The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

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.’’

Pic­ture: Stu­art Clarke

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