Tony Valenzuela is the Executive Director of Lambda Literary, an honorable mention for the 2015 Innovations in Reading Prize.
National Book Foundation: What was the literary landscape like for LGBTQ readers and writers when the first Book Report was published in 1987?
Tony Valenzuela: In the ‘80s, there was an explosion of queer literature, which is the very reason that the Book Report and the Lambda Awards were born. The LGBTQ community was besieged by homophobia and the AIDS crisis, and the burgeoning literary community that was publishing had this kind of do-it-yourself mentality. For a lot of us, our community centers were bookstores. Deacon Maccubbin, our founder, saw how the landscape was growing for queer writers, and he wanted to have an institution that would spotlight those works.
The political landscape was obviously very different, and the literary landscape was smaller, but we had our bookstores – many more LGBTQ bookstores in the ‘80s than we do now. In terms of mainstream acceptance, visibility, that was much smaller. We were doing it for ourselves.
NBF: I’m trying to think now of queer bookstores that I’ve seen or visited, and I can’t think of as many as I know there used to be.
TV: There’s the Bureau in New York City, and Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, but where else? So many bookstores have closed, and there are so few that are queer-specific.
I will say that there are a lot of independent bookstores doing a really good job with queer literature. In LA, Skylight Books has a great queer reading series, and so does Bluestockings in New York. There are others around that aren’t queer-specific that are doing public programming that includes queer writers. But many queer-specific bookstores have closed.
NBF: So it’s less a physical space now than a community.
TV: Yes. That’s another thing – virtual space is huge right now. Lambda’s one part of it, but there are blogs, there are queer writers in social media, there’s Goodreads and Amazon. There are a lot of places where we’re talking about literature in the virtual world. I know it’s a change, and that you lose something, but that’s so important.
I’ll give you one example with Lambda. Our Lambda Book Report ended as a print journal in 2009, and we had a circulation, I think, of about 3,000 subscribers. But since it’s been online, the review gets upwards of 50,000 readers a month. There’s a lot to be said for that.
NBF: The books that Lambda spotlights can be a lifeline for a lot of readers, especially more underrepresented readers. But access has always been and is still a huge problem. So how do you reach those readers?
TV: Librarians do a big part of it. As a community, they’re plugged into Lambda in a really meaningful way; we have a lot of friendships and relationships with librarians. They’ll tell us that they subscribe to the newsletter so they see what books are being published. They pay attention to the shortlist and winners at the Lammys because they want to know what books to stock in the library. That’s one way that the literature is reaching a larger audience that’s outside of the internet.
One of the things that surprised me when I started working at Lambda five years ago is this: you might think that we’re going to have a huge number of members from big cities or the coast. But the truth is that our members are from all over the place, from small and medium-sized cities in every state and other countries too. And that struck me powerfully.
Many of those members are readers. That’s another thing about Lambda Literary; we’re an organization that’s largely supported by readers. And they’re all over the country, not just in big cities, so books from all over the place, large and small, are given attention. That’s the reason why Lambda Literary, as an organization that’s about LGBTQ literature, has been able to sustain itself for all these years. We have a really dedicated, passionate base of supporters. It has grown and continues to grow, but it’s been there for decades.
NBF: There’s a kind of hunger for those books that you don’t always see.
TV: We’re one of the only places where some writers are getting reviewed. It’s really important, and we do as much as we can.
William Johnson in New York, the [Review] editor, gets well over a thousand books sent to him every year for consideration. We’re only able to do about a quarter of those. And for those that do get reviewed, Lambda is one of the only places, if not the only place, where that writer’s getting covered in a literary publication. The book review sections of major newspapers have shrunk, and it’s an important place for queer writers to have a platform and a spotlight.
NBF: Why is it important for a larger audience to read books by LGBTQ authors with LGBTQ narratives?
TV: Well, by and large, we’re the best at telling our stories. There are heterosexual writers who do their homework, who are strong allies and really understand the LGBTQ experience, and who do beautiful work to show different narratives of that experience. But, for the most part, we LGBTQ people are still best at telling our own stories, and we’re also the most invested in telling our own stories with us as protagonists in the most nuanced ways.
A lot of mainstream audiences are reading LGBTQ writers now, writers like Sarah Waters and Justin Torres and Michael Cunningham. They’re read not only because they’re beautiful writers, but also because they’re telling our stories in ways that a lot of heterosexuals wouldn’t be able to. I know that there are straight writers who do a beautiful job at it, but too often we still see ourselves stereotyped. We aren’t protagonists. That’s one thing queer writers are doing: we’re protagonists of our stories, of every kind of story imaginable. Literature has given us that more than any other form of storytelling, more than film and television. I mean, that’s why so many of us are drawn to books.
And we’ve barely scratched the surface of what our stories are. There’s a lot of attention now to LGBT characters in television shows or films [coming out], but there are still so many stories beyond coming out to be told. Still, we’re asked, “Is there a need for LGBT literature? Is there a need for an organization like Lambda Literary when now there’s gay marriage?”
NBF: Obviously, because marriage is legalized, everything is fixed.
TV: Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what happened in other marginalized groups. Once they got civil rights, it all went away [laughs] – which couldn’t be further from the truth. But we’re only now telling the stories of our lives in ways that mainstream America is paying attention to.
A lot of us write for our own community. Many of us write to a broad audience and want the mainstream to read what we have to say, but a lot of us tell our stories because we feel they need to be told to our own. I think that’s great.
