Mochama’s steps to life with his mentor Prof Mikhail Lossel : Evewoman - The Standard
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Mochama’s steps to life with his mentor Prof Mikhail Lossel

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Every man needs a mentor.

A mentor is the person who gets and guides you in your career, or if you are like a priest or a poet, into your calling. With the right mentor, your vocation can become a devotion – and let me stop right there before I begin to sound like one of those motivational writers, who like to rhyme phrases in rather corny ways.

‘Your perspiration is your inspiration, your mission your vision, your vocation can be your devotion, and your flatulence the cause of your bodily turbulence…’

My mentor is a Russian-American called Prof Mikhail Iossel, and I first met him – a short, stout man (like a great glass of Guinness) with his thoughtful air and soulful eyes in December of 2002 at the Lillian Towers in the CBD.

He was here, with the then new literary Kwani? Outfit, to promote a trans-continental programme he had recently founded called SLS, the Summer Literary Seminars (www.sumlitsem.org), the whole idea of SLS being to hold month-long seminars across three continents every year.

Being a Russian navy engineer who taught himself English from translated novels and left Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) at 30 years of age, and had, in a mere 10 years, managed to become a professor of English literature in an American university, Mikhail Iossel’s life story by age 40 was in itself super-inspirational.

So that the very first words I said to him at Lillian Towers, that December of 2002, were: May I have the next dance with you, sire? Or, maybe not!

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Anyway, I was freshly graduated from college, freshly orphaned (my Dad had died that October) and 100 per cent sure that I did NOT want to ‘pursue’ the Law as a career, especially since it had pretty much chased me down to exhaustion in my million years in college.

I had also spend almost all of 2002 being a foot soldier and ‘grassroots organiser’ volunteer for the ‘Rainbow’ party, and dreaded the year 2003, after Kibaki had won and would get sworn in. ‘Political orphan’ is really a thing!

So that week after meeting Mikhail Iossel, when he offered to take me to Russia, for free, for the following summer’s SLS writing programme for a month, I jumped at the chance. And that is how I spent every mid-year in the mid-oh-ohs with this literary father figure.

In Saint Petersburg, Russia, literally 10,000 kilometres north of Nairobi, with my mentor Mikhail Iossel, drinking, thinking and talking over the endless white nights of that prettiest city. We made lots of pals from all over the world – Jack Goldbach and Stephen Paul Lansky come to mind.

I met editors like Deborah Triesman of The New Yorker. We attended poetry classes with the famous Matthew Zapruda and prose ones with guys like George Saunders, who won the Booker Prize last year (for ‘Lincoln in the Bardo.’).

Mikhail Iossel got me to go to Montreal for the ‘Blue Met Lit Fest,’ and we hung out in Lamu one long and glorious December as SLS brought its unique literary festival to that timeless island.

Naturally, when my very first book (the poetry collection) ‘What If I’m a Literary Gangsta?’ came out in the year 2007, it was dedicated to my mentor, Misha.

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I’m also delighted to say that the latest long novel, ‘2063, Last Mile Bet’ has an entire end section that is totally inspired by Professor Iossel.

This is what Mikhail did for me. He saw a young man many years ago, who was drowning both his joys and sorrows, in glasses of alcohol (vodka, what else?), saw the potential, and watered and nurtured this wild weed.

Mikhail Iossel is the man who made me, if not sophisticated about the world, then at least knowledgeable about how it actually works at many levels, that degree in intellectual pedigree that money can’t buy. It is because of him that I instantly feel at home anywhere in the world, even as a black man.

A couple of years, I was totally lost in a tiny Spanish town called Irixio, having mistaken it for a town called Ourense, but I managed to navigate my way okay, because, please, Galicia pekee! My vision 20-20 with Mikhail is Georgia.

Meanwhile, my mentor is in town (Nairobi), accompanied by great writers like Lynne Tillman, Nicole Sealey and Jacquira Diaz – and SLS will be doing its 2018 Kenya opening at the Pride-Inn, Lantana, tonight.

This Xmas, may you all find your Santa Mishas; ata ka some lassies only think of Santa Sponsors.

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