Wole Soyinka and Tara June Winch

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 7)

A young mother, beginning her career as a novelist in Australia, and a renowned Nigerian author, often in demand internationally for his opinions and insights, are worlds apart in terms of geography, culture and experience. But, from their first encounter, it was obvious to Wole Soyinka, when selecting his protégée for a year of mentoring, that Tara June Winch was the right choice for him. And as the pair plunged into their literary collaboration, the convergence of their paths seemed completely natural and appropriate, as a vital experience of life and literature, dear to them both, brought them together in a close, spontaneous partnership.

Wole Soyinka and Tara June Winch

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 7)

November 2008

The protégée in Literature, Tara June Winch, talks about the start of the mentoring year. Interviewed in Nigeria

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.

Wole Soyinka and Tara June Winch

A year of mentoring

Travellers (Chapter 3 of 7)

In both the life and work of Wole Soyinka, travel is a constant. He travels tirelessly, for his writing of course but also answering calls to lend his voice or speak on numerous issues, from the environment to the state of politics and government across his native continent.

But in Soyinka’s life, travel has two faces. Travel can be pleasurable, enlightening, often undertaken out of altruism. It has, however, also meant exile, which he endured when forced to leave his native Nigeria on account of his political beliefs, and even danger, as when he travelled, against the wishes of the national military government, to Biafra, during the Nigerian civil war. Soyinka wanted to persuade the Biafrans to rethink their options and work for peace. For this journey, he was incarcerated for the entire period of the war – mid-1967 to early 1970 – most of the time in solitary confinement.

Much of his early poetry is pervaded by this theme of risky travel and, indeed, Soyinka’s most recent publication,You Must Set Forth at Dawn, takes its title from one of his early poems about journeys taken early in the morning when few travellers are on the roads and highways.

In kilometres, the travels of Tara June Winch cannot compare with those of Soyinka. But the young life of this writer of Aboriginal, Afghan and English descent already holds the promise that she will become as seasoned a traveller as he is. She began early, and, like Soyinka, with a measure of courage, some might even say recklessness. Leaving school at 16, she took to the road, hiking across the vastness of Australia, penniless, alone but unafraid, writing poems and long letters home along the way. “I felt this need to know my country,” Winch says. “And because being away forces you to reflect, I started writing as a way of understanding my childhood and my world. Travellers I met gave me books likeZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which helped me to look at things differently. I put everything down on paper.”

Her notes inspired her first novel, a semi-autobiographical story, in which a young Aboriginal girl of mixed racial parentage travels across the continent in search of her roots. The novel,Swallow the Air, is remarkable less for the places the protagonist passes through than for the people she meets as the narrator gives unexpected, memorable twists to clichés and stereotypes of poverty, alcohol, spousal abuse and despair among indigenous Australians. In everything she writes, Winch displays an eye for detail matching that of her Aboriginal ancestors.

Wole Soyinka and Tara June Winch

A year of mentoring

Meeting places (Chapter 4 of 7)

Soyinka chose Winch to be his protégée because of her “sure hand [and] observant eye”. Even at the beginning of their mentorship, the differences between Winch and Soyinka – age, gender, nationality – did not matter, particularly as they discovered their real-life and literary predilection for travel.

During their first period of work together, a month in Nigeria, Soyinka was pleased that his protégée adapted quickly to the country, not in a patronizing manner but in the spirit of an experienced traveller who takes in far more than the superficial details of a place.

He says: “I’m very glad that our first place of working together is here in this very environment, because she took to it from the very beginning.” She in turn comments: “When I came here the first time, I thought it was a place that I’d been before, even though I knew I hadn’t. The people made me feel at home and at ease – it was a strange kind of comfort that I’d dreamt the place before. I thought it was beautiful and volatile and loud and dusty and hot and angry – all those things.”

Winch almost always travels with her young daughter, Lila. Far from regarding the child as a barrier to the life of an aspiring writer, Winch proclaims that Lila and single-parenthood are an essential and fulfilling aspect of her work. Winch says: “Lila’s travelled a lot, spent time in China, she’s been in Indonesia, and she’s travelled lots in the desert. She’s an inspiration to me. She’s not my extension or something, but she’s my best friend. I’m like Wole, I think we’ve both got gypsy blood, we move around a lot. So I find that my home has become my daughter, and I’m her home.”

During their Rolex partnership, Soyinka urged Winch to read widely – ancient Greek writing, Shakespeare, Kafka, Hemingway and African authors. And they discussed traditional African festivals that he asked her to watch and Western operas and African music that he encouraged her to listen to. Winch was thrilled with this tutelage compounded of strands and currents from so many diverse cultures.

Those remarkably positive initial feelings on both sides remained, deepening in the months that followed the time in Nigeria, as the pair met again abroad, in London and then, more often, in the United States, where Soyinka spends much of his time. Winch spent several months in New York, to be closer to her mentor and to pursue her writing. In the long run, the relationship proved to be as amicable as the first contact had promised; and also productive, despite Winch’s diffidence about showing Soyinka some of her ongoing work until, in her opinion, the texts were polished enough.

Wole Soyinka and Tara June Winch

A year of mentoring

New directions (Chapter 5 of 7)

“I think Tara’s at a stage where she agonizes over what she wants to write,” Soyinka explains. “She agonizes whether it makes sense. She likes to use the expression: ‘It’s messy, it’s all over the place.’ What does she think writing is about? When you write, you’re all over the place to start with! Rare, rare, rare is the writer who doesn’t start that way – I’ve met only one or two. I work, write and prune afterwards. I prune and prune, and that’s the way it is. So part of my task is letting Tara know that creating messily is inevitable because writing is a messy procedure.”

