In celebration of our newest publication, Girls Write Now On the Art of the Craft: A Guidebook to Collaborative Storytelling, we’re featuring conversations from the book on mentorship, Girls Write Now history, and the power of storytelling to traverse generations.
RACHEL YOUNG: It’s incredible to tell those stories and I hope that through being able to revisit Mona’s piece, we can also extend her voice to future generations. I’m sure that they will be just as inspired as I was when I first heard it.
I wanted to start the interview by asking you a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and what do you do for a living now?
ANDREA JUNCOS: I’m originally from a suburb of Philly called Westchester, but I moved to New York in 2001 after college. I lived there for twelve years, working in education, nonprofits, and workforce development. I had different jobs, including with the New York City Department of Education. I’ve always had this dual love for education and writing. In my first or second year in New York, I joined Girls Write Now. I was really seeking a community of writers and an opportunity to build my writing career, as well as trying to figure out if I wanted to be a teacher. It was cool to be able to teach some writing workshops for Girls Write Now.
Fast forward, I’ve had a lot of different career stops in education where I’ve used writing a lot. I worked at New York Law School as a Director of Communication and did some writing and editing in a marketing and communications role. But after a while, I felt ready to be closer to what I was writing about. I wanted to be part of the action a bit more.
I moved to Boston almost a decade ago to go to graduate school in Education Policy and Management. I’ve spent my career at non-profits, but I’ve been at the same non-profit for about eight years now. It’s called Jobs For the Future, and it’s a national organization focused on how we support people in economic advancement through both education and workforce development. I now do research and policy work that’s focused on racial equity. It’s awesome.
RY: That’s super incredible because it relates to Girls Write Now in terms of advancing people with opportunities. Girls Write Now does a lot of work in terms of ensuring college is a supported process for young people, and that has been a really great resource for me, and I’m sure a lot of other young writers, too. I’m wondering— how did you become a Girls Write Now mentor and what years were you a mentor?
AJ: I always laugh that my twenty-three-year-old self would probably not be accepted now into the program as a mentor. But I joined in 2002 and I was a mentor for seven years. When I joined Girls Write Now, it was not yet a non-profit. It was all-volunteers. We didn’t have a space. I remember meeting Maya, the Founder and Executive Director, in a coffee shop in Union Square for the first time. I brought my resume and writing samples, and she always used to tease me that I brought a lot of formality to the interview. But I didn’t know what to expect. I certainly wasn’t a seasoned writer at the time, but I was super interested in the community of women writers and young women.
I’ve seen quite a bit of change; that was twenty-five years ago. It’s been really cool. I was with the organization for seven years of mentoring, and then I joined what was at the time called the Program Committee, helping with recruitment and enrollment. I was also on the Board of Directors, which was a great experience. And now I’m part of the diversity committee, and it’s been cool to find a new way to be involved in the organization. I’m a lifetime supporter.
RY: That’s really incredible, and we definitely appreciate the support. That’s almost twenty-one years! You’ve been with Girls Write Now for practically my entire life. How have you seen Girls Write Now grow and change throughout the years and what kind of impact have you seen on young teen writers as the organization has continued to grow and develop itself?
AJ: I’m so impressed and inspired at the growth and longevity and sustainability of Girls Write Now. A lot has happened these twenty-five years. With the pandemic, and through all of these changes— I’ve just been so impressed. I mean, when I started it was so small. There were probably like twenty mentors then. But we kept growing and growing.
At the beginning, everything was just completely based on volunteers, and that was hard work. Maya is such a champion of this organization and how the organization has been able to grow and evolve and be flexible. Girls Write Now has also been strategic about growth. I remember a time where we got a lot of questions about expanding to new cities and the growth plan. There was a very intentional focus then of staying in New York and growing within New York with the number of students and mentors we can serve.
Now it’s interesting that there’s this virtual reach that’s allowed the organization to grow. I’m really heartened by how much thought and intentionality there’s been. Just the trajectory that the organization has been on is awesome. In terms of impact, I consider myself as impacted by the organization as a mentee. I’ve seen in all of us, mentors and mentees alike, an increase of confidence skills and comfort level with sharing your writing and trying new genres.
There’s so much impact in terms of skills and confidence, but also with relationships. I had a very close relationship with Mona and the other mentees I’ve been partnered with. That’s the most lasting part. I’m still friends with other mentors as well, and they’re really an impressive group. We all celebrate each other. So there’s impact there, too.
I’m so impressed and inspired at the growth and longevity and sustainability of Girls Write Now. A lot has happened these twenty-five years. With the pandemic, and through all of these changes— I’ve just been so impressed. I mean, when I started it was so small. There were probably like twenty mentors then. But we kept growing and growing.
RY: In my experience from the mentee side, my mentor has impacted my life in ways I don’t think I could ever repay them for. It’s been an incredible experience.
I’m wondering, at the time you were working with Mona, what was going on in the world? Did that influence you in terms of what you worked on as a pair?
AJ: I was trying to think about that, because this is post-9/11 New York. We talked about 9/11 a little bit when I was there, but there’s been an evolution of New York after that I’m thinking about.