NBF: Let’s talk about the Writers in Schools program, which was launched in 2012. What’s been the most rewarding aspect of working with teenagers and young adults?
TV: It’s rewarding to go into schools and see that, in a lot of places, there’s so much more support and understanding for gay youth than there has ever been.
For example, we were just in a suburban San Diego school last month. The high school’s GSA invited an author, and I sat in, because we were videotaping this particular session to do some outreach with it. At lunchtime, at this GSA meeting, there were about fifteen kids in the classroom. They’d all read A.S. King’s book Ask the Passengers, and she came in via Skype and did this Q&A for forty-five minutes.
It was just remarkable for me to watch because not only did they get to engage with literature and storytelling with an author and get to ask her what it’s like to write a book and what it’s like to be a writer, but they got to talk about themselves and the context of their own lives as queer kids.
This also happens in classrooms where there’s gay and straight kids. They get to talk about their own understanding of what gay life is and have it enriched by the stories that they read and the authors that visit them. And I think, most importantly, it’s introducing young readers to new works by queer authors. Young readers, you know, become older readers [laughs] and they know that there’s this vast queer literary landscape that is for them, too.
We’re introducing a lot of young people to that literature that their teachers may not have otherwise assigned. They may not have otherwise known that Catherine Ryan Hyde’s books exist, or Charles Rice-Gonzalez’s, or A.S. King’s, or Alex Sanchez’s. And now they do. They may become, more than just fans and lifelong readers of those works, lifelong readers in general. We know from the Harry Potter generation, when people become lovers of books young they’ll read when they’re older. Lambda wants to play a role in that by introducing young people in high schools to this other body of work and authors telling these others stories in ways that they’re not going to see anywhere else. So that’s very gratifying.
The program has remained in pilot phase because it’s been kind of small. I can’t tell you what this is, but we’re going to have a major announcement about the program in another month. It’ll be expanding in some important ways, and we’re excited about that. It just means we’re going to be able to reach more young people.
NBF: There’s also the Writers’ Retreat, which I know you just came back from. How has that expanded and changed since its original conception?
TV: It started in 2007, so it’s not quite ten years old, but we’ve done it enough times that, after this year’s class, about 350 fellows have gone through the program.
One of the ways that it’s changed is that it’s bigger. We started with three workshops – fiction, nonfiction, and poetry – and we now have five. We added playwriting this year, and we have genre fiction, which is a rotating workshop. This year there was a focus on young adult fiction and graphic novels. In years past, we’ve had a focus on sci-fi or mystery. So that one changes each year. We also get a ton more applications than when we started. [laughs] It’s become really competitive, which is great. Of course we want people to come into it and do the work in their own writing.
The faculty choose the students. They go through their own genre; they go through the applications and choose the group that they’re going to work with. The writing samples and the artistic statements are really important. I only say this because I hear from folks who didn’t get in once and they think, “Oh, well, Lambda didn’t think I was good enough for it,” and that’s not it at all. That particular year, the student may have applied to a workshop where the instructor was interested in a particular kind of student, but it may be different the next year. There are excellent writers who don’t get in. There’s this subjectiveness to it. People have to keep trying.
And the other thing that has changed is the amount of diversity. It’s always been a diverse group of writers, but we now have people who are writing across a multiplicity of identities: trans writers, and writers of color, and women writers, who are all queer and writing across all these identities and telling their stories across many different identities. That’s really important. It is a reflection of who our community is. Lambda has really paid attention to the diversity of the students in the program, and it’s been a really positive and powerful change in the program.
NBF: What’s on the horizon for Lambda Literary, and LGBTQ literature more broadly?
TV: We want to keep doing what we’re doing in each of our programs – the awards, the retreat, the Review, and the writers in schools – and make each of them better. Just five years ago I was the only staff member. Now we’ve got William Johnson doing the Review, Kathleen DeBold managing all the judges for the Lambda awards, Shirley doing the writers in schools and Kyle, our programs coordinator, doing everything under the sun. Our capacity has expanded, and so we’ve been able to grow and improve our programs.
We want to continue to advocate for our literature, to advance our literature, so our authors have the most exposure possible. We want to give emerging writers a leg up in our programs so that they have [the support of] our stronger writers and also have a better shot at getting their book published. The writers in our emerging writers program have this astonishing success in getting their books published – it’s just incredible.
We want to keep doing what we’re doing, but to grow it smartly and be a resource to readers. To expand our reach to readers and to people who don’t know we exist. There are a lot of people who still, even in the LGBT community, think, “Oh, Lambda, Lambda Legal,” and we have to say, “No, no, no! We’re Lambda Literary! And Lambda Literary has been around for over a quarter of a century!” And then they see what we do, and all the different ways that we’re involved in the literature communities, and they become a part of that, the Lambda family. We want to grow our family.
I guess this is the main thing: when I came in five years ago, it was me and a team of people who’d been working hard to grow the organization. There was potential for strong and steady growth with no ceiling in sight. And there’s still so much potential for what our writers and our literary community are doing. I believe that the sky’s the limit. We have not seen it slow down. In terms of Lammy submissions, five years ago there were 450 and this year there were over 850. So where’s that coming from? It’s exciting. I think that the queer literary community is really vibrant right now, and Lambda wants to play our role in helping writers and exposing writers to more readers.