What was your first impression of your mentor, Wole Soyinka?
He was first mentioned in the letter from Rolex inviting me to apply. And I hadn't heard of Wole Soyinka before then because in Australia – I don't know why, I think because we are so cornered into the Pacific – there is not a plethora of African writing available to us, which is really sad and completely different from America and Europe in their engagement with African writers. It’s strange that I never noticed this in the past until the Rolex mentorship. And then I started to read Wole's works and one in particular, one book of essays,The Burden of Memory,the Muse of Forgiveness. The first chapter was on repression and reconciliation, and I was at a writing conference for my work when I got the book. Reading that chapter, I saw the complete correlation between the African problem and the [Australian] Aboriginal problem – exactly the same. It was completely transparent and I was crying. Discovering Wole was like discovering a guidance you never knew existed, but it was the most important guidance that you could have. Everything that I have read of Wole's, it's as if I have been looking for that in writing – in terms of his poetry, essays and fiction and plays and in terms of everything I have wanted to read. It's all contained in his work. Then I couldn’t get enough. I had stacks and stacks of Soyinka all over my kitchen table. And my first impression of meeting Wole, I remember I was just smiling when he came to the airport in Lagos to meet me and the other three finalists [before he chose his protégée]. I said to myself: “Stop smiling so much.”
What interested you most about participating in the Rolex Arts initiative?
The idea that really struck a cord with me was the relationship between mentor and protégée, this idea of passing knowledge from an older to a younger artist. Also the esteem in which the Arts Initiative is held. And, of course, the opportunity to work with someone as knowledgeable as Wole Soyinka in the field of literature.
In your application form, you said you were at the foot of the mountain and wanted a map to help you get to the top. Would you rank that as one of the most important attractions of the mentorship?
Not necessarily having a map, but maybe having ideas on how to write your own map – someone there giving you suggestions on how to write it.
Have you ever had a mentor before?
No. A few people in Australia, a few older Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia who looked after me and always helped me out, imbued a sense of self-worth, of believing that I myself could create and make something tangible, creative and positive, but I've not had a mentor before, this is a relationship beyond empowering someone, it’s equipping them for living, professionally and spiritually.
Would you regard editors as mentors?
No, it’s a different relationship. As Wole said, mentoring is not just working on the writing, it’s working around the writing, the business of writing. Whereas I think editors give practical help working on the writing. Mentoring is kind of holistic.
What do you hope to get out of this?
I've already got a lot out of it. My world view has opened. I suppose the things that I am reading have opened things up, Wole's work and then more African writers; and I have his suggestions on Kafka, Hemingway, Shakespeare and Greek literature that I hadn't read at all before. Now I can see the parallels with Greek tragedies and Shakespeare’s tragi-comedies and Aboriginal stories about my country. It’s really exciting to discover.
Do you have a ready-made programme in terms of writing for the mentoring year?
I hope to finish my second novel by February 2009. I just want to extend my writing because I have never been tutored. I write by feeling, it’s all been a kind of natural process. I've just been stumbling and feeling my way through. Wole's a teacher and he's someone who is completely qualified in most genres of writing, so it will be great just to explore all the possibilities in terms of reading, stories.
You've done quite a lot of writing outside fiction, such as articles. Will you work on articles while you are working on your fiction?
Definitely. Articles were never my bread and butter, but always something to keep my mind motivated and to keep me engaged with the world; I would like to keep writing essays and articles, just so I'm interacting with my community, my country, my world. I also know I'm disturbed more and more by injustice throughout the world, social, political, religious, environmental, it’s as if the more I come into my own self, the more the world and myself lose our innocence. I'm caught in it as I get older. I'd love to write political journalism, besides writing novels. I can open people's eyes through writing, and I would like to do that.