Lambda Lit­er­ary Looks to the Fu­ture

Poets and Writers - - Trends - –JONATHAN VATNER

When poet Sue Lan­ders started in July as the new ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Lambda Lit­er­ary, the Los An­ge­les–based non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to sup­port­ing LGBTQ writ­ers and lit­er­a­ture, it rep­re­sented a kind of homecoming. More than twenty years ago, when Lan­ders was an MFA stu­dent at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity, she worked at Lambda Ris­ing, the book­store in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where the seeds of Lambda Lit­er­ary ger­mi­nated. In 1987 the book­store’s owner, L. Page “Dea­con” Mac­cub­bin, pub­lished the first is­sue of the Lambda Book Re­port, which in­cluded au­thor in­ter­views and re­views of books by LGBTQ writ­ers. He also launched the Lambda Lit­er­ary Awards—“the Lam­mys”—to honor queer writ­ers. These ini­tia­tives grew into Lambda Lit­er­ary, which cel­e­brates its thir­ti­eth an­niver­sary this year.

Lan­ders takes the reins of a vi­brant or­ga­ni­za­tion with an im­por­tant mis­sion: to en­sure that a di­ver­sity of queer voices are heard and that LGBTQ sto­ries be­come, and re­main, part of the hu­man story. De­spite the wide­spread me­dia vis­i­bil­ity of the LGBTQ com­mu­nity, queer lit­er­a­ture—es­pe­cially by non­white and

trans­gen­der writ­ers—still strug­gles for at­ten­tion among main­stream pub­lish­ers and au­di­ences. “Hav­ing our sto­ries told and cher­ished re­ally can save lives,” says Amy Scholder, pres­i­dent of the Lambda Lit­er­ary board of di­rec­tors. “So of­ten bul­ly­ing depends on the op­pressed feel­ing iso­lated. Our lit­er­a­ture is a way for peo­ple not to be iso­lated.”

Be­fore com­ing to Lambda, Lan­ders worked for more than a decade in ed­u­ca­tion at the Col­lege Board. She was cho­sen for the new role be­cause of “her pas­sion for the LGBTQ lit­er­ary com­mu­nity and her abil­ity to ar­tic­u­late that pas­sion,” Scholder says. Lan­ders has also pub­lished three books of po­etry, most re­cently Franklin­stein (Roof Books, 2016). “It was very ap­peal­ing to us that she un­der­stands from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence what it means to be a writer in the world.”

Lan­ders suc­ceeds Tony Valen­zuela, who stepped down after nine years as the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. “The ten-year mark is enough time for a di­rec­tor,” Valen­zuela says. “I didn’t want to get stale—I didn’t even want to ap­proach that.” Whereas Valen­zuela ex­panded and pro­fes­sion­al­ized the or­ga­ni­za­tion, in­tro­duc­ing new pro­grams and in­creas­ing the staff from just him­self to a team of six, Lan­ders hopes to make each pro­gram larger and more in­clu­sive. “Tony has grown the or­ga­ni­za­tion in ways that I’m awed by,” Lan­ders says. “I’m look­ing to con­tinue his work and ex­pand it, so that more peo­ple can par­tic­i­pate, par­tic­u­larly queer and trans peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, and queer and trans peo­ple of color.”

The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s reach has cer­tainly ex­panded since its early days. The Lam­mys, which be­gan as a small af­fair in 1989, has since grown into a large-scale an­nual awards cer­e­mony held in New York City. The thir­ti­eth an­nual awards, which were held in June, counted no­table writ­ers Rox­ane Gay, Ali­son Bechdel, Ed­mund White, and Re­becca Sol­nit as award win­ners and pre­sen­ters. The or­ga­ni­za­tion also pub­lishes an on­line jour­nal, Lambda Lit­er­ary Re­view, an evo­lu­tion of the Lambda Book Re­port, and Nepantla, a jour­nal ded­i­cated to queer po­ets of color. In ad­di­tion the or­ga­ni­za­tion has launched three new pro­grams: LGBTQ Writ­ers in Schools, the Writ­ers Re­treat for Emerg­ing LGBTQ Voices, and Lambda LitFest. The LGBTQ Writ­ers in Schools pro­gram brings au­thors into New York City pub­lic school class­rooms to dis­cuss their books and pro­mote un­der­stand­ing and ac­cep­tance of dif­fer­ence. The pro­gram was founded un­der Valen­zuela’s lead­er­ship in 2012, and Lan­ders hopes to ex­pand it to other school dis­tricts across the United States; it is cur­rently in de­vel­op­ment in Los An­ge­les.

The Writ­ers Re­treat for Emerg­ing LGBTQ Voices, founded in 2007, con­venes a di­verse co­hort of queer writ­ers in five gen­res— fic­tion, non­fic­tion, genre fic­tion, play­writ­ing, and po­etry—each sum­mer in Los An­ge­les for a week of work­shops and craft classes taught by es­tab­lished au­thors. This year the fac­ulty in­cluded nov­el­ist Chinelo Ok­paranta and jour­nal­ist Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Nov­el­ist Justin Tor­res was a stu­dent in the re­treat’s first year; nov­el­ist Nicole Den­nis-Benn and poet Chen Chen were more re­cent par­tic­i­pants. “Many of these writ­ers go in un­sure about their abil­ity, and they come out trans­formed,” Valen­zuela says. “And they’re not only get­ting pub­lished; they’re win­ning prizes and gain­ing [vis­i­bil­ity] in the wider lit­er­ary world.”

Founded in 2017, the an­nual Lambda LitFest is the new­est ad­di­tion to the

or­ga­ni­za­tion’s pro­gram­ming. A week­long lit­er­ary fes­ti­val held in Los An­ge­les, this year’s LitFest will take place Septem­ber 29 to Oc­to­ber 6, with read­ings, per­for­mances, panel dis­cus­sions, and other lit­er­ary events held through­out the city. Lambda Lit­er­ary hopes to ex­pand LitFest to other cities in the fu­ture.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion re­cently an­nounced its first-ever Lead­er­ship Coun­cil, which in­cludes writ­ers Hil­ton Als, Kate Born­stein, Alok Vaid-Menon, and Ju­dith Markowitz, who will help Lambda Lit­er­ary strengthen its re­sources. With the help of the coun­cil, the or­ga­ni­za­tion will con­tinue to carry out its mis­sion to pro­vide ad­vo­cacy and sup­port to queer writ­ers. “We are still a col­lec­tion of com­mu­ni­ties at risk,” Lan­ders says. “Our sto­ries give us the tools we need to fight back.”

Sue Lan­ders

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