Poets and Writers
The Power of the PERIPLUS Collective
When Ferguson Williams, a fiction writer from Socastee, South Carolina, received an e-mail informing her she had been accepted to PERIPLUS, a new mentorship collective serving BIPOC writers across the United States, she could hardly believe it. “I kept reading it in my head like an NBA announcer would, complete with the microphone echo and the cheering crowd,” she says. Williams is one of fifty-five PERIPLUS fellows chosen for the collective’s inaugural class of mentees from more than 1,400 applicants. Through the collective, each fellow has been paired with an established writer working in the literary arts or in journalism for a year of mentorship. While some of the collective’s mentors also teach professionally, all mentors volunteer their time to demystify and democratize the world of writing and publishing for BIPOC writers.
“It started small,” says Libby Flores, currently the director of audience engagement and digital projects at BOMB magazine and one of the inaugural mentors in PERIPLUS. “Writer Vauhini Vara e-mailed other writers—R. O. Kwon, Esmé Weijun Wang, and Rachel Khong. She asked if there was a one-year mentorship project for BIPOC writers where emerging writers were paired with more established authors in the field.” The answer was no. And so more e-mails circulated. “It became a collective with many members really quickly,” says Vara. Soon they decided on a mission for the collective—to provide fellows of all ages with mentoring and guidance so that they can achieve their professional and artistic goals as writers—and a vision: to make the
publishing industry more welcoming and accessible to BIPOC writers, who have been historically excluded from it. Vara announced the call for applications on Twitter. “At the end of our inaugural year,” Flores says, “we hope that writers, who felt isolated and not seen, feel fostered going into 2022—not just with what they have accomplished on the page, but also in the esteem they have as BIPOC writers in the world.”
While there may be no lack of aspiring authors who are hungry for advice, the writing and publishing world often needs more people willing to share it, or a structure through which they can offer that expertise. As fellow Jonny Teklit, who will be mentored by poet Tiana Clark, author of I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), says, “I come to this fellowship an eager student.” He, along with the other fellows, will converse with their mentors for a half hour every other month about topics such as daily writing routines, craft concerns, paths to publication, graduate school, and finances. A statement from the collective says that most mentors “have also committed to reading and giving feedback on mentees’ work.”
“We’re a collective of writers who want to, and are able to, make ourselves available. We like the idea of a low-key, informal, mutual-aid-style project that exists outside of institutions,” says Flores. Access, mutual support, and transparency are among the collective’s core values. As such, some mentors are also organizing events and resources for all mentees. Nicole Chung, author of All You Can Ever Know (Catapult, 2018), for instance, is planning a panel for later this year during which book editors will share advice with fellows.
While the collective aims to serve BIPOC writers, not all the mentors identify this way. Flores says that BIPOC writers are often the ones to carry the emotional labor of advocating for better representation. “It felt powerful to include white writers who we knew to be allies,” she says. As mentor Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir (Flatiron Books, 2017), says, “The system is set up with gatekeepers—so let’s help pry open those gates. As a queer, and now out as trans, person, the idea that I could help connect other queer writers with resources was profoundly important to me. Publishing is still predominantly white, predominantly cis, and predominantly heterosexual. Let’s change that.”
Fellow Amaris Castillo’s goals include pushing past insecurities and writing bravely. She wants to produce short stories she is proud of and to make progress on the novel of her dreams. Castillo, who will be working with Natalia Sylvester—whose most recent novel, Running, was published last year by Clarion Books—is grateful for mentors so consciously lending their support to rising BIPOC writers. “It’s generous of the mentors to give of their time and share lessons learned,” says Castillo, “especially those embedded in a publishing industry where there is still so much work to be done when it comes to diversity.”
The deadline for the 2021 program has passed, but PERIPLUS will accept applications for its 2022 cohort in late 2021. Those looking for more information can e-mail email@example.com.
The collective hopes to make lasting change in the industry for BIPOC writers, as its name evokes: The word periplus means to voyage, to circumnavigate. It also refers to a log that captains used to chart their way across harrowing waters in order to aid future sailors’ navigation. In many ways, Flores says, that is the essence of mentorship: “It is our way of showing new writers the record of our voyages in the hopes that they divine some meaning for their own journeys.”
Lara Ehrlich, author of the short story collection Animal Wife (Red Hen Press, 2020), has a deep narrative investment in the ways the world denies women power and agency. In October 2020 that commitment took a new shape with the first episode of her podcast, Writer Mother
Monster, a much-needed balm for those of us balancing mothering and writing in the midst of a global pandemic. Aimed at dismantling the myth that women can “have it all,” her podcast is a series of interviews with mother-writers working in all genres, at varied points in their careers, who candidly discuss the joys and complications of that dual identity. Ehrlich, herself a mother-writer—her daughter turns five this year—spoke about what she has gleaned from these exchanges and how they’ve influenced her own approach.
What are the dangers inherent in telling writer-mothers “you can have it all”? How does your podcast deconstruct that myth?
The superwoman myth is so damaging. Like many women I grew up believing: “I’m a liberated woman; I can have a career and a family and pursue my passion.” When I became a mother I realized that’s impossible. The cost of day care is prohibitive, women are still paid less than our male counterparts, and we carry the mental load at home. The more we think we should be doing, the more inadequate we feel because we can’t possibly do it all. Then we’re bombarded with the message that we’re bad mothers, bad employees, and bad wives. We’re monsters. I try to deconstruct that myth by breaking down, reexamining, and embracing qualities that in women have long been considered monstrous, like selfishness, desire, ambition, and ferocity. Each guest has embraced the monstrous in different and equally illuminating ways, and we support one another in confronting the superwoman ideal of doing everything perfectly all the time.
Writer Mother Monster powerfully refuses to address writing and mothering as mutually exclusive jobs. How do you center conversations about motherhood and writing without diminishing the importance of either identity?
The central message of Writer Mother Monster is just that: We can be mothers and writers, and both roles are vital to our selfhood. Nearly all the authors I’ve spoken to have said they feel guilt and shame when prioritizing their craft, when closing the door and asking—or demanding!—time and space for their creative pursuits. Everyone’s situation is different, and closing the door is not possible for all women, but the metaphor of the closed door holds so much power, in whatever form it takes—even if it’s claiming a corner of the dining room table to write for ten minutes a day. Many Writer Mother Monster authors have talked about the importance of modeling for our children that we are whole people with lives independent of their wants and needs. And our writing may even offer our children insight into their own humanity, as poet Tzynya Pinchback said: “It’s overwhelming to think that my daughter is going to see me splayed out, writing about my flawed decisions, but it’s great for her to understand that there’s no perfect way to be a mom or a woman or a human.”
Many of the writers you’ve interviewed say that motherhood has reshaped their approach to writing women and women’s stories. Has motherhood changed your understanding of narrative power?
Motherhood has deepened my women characters and complicated my approach to narrative structure. This shift coincided with the birth of my daughter, in the middle of writing the stories that would go on to become Animal Wife. I began exploring women who claim more than one role in the world and experimenting with newto-me narrative styles like flash fiction and fragmentation. Motherhood has revealed to me at once the power of my own stories and the limitations inherent in communicating the inexpressible. And isn’t that what it means to be a writer?