Australian Wiradjuri writer, Tara June Winch’s survival instincts are well honed, even though you’d never guess that from glancing at her features: a face framed by a tumble of dark hair, the smooth skin, her generous upturned lips and the impish expression in her eyes.
The 34-year-old became a single mother to her daughter, Lila when she was only 21. The two of them made their life as Australian residents based in Paris, as the acclaimed author created a livelihood balancing writing with teaching.
Times were tough, June Winch explains, as it wasn’t easy to live in a big city as a foreigner with a small child. But, she insists that the situation was merely instructive.
“Paris was a wonderful city to arrive with my daughter," says the culturally diverse writer, whose background also includes a bloodline from Afghanistan. "Everything fell into place there. We had times of struggle but the city is incredibly hospitable. There’s also a way to struggle in Paris, which is different from most other cities. There is a generosity of spirit there.”
"I never really felt like I needed anyone else to be there."
During that time, the writer never labelled herself as a single mother or a ‘battler’. “I’ve never really thought of myself that way: just as the mother, the parent. I never really felt like I needed anyone else to be there,” she admits.
Little wonder because Winch has always been incredibly self-sufficient and has always written from the heart and not been concerned with the consequences.
From humble upbringings to success
For Winch, international fame came early on. After her debut novel, Swallow The Air, was published in 2006 when she was only 23, it won a slew of awards including the David Unaipon Award and a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. It’s also been on the HSC syllabus for Standard and Advanced English in Australia since 2009.
She was named as one of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists. Meanwhile in 2009, she received the prestigious Rolex Mentor and Protégé Award.
But how did she rise to such great heights in writing - a field which typically requires years of real life experience - so young?
Perhaps it was Winch's inquisitive mind which helped hone her writing skills? "I was always aware there was more than meets the eye, even as a child. I knew there were rivers and estuaries and oceans of bigger stories in my family and my country than what I was experiencing. I think I really understood there was a reason behind everything, and life has continued to be about discovering the reasons that people are motivated to do what they do.”
“I had this incredible time when I got to be silent in the thoughts and feelings I had. It was a break to look at childhood, to understand my family in the context of other people I met all over the country."
Winch tells SBS she started writing at around the age of 17, after dropping out of high school and hitchhiking around Australia.
"I was alone and playing with letter writing and rookie poetry that was heavy with the remains of teenage angst,” she recalls. “I had this incredible time when I got to be silent in the thoughts and feelings I had. It was a break to look at childhood, to understand my family in the context of other people I met all over the country. Once I turned 18, I set off to India and that’s when I read more widely and felt more deeply and started really owning that personality, or life of the poet.”
But her life eventually changed in Paris after she went on date with a man she met online, Arnoud. He later went on to become Winch's husband.
"He’d been in Paris for over a decade, and I’d been there for a couple of years, but we were both from smaller towns originally so there was that person inside of us who was deeply attached to nature,’’ she explains.
“We live two hours from Paris now in the countryside. I have a writing room, he has a woodworking shed, and our daughter has pet chickens and ducks and an experience of nature, just like we had in our formative years. Life is incredible.”
"Once I turned 18, I set off to India and that’s when I read more widely and felt more deeply and started really owning that personality, or life of the poet.”
Winch held back from having more work published between Swallow The Air and Winch’s collection of short stories, After The Carnage, which came out last year. She stopped herself from putting her work out there, she says, because she was worried that it wouldn’t be well received. It took someone in the industry to turn her around.
“A couple of years ago, a publisher was really encouraging me to work. She instilled me with a sense of self-worth and confidence that I had lost over the years. She really encouraged me completely to put something out again.
"I’m so thankful I did because it crushed that fear of failure, 'the second album stigma'. I have kept writing since then,” she says.
Swallow The Air (UQP) is now shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards to be announced at the end of May. In the meantime, Winch has completed another novel, The Yield, which will be published next year and is set in Australia.
"Good things always come from overcoming fear", she says, "from finishing a project."
Tara June Winch will be appearing at the Sydney Writers' Festival this month at a panel discussion on May 26 - 'This Won’t End Well: Secrets Of Great Short Storytelling' -when she will share the stage with George Saunders and Joy Williams.
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