An Interview with Whitney French: Room's Mentor-in-Residence

Interview by 
Nav Nagra
Profile view of Whitney French in front of green background
We are thrilled to announce Whitney French as Room’s Mentor-in-Residence!
Room’s mentor-in-residence program is a brand new program designed to pair established mentors with emerging writers. This year’s mentor, Whitney French, will mentor about eight students (free of charge to the student) over the year of the residency, including manuscript feedback and career advice and support. Publisher, Nav Nagra, will act as the coordinator of this program, and as the mentor’s assistant and mentor-in-training.
Whitney French is a storyteller and a multi-disciplinary artist. She is the editor of Black Writers Matter, a critically acclaimed anthology published by University of Regina Press in 2019. Her writing has been published in Geist Magazine, Canthius Journal and The Quill and Quire and anthologized in Black Notes: Young Black Voices (2017) and The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry (2010).

Whitney French is also the founder and co-editor and of the nation-wide publication From the Root Zine, a platform for Black, Indigenous and woman of colour artists. Whitney French is also the creator of the nomadic workshop series Writing While Black, an initiative to develop a community of Black writers embraced by communities in Toronto, Halifax, Detroit, Ottawa, Montreal, Pittsburgh and Vancouver respectively. She lives in Toronto, Canada and works as an acquisitions editor at Dundurn Press, while simultaneously writing her science fiction verse-novel. 
ROOM: What qualities are you looking for in a mentee?

WHITNEY FRENCH: I don't know. I don't like this question, because I don't think I want to envision a "dream mentee". Obviously someone with good energy, but people are simply people. It's not like I wish for a specific quality for a mentee. They don't even have to be all that good of a writer. The only thing that means much of anything is that they are passionate about writing. I've had mentees who challenge me, I like that. I've had mentees who thought they were better writers than me. I'm ok with that. I've had mentees who were distrustful or disrespectful. I don't like that. But outside of those boundaries, I'm open. I don't have to like my mentee's writing. I just have to like them as a human, and trust in their passion. And know they'll do the work. 

ROOM: What kind of writing are you excited by?


WF: I'm excited about writing that isn't afraid to play with language. Writing that digs deep at the bone, that is risky and daring and balances humour and sorrow. Writing that takes something familiar and makes it miraculous. Writing that doesn't take itself too, too serious and that speaks to multiple truths. Writing that's rooted in place and culture and people. Writing that makes me rethink what the written word can do. Oh any anything speculative doesn't hurt either.


ROOM: How do you hope to approach mentoring emerging writers through this program?

WF: That's a great question, especially because I'm an emerging writer! My approach is to center writers' goals and desires. I wish to place them in a position of agency, choice and self-direction. I don't know what they'll need, they have to tell me. And I have to be humble enough to say when I can or can't-yet-but-maybe-later help them. Instead of schedules and deadlines, I think of rhythms and patterns. Formalized mentorships have these structures that often create a co-dependency between mentor and mentee and that's the last thing I want. God no! My approach is to re-remind the writer of their own skills, ability, capacity and potential instead of relying on me or any other source to strengthen their craft. And of course, I make mentees read a lot. I flush them with resources, I think about their stories while I walk down the ravine near my house and juggle ideas in between my fingers. I hope that something that I bump into in life helps them get close to the story they wish to tell. 

ROOM: What do you hope to accomplish by the end of your time with a mentee?
WF: The trouble-maker in mean wants to subvert all these questions. This is so hard. What I mean by that is, some of the most incredible mentors I have had, our mentorship process (with the exception of one) never "ended" if that makes sense. It evolves. So even if it's not formalized or time-specific, and our relationships look different than before. The mentorship continues on; by sending each other well wishes, reading each others work, visiting while we're in town, mailing books that we appreciate and offering advice via email or phone. In a way, I hope my mentee(s) can transform their understanding and relationship with the written word by the end of the program. I hope we can grow beyond the parameters of this program by the end of the program. A good mentor is one that allows the mentee to surpass them, I believe. I hope that for them too.
ROOM: What genre/s will you be working within throughout your tenure?
WF: I am really excited about story in all the forms it manifests. Since I work with multiple genres, I can not really say that I'll be choosing one over another. The love that I have for poetry is very different than the love I have for fiction which is wildly different than the way I adore dramatic writing and even more distinct in the way I adore creative non-fiction. So I'll be messing with all genres during this mentorship, and I'm happy to see what stories arise from each form.


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