I think Mona and I showed up best in our writing with what was going on emotionally in our lives. We would meet in a Barnes & Noble on the Upper East Side and write about what we saw and what we were experiencing. We wrote a lot about high school experiences. And New York, and what it is like to live in New York. It was so interesting to me because I come from a background of growing up in the suburbs and I was new to New York, and Mona was born and raised in New York City. There was a lot about what it means to be a young woman in New York City.
RY: Definitely. I was wondering, what do you remember about writing Noriko’s Postcards with Mona? What was the inspiration for that?
AJ: I looked back in my old Yahoo inbox and just typed the word Noriko in to try to find it. Mona first sent me a draft in an email, but I think she started it at a workshop that I couldn’t attend as I was out of town for a wedding. She was like, oh, here is something that I wrote. It’s not that good. She had a tendency to downplay the talent she had.
What I remember is that she first had just a mind dump— a stream-of-consciousness writing of all these memories. I had inserted some comments and sent it back to her, and I was like, this is amazing. This is so interesting. My feedback consisted mostly of questions. Tell me more. Who is this person and why are they sending you postcards? What did they mean to you?
RY: Thank you for sharing that. When I was reading Mona’s pieces, I thought they were so cool and creative. I think her pieces are wonderful. I wonder if Mona ever mentioned where she typically got her ideas or inspiration from?
AJ: That’s a great question. She had such an active and creative mind. She was constantly coming up with ideas. She read a lot. She didn’t even understand why people watch TV shows. She was like, I don’t get it. It’s so boring. She had a love of music as well. She came from a musical family and that was something we shared and bonded over.
She was just very hungry and eager to create. She found inspiration in everything. She was a very exceptional person with a very active mind. There was a lot of what was on her mind informing what she was creating.
RY: You know, it’s really cool. Just reading her pieces, you can tell how talented she was. How these ideas come from a place that’s, like, pure talent, but also from all the time that she dedicated to her various interests. It was so cool to get to read them and get inspiration from her in my own reflection. I love the way she describes things. I was like, wow. All of these memories seem so vivid. And I can relate to them.
AJ: One thing I would add about her inspiration is that she was a very good student. She was really interested in psychology and dreams, and there’s some threads of that that show up in her work as well.
RY: Definitely. In the artistic process, what was that experience like, to meet at Barnes & Noble and talk through your sessions?
AJ: We had the privilege of having both these monthly in-person writing workshops and the weekly in-person meeting. I’m thinking of a picture that somebody took of Mona and I at a workshop. We’re both looking down, writing, and both smiling to ourselves because we were getting into whatever the prompt was.
There’s something really cool about being in this huge room that suddenly goes really quiet when everyone is writing. Can you really get into your own world around other people? That takes some getting used to. You can’t turn your camera off and your sound off. But we both found the workshops really inspiring and motivating once you established that trust first.
In our one-on-one meetings, we probably met at 6pm or something like that. We liked to chat for a while, and then we would do some writing. We had some readings to anchor us. We were working towards something that gave us the motivation and accountability to write. That was really helpful. We could have talked a bunch, but it was helpful to have questions about what came out of workshop or what we should do for a pair reading.
Even after we were an official mentee-mentor pair, we were still in each other’s lives and sending each other writing. There was usually something that was prompting us to write together, like an essay for a new class or whatever. It was cool to have that balance of talking about life and having it show up in our writing, too.
RY: Reading the short story after all this time, has your perspective on it changed?
AJ: Well, yeah. When I went back to look at our original exchange, it was cool to see the evolution. I saw the growth even within that piece. There’s an innocence to it that I feel like is time specific and shows a fascination or view of an older person that is traveling around. Mona traveled quite a bit with her family; she has family in Turkey and South America. But I think she had this idea that we all probably grow up with, which is that we need to get married and settle down. That comes up in this piece, and I think it’s an interesting viewpoint into how you look at your childhood and what’s important to you at the time.
RY: I really appreciate that perspective. I think about how my younger cousins live such a different life than I did. They have cell phones as soon as they’re in third grade and digital things are all around them. It’s interesting to share what effect Mona’s childhood influences had on her and what that looked like.
I was sorry to hear after choosing her piece that she passed away, and that she can’t be with us today to share her voice and create more things and be a part of her life. Is there anything you’d like to say to memorialize her in this book?
She saw things in a totally different way, and she really had no concept of how unique she was. I think she would be so touched that you found her piece and that it resonated with you or inspired you. That’s what she was writing for— to make herself and other people feel less alone.
AJ: I appreciate that. Part of why I’m so excited to talk to you is because I want people to know about Mona. I’m heartened that her work is being shared. She really was a prolific writer. She wrote so much, and the world has not seen most of it. I’m glad that even one snippet of her writing can be shared and memorialized here because I will never forget her and I don’t want anyone else to forget her.
She was a really incredible person, and so creative. She was so original. She saw things in a totally different way, and she really had no concept of how unique she was. I think she would be so touched that you found her piece and that it resonated with you or inspired you. That’s what she was writing for— to make herself and other people feel less alone.