In the fall of 2020, I received an email with the subject line mentorship program for BIPOC writers. Was I interested in regularly meeting with a promising early-career writer of color over the course of a year to talk about writing and publishing and answer any questions they might have? It sounded like fun to me, and I’ve been part of Periplus ever since. In addition to monthly one-on-one mentor-fellow conversations, the group offers informational panels, craft talks, occasional in-person meetups and events, and ongoing support and resource-sharing. It’s all possible, says Vauhini Vara, secretary of Periplus, because it functions as a true collective: “There’s this nonhierarchical sense of mutual support and upliftment, with everybody putting energy into it and making it what it is.”

This is not me just plugging our mentorship program (though it is also that); my experience over the past few years has influenced the way I think about mentoring and the difference it can make in one’s writing career. I am happy to offer professional advice or just an outside perspective when asked; I enjoy talking with other writers and trying to figure out how to support their specific creative goals. But I’ve also come to see mentorship as a means of demystifying the publishing process, building community, and expanding access to literary spaces.

In addition to her work with Periplus, Vara is a book mentor with the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Book Project and a visiting assistant professor of English at Colorado State University. She has also been a contributing editor to The Atlantic and a reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine; published an acclaimed novel, The Immortal King Rao, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and completed a story collection, This Is Salvaged, which will be published on September 26. Last month, she spoke with me about how she has been mentored in her own career, qualities she believes a good mentor should have, and what she tells others who want to advise and support those emerging in their fields. “I can honestly say that it hasn’t been difficult for us, as writers, to create this program,” she says. “You don’t need money. We don’t have a nonprofit or any formal status. We’re literally just a bunch of people. If you know others in your field who want to join you in mentorship, just email them and start—it can be as simple as that.”

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Nicole Chung: I wanted to start by asking you what you see as most valuable about mentorship, and how it became such a focus for you in your career.

Vauhini Vara: I’ve had, in some ways, a charmed path as a journalist and writer. It’s worth acknowledging that, because it’s given me clues about what could be helpful to others.

I was in a program for high-school journalists of color offered by The Seattle Times; they put us up in a college dorm and all these reporters came and talked with us about journalism. Through that, I got a job my senior year of high school as the assistant to Linda Parrish, who ran The Seattle Times’ youth publication. In college, again, through an internship program that took a special interest in journalists of color, then called the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, I got my first newspaper internship at The Denver Post. All of the early mentors I had were women of color: Linda Parrish was Asian American. At The Denver Post, the editor I worked most closely with, Rowena Alegria, was a woman of color. My first journalism job was at The Wall Street Journal, and one of my first editors was Pui-Wing Tam, a woman of color. I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for graduate school, run by Lan Samantha Chang, a woman of color.

I had all these incredible models and people there to hold my hand as I pursued my career as a journalist and writer. I was surrounded by accomplished writers of color. But as I went out into the world and started working in these spaces that were majority white, other writers of color would say, “That’s so far from my experience.” My interest in mentorship came from the fact that it obviously played an instrumental role in my being able to get to where I was. [I thought:] How can this be disseminated more broadly?

Chung: I’m not envious, just really glad that you had that experience. I’ve had some great teachers and there are many writers I look up to, but I think I’ve only had one person I considered a mentor who was also an Asian American woman. Good, committed mentorship can be really hard to find. Why do you think that is?

Vara: I don’t know that there are strong incentives in place to encourage mentorship, given that many of us work in these spaces that are bound up with capitalism, and we have bosses or other people in positions of power who are judging us on how well we’re doing our job. That judgment often doesn’t take into account the extent to which we are supporting people who are emerging in our field.

Chung: It’s true—mentorship is not work that is always recognized, valued, or compensated.

Vara: I thought it would be a more useful thing to have in the world than not, if some of us could get together and provide guidance to others like us who are emerging. The beautiful thing is that once that engine got started, everybody involved came together to make it what it is. That was true of the mentors, which is what I was hoping for, but I think it’s been even more true of the people we’ve chosen to mentor. As you know, the fellows have created this strong sense of community.

