Tololwa Mollel, Writer-in-residence

March, 2024

The Write Stuff – Writer-in-residence provides locals with a literary spark

Growing up in Tanzania, Tololwa Mollel didn’t have very many books around. “Because of that, books became really special,” he recalls. “And the few that I had, I would read them over and over and over again.” Those books also inspired Mollel to try his hand at writing, which turned out to be a pleasant distraction from the rigidity of his native country’s more structured British education system.

Mollel developed a flair for storytelling, a skill that helped script a future for himself in his adopted Canada, where he’s since written nearly 20 books, and wound up as a regular on the writer’s workshop circuit. He’s currently on the final leg of his latest gig as the Edmonton region’s writer-in-residence, a program that’s taken him to public libraries in Fort Saskatchewan and Strathcona County. His tenure ends Sept. 30 at the St. Albert Public Library, where he’s been based since the summer.

Since the beginning of his regional residency, Mollel has helped aspiring and veteran writers by providing an extra set of eyes that pore over their works to sharpen their skills and fine-tune their voices. He’s also taken part in a series of community outreach programs to heighten the profile of public libraries in this part of the province and foster imagination in young minds when it comes to literature.

“A lot of people might be writing, as I say, in the shadows. They kind of share their writing with a very small group of people, who may not necessarily be literary people. So they really get some really perfunctory comments on their work. But with a writer in residence, you have somebody who has done it professionally, looking at your writing in a professional way and getting under the skin of your writing.”

Says Mollel about working with upstart authors

Becoming an objective voice with a literary background might be a boon for those eager to pursue the writing craft, but getting people interested in putting words on paper is a different issue entirely. Part of Mollel’s outreach responsibilities have taken him to classrooms, where he’s tackled that obstacle firsthand. He found that one way to connect with students is by encouraging them to write about things they find appealing.

“I first try to get them to come up with an idea that they really like, and make it clear that it’s just not homework,” says Mollel. “I don’t expect a masterpiece. All I expect is direction, and that this is their story, and they should feel that way about it. I tell them the first thing they need to know is what they are writing about. Once you do, that’s really great. You find a sense of purpose.”

Mollel often talks about his own upbringing in Tanzania and Canada, to help students generate ideas from their own existence to make it into paper. As it turns out, his past is rich with anecdotes and personal milestones. In 1990, shortly after becoming a permanent resident of Canada, Mollel’s first book, The Orphan Boy, won the Governor General’s award. “That kind of spoiled me,” he recalls, “but it was good for the book.”

Other works like My Rows and Piles of Coins and From Lands of the Night won Alberta literary awards and have been translated into Swahili, for readers in Mollel’s native country. The skills he honed back home as an actor and performer also help with his abilities to encourage novices in putting together a short story. That thespian background has also enabled Mollel to become a playwright and create theatrical works that include his expanding Story House series. Once he’s finished his
St. Albert stint, Mollel is slated to work on a trilogy of plays for Edmonton-based Theatre Prospero.

In the meantime, he still makes himself available at the St. Albert Public Library as a one-on-one adviser for neophyte writers. He’ll also continue to encourage school children to tap into their creative minds and bring their stories to life, in much the same way he managed to develop his writing skills as a youth in Tanzania.

“When I found something I could call my own, I really went into it full throttle. Because it was not homework, it was not schoolwork, it was just my own.”

says Mollel

I tell them the first thing they need to know is what they are writing about. Once you do, that’s really great. You find a sense of purpose

More Trending