Chang Liu, former emerging writer, reading his work to fellow TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Book 5 contributors. Photo courtesy Diaspora Dialogues.
Diaspora Dialogues isn’t just the name of your English literature grad school seminar—it’s also a Toronto literary organization running innovative programs with the city and the storytellers who live here.
Designed to support writing that reflects Toronto’s diverse artistic and literary culture, Diaspora Dialogues works in three major ways: through creating multidisciplinary programming for partner festivals and services like Word on the Street, Luminato, and the Toronto Public Library; through their teen writing program, Young Writers from the Edge; and through an annual mentorship program, which pairs emerging Toronto writers with established voices to improve their craft and receive advice about their work.
The mentorship program is a stand-out program for Diaspora Dialogues. Since its inception in 2005, 112 people have received mentoring in all writing disciplines: poetry, drama, creative non-fiction, and short stories.
Participating writers receive one-on-one attention from their assigned mentor for one 3,000-word piece (or five pieces of poetry). The end result is published in Diaspora Dialogues’ annual anthology, TOK: Writing the New Toronto. The quality of the mentors (previous mentors include Alissa York, Judy Fong Bates, Lawrence Hill, Michael Redhill, and David Bezmozgis), the can’t-be-beat price (free!), and the introduction to Diaspora Dialogues’ rich network of writers and those who support them makes this an unique opportunity for those lucky enough to score a coveted spot in the program. Several successful writers working in Toronto today have completed a mentorship, including author (and former Torontoist contributor) Stacey May Fowles, journalist Mayank Bhatt, and Governor General Literary Award-nominated poet Sandy Pool.
Former participant Pradeep Solanki has found writing success both within and beyond the program. Currently the co-editor of Descant magazine, Solanki was a finalist for the 2009 Writers Union of Canada Emerging Writers competition. After a life-changing heart attack in 2005, Solanki re-evaluated his life and decided to become a writer. After being impressed with Diaspora Dialogues’ roster of mentors, Solanki decided to apply and sent in a short story for consideration. Once accepted into the program, he was randomly matched with a mentor. (All the mentor/mentee partnerships are matched this way). He never met his mentor in person, but feels the advice he received was thoughtful and thorough. While technically Solanki was to get feedback just three times for a single story, his mentor was open to answering questions between edits and even agreed to look at a second story when the first one was deemed finished prior to the completion of the mentorship. “I got valuable assistance with two of my stories,” Solanki said. “His responses were thoughtful and elaborate. I think I was lucky.”
Solanki didn’t give up the name of his mentor (he only revealed he once saw him on TVO), but it’s possible his mentor was someone like Martin Mordecai. Jamaican-born Mordecai came to writing after several professional twists and turns, including stints in media, diplomacy, and public relations. After moving to Toronto in the mid-1990s, he finally found his way to writing a few years later. His first novel, Blue Mountain Trouble, was published in 2009.
Mordecai is frank about what attracted him to becoming a mentor in the program: “I did it for the money.” He admits, however, that he came around to the charitable benefits of the program, enjoyed his time as a mentor, and now sees the program as an essential part of Toronto’s cultural landscape.
Toronto is a city of many cultures and voices, and Mordecai believes the most powerful way to bring these voices together is through stories. “It is a delicate task for a country, especially one so geographically vast as Canada, to balance so many diasporas, so many potential solitudes,” he says. “Dialogue—respectful, attentive, consistent—is the only way, if we are not to be at each other’s throats.”
The organizing team behind the mentorship program couldn’t agree more. “We believe that stories are one of the best ways through which we can get to know each other,” Diaspora Dialogues artistic manager, Julia Chan, explains. “Our cultures, communities, histories may be different, but stories can be that important bridge that makes our experiences relatable and universal.”
Deadline for submission of poetry, creative non-fiction, and short stories for the Diaspora Dialogues 2011 mentorship program is May 16. For more information, visit the Diaspora Dialogues website.