This article was first published in the Oct/Nov 2017 print and e-edition of Global Geneva magazine.
AT THE JAN MICHALSKI FOUNDATION FOR WRITING AND LITERATURE, there are seven cabins or ‘treehouses’ – the structures hang off a concrete canopy – reflecting the forest behind them. Each of these treehouses is allotted to a writer or translator over a fellowship period that can range from a few weeks to six months. One additional cabin has been created as a shared space for writers – where they meet over meals, readings or conversations.
The walls of this room are layered with wooden niches, and in each of these departing writers leave behind a memento, a remembrance of their time at the Foundation. These include stones picked up on walks in the forests surrounding the treehouses, or a ‘letter’ filled with dried wildflowers. There are feathers, maps and a book of memories dedicated to companions encountered. Over my weeks at the Foundation, as one of the first writers to occupy these spaces, I watched this collection of objects grow, like a museum of memories, with artefacts marking time spent with writing and writers.
I spent three months as a writer-in-residence in this unique space, when I also learned about its mission and stature in the world of Swiss letters. The Foundation was established in 2004 by Swiss publisher Vera Michalski to honour the legacy of her husband, journalist and editor Jan Michalski.
Why come all this way to write?
While the first writers arrived this spring, the institution has run a multi-lingual library and hosted cultural events for nearly four years. Perched on a small hilltop by the village of Montricher, it draws visitors from nearby towns as well as further away cities. Often I saw these visitors gazing at the treehouses and the writers with curiosity. Some would wave and offer encouraging words.
Others tried to understand our presence and work. Sometimes I would be asked — “Why have you come all this way away from home to write your book?” The simple answer is: “Sometimes you have to leave home to write your book.”
The residency, like other such programmes around the world, offers writers the opportunity to undertake ambitious work, and gives the gift of sustained time to writing processes that would otherwise have languished, or perhaps even been abandoned.
Articulating connections and insights
I spent my summer fellowship working on mynon-fiction book about the cultural life of Kabul. These included days and nights sequestered in my work space, located at the top of my cabin. Seated in front of a large glass window, I read and wrote while watching the beauty that passed by, in the panorama of Lake Geneva and the surrounding countryside.
On certain days, Mont Blanc shimmered with a hard clarity. At night I looked up from the glow of my laptop screen to see the lights of Lausanne glimmering across the darkness. On the other walls, I affixed notes and maps, memories and impressions. In between the blank receptiveness of the walls and the ever-shifting beauty of the glass window, I was able to articulate connections and insights that I had perceived dimly. I found the silence and the luxury of uninterrupted time needed to nurture my work.
My work also bears the inflexion of this particular time in the news cycle, when Afghanistan has once again re-occupied some degree of the world’s attention. Writing about the everyday life of Kabul in the midst of the largest refugee crisis of our times has been a revealing process, and the city seemed both distant and nearby.
Sometimes revelations and insights took less direct routes. Surrounded by writers working in different languages and across genres meant finding roads into new terrain. It meant discovering voices from across the world, who would be difficult to find in a less interna tional setting. Listening to my fellow writers talk about their processes opened doors into my own work. There were evenings when I returned from a casual meal and found knots in my text unraveled, or questions answered.
The emergence of a new writers’ community
But the fellowship that comes from writers sharing a space goes beyond the texts they are creating. The greatest support for an independent journalist and writer like myself was the ineffable community that emerges during a residency. I relished conversations about weddings in Kabul, Poland and France. I learned from discussions about the realities of writing while raising a family, heard about angelic editors and inscrutable agents. The bonds forged over these weeks, and the collaborations that began there, will endure long after we have all parted ways.
The fellowship also provided me with a valuable, nuanced insight into life in a Swiss village. In the often isolated schedules I followed, I found myself seeking out the rhythms of everyday life – the sounds of children at play, a piano strumming through an open window. For a few weeks I watched my fellow residents — a collective called Caractères Mobiles – at work. They took ‘orders’ from residents of Montricher and wrote texts just for them. These they often hand delivered to their homes. In this place so far from my own home, this was a reminder that what we all seek are stories.
I left my own token on one of the shelves of the cabin before I left. I like to think of it being seen or used by future residents, forging a delicate link between us, making us part of a fellowship of words that spreads across the world.
Taran N. Khan is a journalist and non-fiction writer based in Mumbai.