Literary Activism

Why Mentorship Is So Important For Writers From Underrepresented Communities

Alison Doherty

Senior Contributor

Alison Doherty is a writing teacher and part time assistant professor living in Brooklyn, New York. She has an MFA from The New School in writing for children and teenagers. She loves writing about books on the Internet, listening to audiobooks on the subway, and reading anything with a twisty plot or a happily ever after.

We’ve been talking on Book Riot for a long time about the need for more diverse books and writers. There has been a lot of improvement in the last decade. But everyone paying attention know there is still a long way to go on this issue. For example, the latest Diversity in Children’s Books Report (2018) still shows a higher percentage of children’s books featuring animal characters than characters of color. And the 2018 Ripped Bodice’s State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report states that less than 8% of romance novels are written by authors of color.

And these are just the genres where people are paying attention. They also don’t reflect the bleak statistics for books by LGBTQ+ authors, authors with disabilities, Native authors, authors from religious minorities, and other diverse identities that are underrepresented in publishing and on bookstore shelves.

Token books and authors aren’t enough. Readers deserve to see the depth of their own experiences and identities represented on the page. We all do better (and read better!) when more voices, experiences, and identities appear in our media. And it’s important for a multifaceted approach to help course correct over a century of white dominance in American publishing.

Diverse author mentoring is one vital way to help encourage and support writers from diverse backgrounds on their pathway to becoming published. And many organizations are putting this idea into action by creating mentorship programs for aspiring authors from underrepresented communities.

Mentorship is a key strategy among the variety of services medina wanted to create through inQluded, an online platform for young queer, trans, and intersex black and Indigenous writers of color (QTIBIPOC). On the importance of mentorship, medina said: “When mentees are paired with a mentor with insider knowledge, there is room for exponential growth as a writer and as a citizen of the literary world. Mentors encourage mentees. They are cheerleaders, and push mentees to challenge themselves! Mentors offer advice and editorial feedback, they advise on where to submit their work, guide their mentee and listen compassionately to what their needs are. Mentorships are wonderful because it’s a customized experience. And anyone in education, really knows, that one size does not fit all. We all learn differently and all have our own needs.”

As inQluded begins their first mentor/mentee round this year, pairing established authors with aspiring QTIBIPOC writers ages 13 to 30, medina also stressed the importance of mentors sharing a similar identity. They explained: “While we as QTBIPOC people don’t want to be defined by our identities, it’s important to have community. If mentees are paired with mentors from the same community, it’s emotionally easier, it’s not as emotionally taxing, because the mentee won’t have to act as an educator. There will be an innate platform of understanding…Mentorships like this create safety, understanding, community, education and representation.”

Carolina Ortiz and Sophia Jimenez, the Mentorship Directors from Latinx in Publishing, agree with the importance of diverse author mentoring and, in particular, the shared experiences of mentors and mentees. They stated: “When you look around your local bookstore or library, Latinx books only make a fraction of what is being published today. It is our goal to bridge the gap and help new rising Latinx voices find the support they need within their own community by connecting them with published Latinx authors, who will be the best equipped people to understand their stories and perspectives.” Latinx in Publishing’s mentorship program is also in its inaugural year and accepts applications from Latinx writers 18 years and older in the fall.

We Need Diverse Books has been offering mentoring opportunities for diverse aspiring writers and illustrators with a completed project for five years. One of many success stories from this program is author Angeline Boulley, who participated in the 2019 mentorship program and sold her debut YA novel The Fire Keeper’s Daughter last year in a rumored seven figure deal. In a blog post, Boulley discussed the importance of the mentoring program and her mentor, Francisco X. Stork. She wrote: “His feedback on the manuscript was so helpful. Francisco picked up on things my beta readers hadn’t. I was eager to strengthen my manuscript with his guidance…He has made a difference in my life and my writing career through his kindness, talent, and insight.”

This is just one of the aspiring writers helped through WNDB’s mentorship program. Since 2015, when the mentoring program started, they’ve offered more than fifty official mentorships. Mentee applications and opportunities usually go live on their website in October.

Mentoring can be helpful and important for all writers. But it’s essential that these opportunities exist for writers who’ve been excluded from traditional publishing opportunities in the past. Organizations like inQluded, Latinx in Publishing, and We Need Diverse Books provide important support for writers from underrepresented backgrounds. And hopefully diverse author mentoring opportunities like this will continue to bring fantastic books from diverse authors into the hands of readers.