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My best teacher

I started learning tae kwon do in the Ivory Coast when I was about 13, and later became the first black belt in the country.

Kim Young Tae was on a mission. He was sent to the Ivory Coast by the tae kwon do federation in Korea and told to open a club. It was very successful - the number of tae kwon do clubs in the Ivory Coast now is amazing.

When he arrived he didn't know a word of French so he used to demonstrate rather than explain. He was very softly spoken and had no aggression at all. There was always a good atmosphere when we were training. We really loved it.

At the time I started learning tae kwon do, I was fighting like mad with my brother. But when we both started doing karate we quickly understood we had to stop fighting. We realised that fighting was about self-defence and not about aggression.

Tae kwon do teaches you to control your anger and control your body. It is a lot of things: it is very good for your memory, co-ordination and self-discipline. And you are acquiring a philosophy.

Later, when I left Africa for Paris, sometimes people would stalk me when I walked home in the evening. All I had to say was "lay off" or "leave me alone" and they would. It gives you a tone in your voice, an inner strength. Once, when I was in Kenya, someone tried to snatch my necklace. I set myself ready to fight and that was enough.

The other person who taught me a lot was my Mum. She was an artist, a painter and sculptor. She taught me to do things in your own way. If I had not had that message I don't think I would have done my illustrations for children's books because I can't draw in a conventional way. She taught me that to appreciate a piece of sculpture you have to move around it, to see it from different angles.

My novels are like that. They don't have a conventional narrative; they have many voices. It's a fragmented type of writing - you putit together and you get the whole picture.

Kim opened a restaurant and then moved back to Korea. We had a very friendly relationship, but somehow I feel like I was a disappointment to him. He thought I had a future in tae kwon do. But when I was 17 I decided it was not what I wanted to do. It is a commitment - not just to keep your level but to improve all the time.

We used to train three or four times a week for two hours and there were competitions during the weekend. But I was more interested in literature and being an artist. So I stopped.

The main thing I have kept from it is to face your fear. When the time came to fight it was sometimes very frightening because you had to face someone who was a higher belt and taller - there were very few girls - and so you had to just go up and do it.

You just have to think, "he might be big, he might be a higher belt, but he has a weak point". If you keep on guard and do these things you can win. That has been a tremendous lesson for me.

It came back to me recently when I was skiing. I was thinking, "I'm afraid, I could hurt myself badly, but I'll do it". You have to overcome your fears.

Veronique Tadjo, a judge for this year's Caine Prize for African literature, was talking to Harvey McGavin


1955 Born Paris.Grows up in Abidjan, Ivory Coast

1976 BA in English from the University of Abidjan, then Sorbonne in Paris

1983 Lecturer in English at the University of Abidjan. Publishes Laterite, a collection of poetry

1990 Writes and illustrates first of six children's books, The Lord of the Dance

1992 First novel, A Vol d'Oiseau, published. Now available in the translation As The Crow Flies

2000 Novel about the Rwanda genocide, L'ombre d'Imana (The Shadow of God) published. Also Talking Drums, an illustrated anthology of poetry for children (Aamp;C Black)

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