Now, in my novel The Shaman of Turtle Valley, I’ve written about the area again, although this time I’ve moved the setting further into the mountains, into the region most people call Appalachia, where—degrading stereotypes aside—folk customs have persisted since the first European settlers arrived in the early 18thCentury. The history of the region, as it turns out, is rife with conflict, including the settlers’ clash with native inhabitants, the Civil War, and storied family feuds such as the one between the Hatfields and McCoys, and that makes it all the more compelling to consider as a locale for fiction.

But my story is also about South Korea, a country I know well, having been a Peace Corps Volunteer there many years ago and a visitor countless times since, both for work and pleasure. Like Appalachia, it is also a land of conflict—despite Korea’s misappropriated and mistranslated nickname, “Land of the Morning Calm”—among the various warring kingdoms on the peninsula until the country was unified over a thousand years ago, between the two halves of the divided country during the Korean War, and even among political factions to this day.

What connected the two settings in my mind initially was a painting that hangs over my fireplace, one that I acquired in Korea more than forty years ago, and the reflection of the Virginia landscape in the glass that protects it. The painting depicts Sansin, the Korean Mountain God, surrounded by various important symbols of Korean Shamanism: pine tree, tiger, magpie, etc. What would happen, I asked myself, if a practitioner of Shamanism, a mudang—almost always a woman, by the way—were transplanted from her homeland to Appalachia? Despite the similarities between the cultures and history (which none of the characters would have the perspective to recognize), wouldn’t the obvious differences, both racial and cultural, generate another layer of conflict? Or would the shaman’s animism and homeopathic remedies resonate with the Virginia hill people?

The basic story I wanted to tell was already formulated on my most recent visit to Korea, but I was anxious to refresh my recollection of the sights, smells, and sounds of the country. A student of Buddhism, I visited a prominent temple in downtown Seoul and another near the provincial capital where I lived as a Peace Corps Volunteer. A temple and a pagoda replica built by the main character play an important role in The Shaman of Turtle Valley.

The main character in the book is not fond of Korean cuisine, but his Korean wife is, and so am I. Naturally, then, on my visit I sampled a variety of my favorites, including mandu (dumplings) both steamed and fried, bulgogi (grilled marinated beef), and doenjang jjigge (fermented bean paste stew). In fact, the city where I used to live, Jeonju, is rightly famous for a dish said to have originated there,  bibimbap (mixed rice and vegetables with beef), and a restaurant specializing in the dish was my first stop when I arrived in that city from Seoul.

Korea has modernized substantially since my first visit. Seoul is now peppered with skyscrapers, modern apartment blocks, and Western-style hotels, and only a few clusters of historic buildings remain. It was different in the 1970s. Back then I stayed in a rustic inn, a yogwan, when I landed in Seoul, where the bedding was a hard mat on the floor and the only amenity was a shared squat toilet (the public bathhouse was down the alley a few buildings away). On my recent visit, however, I stayed in a fancy high-rise hotel, although my hosts thought I would enjoy staying one night in a more traditional yogwan in Jeonju’s renovated Han-ok District, a neighborhood of traditional-style homes that had been updated with air-conditioning and an indoor bathroom. The bathroom was definitely an improvement, but the bedding hadn’t changed in the ensuing four decades.

Back home in Virginia after that trip, I was struck by the similarities in the landscapes between parts of Korea and my part of the Shenandoah Valley. I realized that my Korean Shaman would also make the connection, and for me that cemented the story’s structure.

Thank you so much to Clifford for sharing such interesting insights!

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