No More Daddy: On Queer Mentorship

Initially published as a double essay on American Theatre Magazine, the text was originally followed by Rad Pereira’s writing, with both of us trying to respond to the editorial prompts around queer mentorship. If Rad delved more into their personal experience as a queer mentor, I focus on the abstract yet material structure of mentorship that is inherently unavailable to queer youth, as well as folks at the margins in general.

The idea that an artist should be able to see themselves, at least partly, in their mentor has always seemed alien in my life. It never occurred to me that I should seek out and learn from an older figure who, like me, migrated from Vietnam to become an experimental choreographer and who also happens to be gay/queer/non-binary and make sexually explicit works about anti-colonial revolutions and intergenerational war trauma. Such a mentor, I assume, does not exist.

Being mentored by someone sharing my marginalized identity categories would certainly help sooth the abstract yet visceral feelings of loneliness and isolation of being a racial and sexual minority in the cutthroat economy of theatre. Where, though, could I access this mentor as a young person? Academic institutions, summer programs, unpaid apprenticeships, internships, or “merit-based’ residencies and fellowships for “emerging” artists require barriers of entry that are inherently inaccessible to low-income, trans and gender nonconforming (TGNC), and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) youth. From this perspective, strategic institutional efforts do have the reparative capacity to foster a communal space of solidarity and intergenerational exchange between folks at the margin. However, this kind of mentorship, developed through diversity initiatives and institutional matchmaking, has its limits.

These limits rest on the assumption of what a mentor is—someone who shares our histories and empathizes with our artistic concerns, thus having the capacity to hold our hands and walk us through the creative process, as well as up the economic ladder. This individualistic thinking places extreme weight on finding the right mentor. The solution seemingly becomes: We just need to devise better matchmaking systems.

This paternalistic approach to mentorship is perhaps more suited to ensuring the economic success of young artists than it is to the nurturing of the creative process itself. In fact, the overbearing grip of the individual mentor has to be loosened and eventually broken away if we want to enrich our imagination and grow our artistic voices. In his memoir The Motion of Light In Water, sci-fi author Samuel R. Delany shies away from the paternal figure and welcomes the more speculative currents when he reflects on the influences in his writings.

Writers who influence us […] are not usually the ones we read thoroughly and confront with our complete attention, but rather the ill- and partially read writers we start on, often in troubled awe, only to close the book after pages or chapters, when our imagination works up beyond the point where we can continue to submit our fancies to theirs.

To know someone’s work too well, too thoroughly is to already rationalize and confine it within our intellectual faculties, leaving no room for us to daydream and mythicize about possibilities of the unknown, the not-yet-known. Similarly, a mentor who has a firm grasp of our work, and vice versa, whose work we identify and align too closely with, can only restrict our imagination in the mentor’s attempt to provide us guidance. The question, then, is not how can we devise better matchmaking systems to pair us with suitable mentors, but how can the mentors in our lives approximate the “ill- and partially read writers”? What are the implications, both for mentor and mentee, of having an ill- and partially conceived relationship that is not built upon a mutual and comprehensive understanding of each other? 

In this more expansive sense, our mentors are the playwright whose name constantly slips out of our memory, the director whose work we never get to experience in person, the performer we are obsessed with but too intimidated to speak to, the poet we write to but from whom we never receive a response, the choreographer we stumble upon in a book passage without much else in the archive.

“BABYLIFT,” choreographed by Anh Vo at New York Live Arts in 2019. (Photo by Maria Baranova)

Certainly, I do have mentors in a more institutional sense (who all happen to be white women). They have taught me a whole lot and helped me tremendously in navigating this economy. But when it comes to the engine behind my artistic process, I always return to the more speculative figures in my life: author Sam Delany, theorist José Esteban Muñoz, dancer Fred Herko, filmmaker Trinh T. Minh Ha, pornographer Annie Sprinkle, philosopher Paul Preciado—all of whom I’ve never met. Nor do I have the desire to meet them, just in case it might ruin our “relationships.” In the studio, I would imagine talking with them and they would subsequently guide me through whatever creative hurdles I’m struggling with. 

It might sound dreamy and poetic to be craving these fan-fiction-like relationships. Nevertheless, this enigmatic model of social and historical relations is fundamental to queer survival, to the extent that queerness is characterized by its exclusion and erasure from the cultural canon and the collective memory. Most spectacularly, queerness is marked by the loss of a generation to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s. This historical loss we inherit renders impossible our access to the paternal mentor figure, leaving us little choice but to imagine alternative ways of connecting to the previous generations.

“To accept loss is to accept queerness,” writes queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz. Accepting loss is not only coming to terms with the amount of mourning we queers have borne, but also embracing a speculative relationship to history that is necessitated by loss. In other words, we did not lose our history. Loss lives on and materializes in fleeting traces, ephemeral gestures, and incidental encounters—always incomplete and indeterminate against the straightening imperative of heterosexuality. The lack of queer mentors, hence, exceeds the condition of absence. This lack carves out a space for us to relate to previous generations with an imaginative desire beyond rational knowing. 

Decades after the AIDS crisis, we are getting to a point where the vacuum of queer mentorship for TGNC youth is gradually becoming filled. However, we cannot forget the sensibility developed around queer loss. The paternal mentor figure has to become superfluous within our destabilized approach to mentorship. This figure dissipates into the larger ecology, in which everyone and everything supports and influences one another in a more unpredictable manner. A good mentor lets go of their desire to mentor and to guide. They simply have to be there, giving way to the larger socio-historical currents passing through their mentee’s life.

This mode of being might feel too conceptual, too utopian, and hardly an actionable blueprint for the future. But I am not talking about the future. The space of ambiguity is where many of us queers have been and are still living—our abstract and almost illegible form of social relations allows us to be fugitive and resilient in face of hetero-patriarchal violence. My writing does not aim to find a solution to the institutional problem of mentorship for TGNC youth; rather, I am simply tending to our history of queer survival.

Anh Vo (they/he) is a Vietnamese choreographer, dancer, theorist, and activist. Their writings focus on experimental practices and socioeconomic relations in contemporary dance and pornography.

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