More gentle a mentor than Wole Soyinka would be difficult to find. “It’s not an intensive relationship in the sense that he’s looking at me labouring over my work,” Winch says, describing him as a heroic, almost god-like “presence” – a god, she points out, who communicates to her directly, with a call or email, or indirectly – most days a search on Google News brings fresh words of Soyinka’s, as the media report his many actions and speeches. "I'm walking a path and now Wole's walking with me," she says.

This presence has inspired Tara June Winch, leading her in new directions. She is now exploring an interest in drama, her mentor’s principal idiom of literary and artistic interest. The result is an embryonic play script. “The play is about vision, but also about the topic of vision, how we see, how we become blind,” the protégée says. She is also writing her second novel. “It’s a novel interwoven with an epic narrative. It’s about language and culture, and holding onto what is most important to us. What makes us who we are?” Towards the end of the mentoring year, she ventured into essay writing with a style that is highly personal and political as well. The subject, the controversy over an international oil company’s operations in Nigeria, allowed her to engage not only with a political issue but to demonstrate her empathy with the people of Nigeria following the time she spent there.

But for Winch, her writing of the past 12 months is less important than the experience of getting to know Soyinka and being guided by him. “I have been able to build my confidence, to make the most of this great, unmatched opportunity. It has been a year of self-growth, almost more importantly than production.” Her mind has been opened, and she now sees parallels between Sophocles, the Bible, the fate of modern-day Nigerians and the mythology of Australian Aborigines – insights that will enrich her writing.

This was Wole Soyinka’s objective for his year of tutelage, to help Winch write in a way so that any reader can relate to the universal truths in the story. “I wanted somebody from a minority culture,” he said after choosing her as his protégée. “I am very much fascinated with what happens to literature when it finds itself in a ghetto situation. At the same time, the writer must create universalities, convincing universalities, in the outcome.”

Extracted from an article written by Biodun Jeyifo forMentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2008/2009 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Biodun Jeyifo is Professor of African and African American Studies and of Literature and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He has written extensively on Anglophone African literatures and critical theory, and is a weekly columnist for theSunday Guardianof Nigeria.

Wole Soyinka and Tara June Winch

A year of mentoring

After a year with the master (Chapter 6 of 7)

Tara June Winch talks about her year as a Rolex protégée

What interested you most about participating in the Rolex Arts Initiative?
The idea that really struck a chord with me was the relationship between mentor and protégé, this idea of passing knowledge from an older to a younger artist. Also the esteem in which the Arts Initiative is held. And, especially, the opportunity to work with someone as knowledgeable as Wole Soyinka in the field of literature.

Are you benefiting from the mentorship?
I’m getting a lot out of it. My world view has opened. My reading has also opened things up – Wole’s work and then more African writers; and I have had his suggestions on Kafka, Hemingway, Shakespeare and Greek literature that I hadn’t read at all before. Are you writing at the moment? Yes, and it [her second novel] is supposed to be finished by now! And I’ve signed a contract for it. It explores the inner truth of one’s own belief, one’s own culture.

Does having Lila, your daughter, around affect the way you see things as a writer?Yes, definitely. I think it’s made me more compassionate, more sensitive to the small things, the slow things and the importance of the relationship between one generation and the next, and how important it is to pass on love and positive life force. And it’s made me more aware of time and of my own childhood, and how we learn and grasp things, it’s made me more aware of so many things.

How do you see yourself in terms of indigenous Australian writing?
I am an indigenous writer, but it doesn’t mean that I am a cultural gatekeeper. What I write is indigenous literature, and I enjoy writing about my people. And I think you can’t really write an Australian novel without it being indigenous.

Wole Soyinka and Tara June Winch

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 7 of 7)

Interview with Wole Soyinka

How and why did you choose Tara, among the four finalists?
First, I liked her book, Swallow the Air, immensely. It was fresh, yet revealed a sure hand, observant eye and empathy in the depiction of characters. Then she has one unfair advantage – with me, that is – of being a single mother. It struck me that she needed the break more than the others. Unfair to the others, I admit, and even irrational, but in the end, such choices are irrational.

You have been a mentor to many younger writers. Has this particular mentorship been different from the others?
Oh, yes, of course, very different. It’s not every day I allow a student to invade my space for an extended period, and with a lively daughter to boot! Additionally, I also had to think out some kind of personalized work structure, even of the loosest kind. In the end, we never even followed it!

You’ve talked about Tara’s submission of a piece of writing, her second novel, as a big step in arriving at a working relationship with her.
Ah, when you actually trap a mind at work on a creative metaphor, twisting it around, seeking variations on it, even getting bogged down with it, then you feel that teacher “rush”. This novel has not taken on a definitive shape to merit commentary, but that’s part of my own temperament – I can’t comment on work-in-progress.

In concrete terms, in terms of the technicalities and actualities of writing, how do you work with her? Do you criticize specifics or help her articulate what she wants to say?
The latter definitely. I don’t bother myself very much about spelling, even my arrogant computer tries to correct my spelling from time to time. No, it’s the latter, it’s trying to draw out from her first of all what she wants to do, the way she views her subject, and then opening oneself to possibilities of suggesting ways of achieving this, preferably more than one. That’s the first task, the first hurdle, to be able to assure her yes, that’s a valid theme.