Writer in Residence

Mentors & Allies 3: Jónína Kirton

By Chelene Knight


Everything happens for a reason­­­. A person enters your life at a specific time, and specific place for a reason. When I met Jónína Kirton, her energy wrapped my body like a hug I had been so desperately in need of my whole life. Jónína has taught me the necessity of slowing down and taking care of yourself and that being a writer is a gift.

Not many people know this, but Jónína has saved my life on a few occasions. She always calls just at the right time. To me, a mentor goes above and beyond the professional back and forth about goals, writing, and publishing. A mentor for me is someone whose voice you hear at the back of your mind when things aren’t going right. There’s a gentle  push and pull that happens with no strings. There’s a mutual respect and understanding. A person enters your life at a specific time, and specific place for a reason. What is a mentor?

Read Jónína Kirton’s beautiful answers below.


What do you think makes a good mentor? 

Over the years I have been blessed with many great mentors. Not one of them was seeking power. Each of them was collaborative and even when ‘teaching’ honoured my knowingness. They asked good questions. In fact, one spiritual teacher that I spent years working with would call me daily to ask me what I had learned that day. As soon as I was done sharing he would add a few insights he had gleaned from his time on the planet. These thoughtful observations and/or well-timed questions were left with me to chew on and then the next day or a week later, after I had a chance to observe what he offered, we would discuss what I had learned. Learning was layered and experiential. It was a potent time as rarely do we get that kind of attention from someone so firmly rooted in their own knowingness and yet still humble.
I feel the best mentors help you uncover your own knowingness and offer encouragement so that we can become stronger. They may offer suggestions or insights, but in the end, they teach you to trust yourself. They do not ask you to give power over to them. They do not need your adoration. They are not looking for a following but rather they work with you. They carry the awareness that they too are still learning. But most importantly they do not weaken you and your belief in yourself by attempting to ‘save you’. No one is in need of saving. We have all had enough of white knights and heroes. What is needed now is an awareness that we are all in this together. I live by the message found in this quote from an Australian Aborigine activist Lilla Watson:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.

But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” -

 What do you do for self-care? 

I find great comfort in prayer. I have prayed daily for over thirty years now. I also listen to chanting music and use mantras to calm my overactive nervous system. Out of concern, re appropriation I did try to leave these things behind, but they have become the foundation of my life so could not do so. If ever I am stressed I close my eyes and sink into the sounds of one of my favourite chants. I have been listening to many of them for thirty years, so they have inhabited my body. They are my safe place in the world, a touchstone if you will; one that I literally carry in my heart. I can feel where they sit in my chest filling me with a sense of well-being.  That sense of peace has been there since a white light experience I had when newly sober (thirty years ago), when in deep grief I prayed like I had never prayed before and a white light filled my heart. From that day on if I wanted to meditate all I had to do was focus on my heart and I could feel that calmness and peace again. It is always waiting for me. 
I should mention that the chants often make me cry as one cannot truly have peace without first attending to their grief. I believe that so much of what we do, re keeping busy is done in an effort to avoid our pain. I am in and out of busy times as sometimes I do need the distraction. No one I know can maintain self-care, attend to all their sorrow and not need the occasional break from it all. For me it has become increasingly about balance.   

Being a mentor is a massive responsibility, what is the one thing about mentorship that scares you the most?

I would truly hate to steer someone in a wrong direction. We each have to follow our own thread and as a mentor it is our job to help those we work with to find theirs. Having said that, it is at times tempting to steer others in the direction that you think they need to go. When tempted to do this I have to remind myself of the important message in this poem. I try to stay away from too much ‘advice’ and like my best mentors did, I use questions that allow them to uncover and/or recover their ‘thread’.  We all find and lose this thread over and over. The best mentors know this, and they know how to help you find your way back to your particular thread.
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
By William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

 What advice do you have for new writers who have no clue what to expect once they enter the world of CanLit?

Hold onto your hat. You are in for the ride of your life and no one can help you. I know that sound harsh but just like your writing, no one can tell you how to negotiate the potent space that exists out there. The best that you can hope for is a. to grow thicker skin, and b. that you have really good people to walk with you. People who can validate what you are experiencing and who have your back. The CanLit world is exciting but like any group, filled with challenges. Equity and inclusion is still lacking so if you are like me, one from a marginalized community, you will find some who are embracing of diversity and others who are protectionist about the past and current literary ‘greats’. Stick close to those who get it. They are there. They are usually way more fun to be around. Remember greatness like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some will see you. Some will not.

Name one thing you want to say to Chelene that you’ve never said. This can be negative, I won’t cry. LOL 

I am often humbled by younger women like you Chelene. It took me many years to get where you are. In my twenties I got lost at the disco and in alcohol. I took the long way around to writing and political work like equity and inclusion. You are light years ahead of where I was at when I was your age. You constantly give me hope that things can improve. I adore you, but you already know that. There is little that has been left unsaid between us. We get each other… in fact we get each other before we even speak. I so appreciate this about you. I consider you to be one of my most cherished mentors and allies. Over and over you have shown me who you are, and you are a woman of incredible strength, deep compassion and a strong desire to leave this world a better place for those coming behind you. I share this desire with you and love working with you to make this a reality wherever and whenever we can.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making RoomLove Me TrueSustenanceThe Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter.

The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” In addition to her work as a writer, Knight is managing editor at Room, programming director for the Growing Room Festival, and CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials. She often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling. 

Knight is currently working on Junie, a novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, forthcoming in 2020.