When artist and writer Vivek Shraya started her own mentorship and publishing program in 2017, she initially did it with younger writers in mind.
“I’d always centred the idea … around wanting to support youth, around supporting BIPOC youth,” she says in an interview ahead of the launch of the third VS. Books mentoring program.
But this time, things are different. While the first two rounds focused on young writers, the first year writing short stories, the second one writing poetry, this time she’s aiming at BIPOC writers over 50 writing a novel or memoir.
Right out of the gate, she and the writer she selected for the first mentorship in 2017, Téa Mutonji, was extremely successful. Mutonji’s book of short stories “Shut Up You’re Pretty,” was nominated for the 2019 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. The winner of the second round, launched in 2018, was Cicely Belle Blain, whose book of poetry will be out in fall 2020.
Shraya says that when she and Mutonji were doing a promotional tour together, she was stopped in her tracks by an older woman in the crowd at the FOLD festival in Brampton asking about mentorship. The woman wondered about the age limit.
“I sort of made a respectful joke — ‘What could I possibly teach you?’ — and she looked me straight in the eye and said ‘The truth is there’s many of us who are here because we want to learn from you.’ ”
It was the beginning of a rethink for Shraya. Many programs, she notes, are geared at youth meaning so there’s often a cutoff age, even if it can go as high as age 40. But if you get your start when you’re a little older, you’re often out of luck.
“I started to really embrace my queerness when I was 27, 28,” Shraya says. Even at that still young age, she says, “a lot of the resources for LGBTQ youth I found I couldn’t access because I was too old.”
The definition of an emerging writer has different definitions depending on who you talk to.
Shraya quotes a tweet from Indigenous writer Tracey Lindberg that stated “Please remember: ‘emerging writers’ includes old birds who stopped fearing and started writing.”
While there’s clearly a need to encourage and mentor younger writers, Shraya says her experience with the older woman made her realize: here was a group we don’t often think about. Why not? “Largely because of ageism and because of certain expectations or assumptions we make around class that people at a certain age are stable, have the resources, have the skills — and I don’t think that’s, in fact, true.”
This has created a gap in storytelling. Younger BIPOC writers in recent years have been receiving more attention from publishers and the media, and there is a momentum around and increased visibility of diverse authors. However, Shraya says, there are plenty of older writers who paved the way but who haven’t received the same kind of attention or assistance.
“I’ve seen so much change in the past ten years in the way that diverse stories and diverse writers have been taken up,” Shraya says. “I look at older writers who are 50 and above and they haven’t been able to reap those quote-unquote benefits.”
Shraya also sees this as a chance to teach a new writer some of the things she’s learned herself — about writing grant applications, or giving a reading, for example — but also for her to learn from them. “I’ve been lucky to have informal mentoring throughout my career but I’ve never had a close, formal mentorship, so I’m curious about what it means to be in, hopefully, a reciprocal mentorship relationship with an older artist of colour.”
She says informal mentors have led the way for her, including the poet Amber Dawn — without whom “I wouldn’t have written my book of poetry” — and Farzana Doctor, “who I admire a lot.”
Potential mentees will have to submit a synopsis of their book, a bio, and a one-pager about what they are looking for from their relationship — and a full manuscript draft of around 50,000 to 60,000 words. If you don’t have a manuscript ready yet, don’t fret — the call for applications was released Monday Jan. 6, 2020 and closes on Jan. 4, 2021.
“Sometimes in choosing a manuscript it’s less about ‘this is the best manuscript’ and more about ‘this is a manuscript I can see myself supporting,’ ” Shraya says. “I think that’s common for publishers. Publishers often turn down books not necessarily because they don’t like the book but because they don’t know how to support it or take it to the next level.”
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This year, she’s out with a new novel with ECW Press titled “The Subtweet” — “it’s about online culture but also female friendship, visibility, jealousy, it’s very plot-driven which is something I haven’t really done before so we’re excited about that” — and it’s the 10th anniversary of her first book, “God Loves Hair,” which was initially self-published. And so its particularly meaningful, marking the beginning of her own foray into publishing. But even as she’s celebrating her own increased success, she doesn’t see her writing and career as something she does alone.
“I feel such a such a responsibility to be able take a step forward but to bring marginalized people along with me.”