Victor Yates ('14 MFA Writing) has been awarded the 2017 Judith A. Markowitz Award for Emerging LGBTQ Writers. Last year, his novel A Love Like Blood won the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Debut Fiction. "He is a necessary voice and advocate for the voiceless and underrepresented in the LGBTQ community," said the judges. Yates will be recognized at the 29th Annual Lambda Literary Awards ceremony on June 12 in New York City. Always working on several projects at once, we caught up with Yates to ask him about the award, his thoughts on intersectionality, and where his writing will take him next.
Congratulations on receiving the Judith A. Markowitz Award for Emerging LGBTQ Writers. The judges specifically praised your work for its intersectional themes, would you be able to tell us a little more about how you approached the themes in A Love Like Blood and the importance of intersectionality in today’s cultural landscape?
Race, ethnicity, and colorism fascinate me to no end, especially multiracial issues. I was interested in embodying a young, biracial character (Carsten) who embraced being Spanish and Black. From there I was curious what would happen if his family struggled with a religious identity after converting from Islam to Catholicism, and how that would impact Carsten's struggle with his sexuality. When readers read A Love Like Blood, I want them to feel as if they are reading about someone who has a beating heart and is real and living. At its core, it is about a father and son, who run in photography business together. When they are working together, it is the only time that they can display their love for each other.
Intersectionality in today’s cultural landscape is important to me especially with the current administration. I work full-time at a trade school where I have students who have green cards, who are undocumented, who are ESL, who have mental health issues and are of color, and who are trans. Their lives and experiences matter and are worth documenting. Looking through the lens of intersectionality, I think it is easier to see how a Somali-Cuban gay male who is Catholic but raised with certain Islamic beliefs could face homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and prejudice, and have a fear of coming out. I hope to continue to add diverse voices to the queer canon of literature.
Tell us about your current project, recording the experiences of older men in the gay community and preserving them for future generations.
Last summer, I curated an intergenerational reading at the LGBT Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs with the writer, Dave Lara. Lara, age 70, talked about his experiences in the Vietnam War, the environment for men who were out, and how he received a dishonorable discharge. His was the first story I had heard about gay life in the army. I realized because of the AIDS epidemic, the gay community lost hundreds who could have passed on a rich history. That rich history is now lost. Few organizations exist that focus on documenting the stories of older gay men to preserve them for future generations. Therefore, I wanted to audio record narratives of older gay men to pass history on to younger gay men as well as have the recordings donated to One Archives to preserve and have available for the public. I wrote a grant proposal to the City of West Hollywood to further project and use video instead of audio. I also wanted the men who participated in the project to talk about how either moving to California or West Hollywood has impacted their lives. The project, titled Genitalic, will debut at a special event at the West Hollywood Library sometime next fall.
What have you learned through this project?
The first person that I interviewed was Dave Lara. Lara is Mexican and Jewish. He stated that West Hollywood had a three picture I.D. rule. Minorities had to show three photo I.D.s to get into clubs. It was a way to reduce the number of Black and brown people who would be let in. He passed for Jewish; therefore he had no issues getting in. I then spoke to Lee Jackson, a fair-skinned Black man. He hated going to West Hollywood because of the rule. He had a Black friend who has curly, blonde hair and blue eyes and could pass as white. The friend would go to West Hollywood alone and would not have any issues. However, when that friend went with a group of Black friends, he was carded. When the doorman saw that his I.D. stated that he was Black, he was not allowed to enter the nightclub again. The everyday challenges that these gentlemen faced, now both in their 70s, are what I hope to preserve and share so that this and future generations may learn from their experience.
As an alumnus of the MFA Writing program, what did you take away from your time at Otis College? Was there a specific mentor, project, or subject matter that stays with you?
The words of my professors, Peter Gadol, Jen Hofer, and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum stay with me. For Sarah’s class, we had to create generative responses to writing that we read in the workshop. I had difficulty staying in the present tense, so she took my chapter that I workshopped and color coded the different tenses that I used. Purple was present tense. Orange was past tense. Green was general information. The first sentence was purple, then the rest of the first page was orange. Purple wasn’t seen until page three. Now, when writing, I remind myself to stay in the purple. From Jen, I learned it’s okay to be poetic as a fiction writer but not to lose the image that is being created. From Peter, I learned the importance of sentence structure, style, and character development.
Overall, while at Otis, I learned the importance of discovery and supporting of all the arts. I became interested in photography while at Otis, and my character in A Love Like Blood became a photographer. I would check out cameras from the Photography Department and the things that I learned from the department ended up in the book. I would wander the different floors in the main building and look at the art hanging up. I would listen in on conversations in the hallway. Often, the descriptions of the art or pieces of conversations ended up in the book.
An exhibition at the Ben Maltz Gallery still haunts me, Alison Saar ('81 MFA). I visited the exhibition every other day and would study the individual pieces. Her work was startling, imaginative, painful, and beautiful.
What is something you wish you would have known when you were first starting out as a writer?
I wish I would have known about outlining. Without an outline, my first book took longer than expected to write. Now, for my second novel, I am outlining first, before I start writing.
What is next for you, where do you see your writing going in the coming years?
I will be reading in Manchester, UK in July at Chapter One Bookshop. I plan to do more international readings. Also, I am doing a reading in Memphis in two weeks. I love doing readings and hearing the audience responses to my writing. I believe that art doesn’t exist until someone sees its, touches it, hears it, or experiences it. I am working on my second novel and on two different grant proposals to get funded to work with young writers. I love teaching because not only do I get to work out the next generation of talented writers, but also I learn more about myself as a writer.