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Wole Soyinka & Tara June WinchTravellers

Published in 2008Time to read: 4m55s

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.

by Biodun Jeyifo2008
  • Wole Soyinka
    The Mentor
  • Tara June Winch
    The Protégée

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 like Zen 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.

Meeting places

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.

New directions

“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 for Mentor & 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 the Sunday Guardian of Nigeria.


Rolex Mentor and Protégé