in the culture of MENTORING | Wole Soyinka and Tara June Winch

NIGERIA AND AUSTRALIA |   There are many ways to learn to write a novel. Some people choose to do a creative writing course, others practice writing every day in their blog; some begin with the short story format and others just put pen to paper and start writing.

Tara June Winch, an Australian writer of Aboriginal and European descent, didn’t learn to write fiction at university. In fact she left high school before her final year, but in 2006 her debut novel Swallow the Air won countless awards, including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous writing.

In 2009, she won a place in a prestigious mentoring project. Her mentor? None other than the Nigerian playwright, activist and Africa’s first Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.

Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka is acclaimed internationally as a playwright, poet, novelist, essayist and humanitarian.  Considered his country’s foremost dramatist, he was the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1986, for his groundbreaking works that fuse literature and politics, Western and African traditions.

Wole Soyinka and Tara June Winch

Educated at Western Nigeria’s University College, Ibadan, and at the University of Leeds in the U.K., in 1960 Soyinka returned to Nigeria after six years in England to pursue his career as an author, professor and human rights activist. An outspoken critic of Nigeria’s past tyrannies, Soyinka has spent long periods of his life in exile. His Poems from Prison (1969) and The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972) describe his 27 months in a Nigerian prison, and his play, King Baabu (2001), satirizes African dictatorships.

Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006) depicts his adult life and opposition to Nigeria’s corrupt regimes. The memoir follows on from his autobiography, Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981), and a long string of masterpieces written over a half-century. His 2012 work, Of Africa, a volume of essays on Africa and Africans in the new millennium, was published in Nigeria under the title Harmattan Haze on an African Spring.

Moreover, Soyinka represented Nigeria at “Poetry Parnassus,” a week-long series of poetic events at the 2012 Cultural Olympiad in London. He is emeritus professor at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, President’s Professor in Residence at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, and an associate at the Du Bois Institute, Harvard University.

What follows is an interview with Wole Soyinka about the experience of mentoring a new protege.

How and why did you choose Tara Tara June Winch as protégé?
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.

<p><a href=”″>Wole Soyinka and Tara June Winch, Literature, 2008 - 2009 from Rolex Mentor and Protégé on Vimeo.



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