Mentorship: On Meeting the Person Behind the Lines

Panel: Rachel Giese, Sarah Henstra & Vivek Shraya

(L to R) Rinaldo Walcott, Vivek Shraya, Sarah Henstra and Rachel Giese at TIFA 2018

At #FestofAuthors18, Delegate Téa Mutonji had the opportunity to witness (for the very first time) two of her mentors perform their work on stage: poet Daniel Scott Tysdal, a former professor of Téa’s; and Vivek Shraya, a major figure in Téa’s writing career since she was signed to VS. Books, an imprint of Arsenal Pulp Press founded by Shraya herself.

By Téa Mutonji

Being mentored is like being mothered, but the commitment goes both ways. You willingly sign up to take directives from a person, and in turn, you trust that your work is their work, and anything beyond that outline is contingent.

The first time I read a piece by Daniel Scott Tysdal, I skipped his lecture for two weeks. I really liked it. But I had made this agreement with myself not to read any work from my professors until I had finished their class. Someone had tweeted the link and etc. It was different with Vivek. I was familiar with her work before I knew who she was. I had read Even This Page is White and God Loves Hair before the first time we met for coffee. I couldn’t look her in the eyes. I just looked her straight in the forehead.

Mentors, professors and the people who guide you through your work spend so much time pulling the strings together and apart. You might think of them as your own personal heroes. My experience working with Daniel and Vivek has been similar in that I can go a few months forgetting that they’re Daniel and Vivek. Whenever I go to an event and someone says, “You’re a student of Daniel!” I say yes, as in, I am a person that has attended his class, yes. Likewise, when people ask about what it’s like working with Vivek, I’m thinking, “I panic, and she calms me down,” so casually, people ask more questions. I don’t even hear the intrigue in their voices until they specify that it’s there.

Maybe I do this subconsciously as a form of boundary control; maybe both Vivek and Daniel are just born humble.

I saw Daniel read for the first time at this year’s Best Canadian Poetry event at the Toronto International Festival of Authors. Daniel introduced his poem as the result of mental illness, community and ongoing support. The timeline he offered matched that of our working relationship. I sat in the audience weeping, remembering the day in question, remembering Daniel as my mismatched-socks-wearing professor. Up until that point, our working relationship had really been one-sided. I emailed at 4am asking for an extension, or clarity on this or that point. I sought out advice on career moves and pursuit. He’d give suggestions on journals I should look into, etc. But in that moment, Daniel was no longer part of an institution. He was no longer contingent to the classroom. He was now Daniel the poet. He was the person up at 4am writing the line, “kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself.”

I recognized the line, and I knew the poem very well. It had haunted me for weeks, and even after I realized Daniel had written the poem, it still lingered.

This experience was carried out while watching Vivek. Though I was familiar with her politics, her work, her music, I didn’t expect a prose reading to begin with the song. The moment was so tangible, everybody in the room felt it too. Vivek asked, “Are you hitting on me? Are you hitting on me? Are you going to hit me?” I sat looking back at all the times in my life that line meant something. I looked back at all the ways in which that line was spilled all over my own work. Vivek writes nonfiction and is quite candid about her experiences, but hearing it live like that felt like we were trading places. In that moment, I felt like the mentor; I was the one diving into her work, finding ways in which it could connect to my own life, merging it as though it was my own lived experiences.

I left both events feeling overwhelmed and slightly embarrassed. These are the people who influenced my writing and I didn’t even know it. More than just a professor and so much more than just an editor. These are people who, like me, rely on other people to write themselves outside of themselves. Now, the next time somebody asks me what it’s like working with Vivek, I’ll get to say, “It’s working with someone who is like you, both in writing and in life, and trusting them full-heartedly, but, not because of it.”

There is this ease, this tranquility working with both Vivek and Daniel that I still cannot explain. But seeing them on stage has taught me more about myself than I expected it to. I cried during Daniel’s reading. I shivered during Vivek’s. I walked home feeling heavy after both. Like I had just lived through something catastrophic. Or simply, something wonderful. Like we were all connected somehow. I walked home thinking of Vivek’s passion for community. I walked home thinking of another line from Daniel, “cupped hands passing water into cupped hands passing this water, without breaks, into another cupped pair.” That’s what happens at the end of a mentorship: you take the water, you turn around and pour it where it’s needed.

You can find Téa at the Spring Debut: Fragmented Narratives panel on May 1. For more details and to purchase tickets, click here.