Chung: Sometimes you think you’re making great progress in your writing, and sometimes you feel like you’re just never going to get it together, right? And I think what makes it possible, what often sustains you, is this sense of community you’re talking about, knowing that you’re not in it alone. I can think of many people—and you were one—whom I had the opportunity to work with and learn from. Early-career writers often want to talk about process, yes, but they also want to know about pitching and publishing and how to get their work out there. They’re looking for more transparency around the business side of the industry. Mentorship can be a way to talk about these things openly.

Vara: As you just pointed out, we’re in a field that’s really relationship-based. There can be a dark side to that relationship-based nature of the field, because traditionally those relationships have often been among a closed group of people and haven’t included that many people from marginalized backgrounds. In Periplus, we have this network of people who can share information and access to all of these spaces that, in the past, felt like closed loops that people within marginalized circles couldn’t access.

Chung: Let’s talk a little about what you see as qualities of great mentorship. Advice, real talk about the industry—what else seems essential to you?

Vara: Generosity in sharing access is at the top of the list. I think there can be a perception that access to relationships is this precious thing that should be carefully guarded, but at least in my experience, it costs me nothing to make an introduction to somebody or share an email address. Usually I’ll ask if it’s okay to share the contact information first. I’ve never made an introduction where there have been negative consequences for me if it doesn’t work out.

I would say, also, a mentorship relationship shouldn’t feel like a peer relationship, but it should acknowledge the mentee for their talent and ambition and all they have to offer as well, and create space for them to believe that they belong in this field. We’re mentoring writers who are earlier in their careers than we are—that’s not a value judgment that suggests they are less equipped than we are. They’re just earlier in their careers.

Chung: Periplus is now open to applications for 2024. What should potential applicants know?

Vara: We are looking for promising writers who could benefit from mentorship. We tend to get a fair number of applications from people who have previously been in community with other writers, who have had a certain level of access already to writing community and resources—for example, they’ve attended MFA programs in creative writing, or gone to conferences like Bread Loaf, or attended a Tin House workshop—and we find a lot of value in mentoring people who’ve already invested in their writing careers in that way.

At the same time, we are really excited about mentoring writers who have promise and who have maybe privately invested in their writing by sharing work with friends or having a daily writing practice, but haven’t yet had access to writing resources or community. All we’re looking for is the promise and the commitment to their work, which we can gauge in ways other than whether they have an MFA.

Chung: I really appreciate that, as someone who wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t joined a tiny writing group years ago. I think there are many writers in similar circumstances—they’re invested and committed, but they might not yet have the kind of support or encouragement they want.

You’re about to publish a short-story collection, This Is Salvaged. How long have you been working on it? How did it come together?

Vara: I started writing the stories in this collection in graduate school. Five of the 10 stories were started between 13 and 15 years ago. Some were published, but I continued to work on all of them. I think I should admit to myself that I really love working on projects for a long time, because it was the same with my novel—it takes me a decade to understand what something is supposed to be. When I’ve finished a draft and know it’s not done but don’t know what’s wrong with it, I often wish for a reader kind of like me, but with more insight. What’s been really cool about this revision process over the last two or three years is that I literally am that person for the version of me that began these stories between 2008 and 2010.

Chung: From editing to teaching to mentorship, much of your professional creative life focuses or relies on collaboration. How do you approach doing this kind of work, creative work, alongside others?

Vara: I think so much of our lives are embedded in capitalism, and something that has really given me life is finding ways to escape that. In my writing practice, it might be something as simple as writing in notebooks at night so it reminds me of writing in my diary as a kid, and not work that I schedule out and do on my computer.

It has felt important to detach mentorship from capitalism as well. With Periplus, no money ever crosses hands; everybody involved is there out of interest, to be part of this community. We have all these resources that we’ve been able to offer to both fellows and mentors; we have conversations that elsewhere you might have to pay to access. It gives me a lot of joy and brings me closer to my own relationship to writing to see community be what community has always been, which is real people having relationships outside these structures that oppress us.