JANE CORNWELL meets TARA JUNE WINCH WRITER, LITERACY CAMPAIGNER
TARA June Winch is used to taking things in her stride. Sure, the indigenous Australian novelist was a little overwhelmed when she was nominated for the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative, a year- long scheme that pairs creative young people bursting with potential, with well- known practitioners from six art forms.
But her jaw dropped when she won the coveted literature mentorship. ‘‘ I burst into tears,’’ the generally composed 24- year- old admits. ‘‘ I was stoked.’’
Among the mentors gathered at a ceremony at London’s luxurious Brown’s Hotel are Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian, German multimedia artist Rebecca Horn and US film director Martin Scorsese ( on video link). Nigerian Nobel prizewinning novelist and playwright Wole Soyinka, Winch’s mentor, is a benign and kingly presence by her side.
‘‘ Tara’s writing is very tactile,’’ booms the white- bearded Soyinka, who is 50 years older than his protege. ‘‘ She has this extraordinarily spiritual relationship to nature, which fascinated me. There is much for us to talk about. We’ll be exchanging many ideas.’’
Winch, looking like a catwalk model in white frock coat, artfully tied scarf and earrings shaped like green leaves, rests a hand on a copy of her debut novel, Swallow the Air, and smiles.
A series of interconnected stories about a halfAboriginal teenager’s search for her people and herself, Swallow the Air won a clutch of awards after it was published in Australia in 2006. Winch and Soyinka will discuss the shape of her next book, The Lunatic, the Lover and the Poet (‘‘ about a crazy Australian linguist who forgets to listen’’), when she visits him at his home in Abeokuta, western Nigeria, later in the year.
‘‘ I’m honoured to be able to listen to someone with such a strong voice in the world,’’ Winch tells the assembled throng, her own voice soft and quiet. Later she’ll draw modest parallels between the way she and Soyinka look to the past to understand the future; the way both use writing to explore a sense of place and how they fit into the world. ‘‘ I guess we’re connected in that we’re both in touch with our cultures and their spiritual aspects. But I’m still learning,’’ she adds, sotto voce. ‘‘ I’m walking a path and now Wole’s walking with me.’’
It’s been quite a journey for the young writer of Wiradjuri, Afghan and English descent, who grew up in a housing commission strip in Wollongong, NSW. After her parents split up when she was nine, her mother reared the four children in an environment Winch describes as sometimes fraught but ultimately positive.
Always a reader, she was still at high school when Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken (‘‘ Two roads diverged in a wood and I — / I took the one less travelled by, / And that has made all the difference’’) inspired her to become a traveller, too. Travel, geographical and spiritual, has been a passion ever since.
At 17, armed with a two- person tent, a pair of boots and a writing pad, she left Wollongong to hitchhike across Australia. ‘‘ I just told Mum I was going,’’ she says over orange juice in a London cafe the day after the Rolex launch. ‘‘ I felt this need to know my country. 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.’’
Wanderlust piqued, the word freedom tattooed on her arm, Winch travelled through India, then spent six months at a Tibetan centre in Scotland, practising the Buddhism that continues to direct her life. Back in Australia three years later, she settled in Brisbane and struggled to make ends meet. In her spare time she hung out at the State Library of Queensland, feeding her appetite for reading. ‘‘ One day I saw an ad for their short- story writing competition. There was prizemoney, so I typed one up on my old orange portable typewriter.’’
Her story won the $ 500 runner- up prize and became the first instalment of Swallow the Air. Winch wrote much of the book while pregnant with her daughter, Lila, now 21/ Like writing, she found motherhood was instinctive: ‘‘ I didn’t know how not to be me. I took Lila to China when she was one. We slept on trains, stayed in people’s homes, shopped for food in markets. My doctor had said that she wouldn’t need vaccinations as long as I was breastfeeding. She was thriving!’’
Winch has since taken her daughter along to the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Indonesia and to Montreal, a multilingual city that features in her forthcoming novel. Trust and respect the world, she says, and it will respect and trust you back. Where she fits into it has everything to do with her culture and her past: ‘‘ I am writing first for my people,’’ she told the assembled throng at Brown’s.
‘‘ My father was made to disown his identity. My generation is lucky to be able to speak.’’
Having relocated to Wollongong ( a flat with harbour views), Winch has put the final year of an indigenous studies degree on hold while she rears her daughter, finishes her novel and acts as an ambassador for the Australia Council’s Indigenous Literacy Project.
‘‘ It provides books and literacy programs to indigenous communities; I want to see the power of writing and reading passed on. Embracing indigenous story and expression is vital for the health of the country, for national identity. I’m hoping to see the project expand throughout the world,’’ she says.
Soyinka holds similar views, Winch says. ‘‘ He runs the Essay Foundation, a fellowship program based at his property in Abeokuta,’’ a sprawling eco- friendly home built with money from his Nobel prize. There, ‘‘ young Nigerians can come and stay . . . with overseas writers, doing workshops and things’’.
Being mentored by the great man is, she says, another step along the way of moving from survivor to achiever.
‘‘ Indigenous people get told, often indirectly, that they’re victims,’’ she continues, her voice firm and clear. ‘‘ It’s time to go beyond healing, to saying: ‘ We’re amazing.’ ’’
Her first meeting with Soyinka, when she and three other Rolex finalists, all American, travelled to Nigeria in April, felt auspicious: ‘‘ There’s an African character in Swallow the Air that is like a father figure, an elder. When I saw Wole waiting for us at the airport in Nigeria, it was like . . .’’ She pauses, sighs. ‘‘ He was just how I imagined this character to be.’’
After reading her work and listening to her ideas, Soyinka chose Winch as his protege. The bond between the two is obvious amid the white linen and china cups of Brown’s, Mayfair, where all Rolex participants are staying.
‘‘ The other night we got away and went and drank wine in Soho, then went wandering through the streets arm in arm at 1am. I took my shoes off and walked barefoot.’’ Winch flashes a smile. ‘‘ It’s always good,’’ she says, ‘‘ to get back to the basics.’’