Chicago-based writer Stephen Patrick Bell thought he was close to completing his forthcoming novel, The Placeholders, when feedback from his peers at the Lambda Literary Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices helped him find a new point of view.
“Our fiction workshop instructor Zeyn Joukhadar was a structure wizard," said Bell, who attended the retreat virtually last year. "He gave the group so many useful prompts, and I cannot overstate the value of the one-on-one time the Fellows get to spend with instructors.” Conversations centered on “universal truths, trauma, and joy helped me see a new route to the conclusion of my protagonist’s story," said Bell, and an excerpt of his novel was published in Emerge: 2022 Lambda Fellows Anthology.
Bell, who described himself as having been a "bookish child," has joined the ranks of many LGBTQ authors and writers, including Anthony Veasna So, Kristen Arnett, Meredith Talusan, Edgar Gomez, Craig Willse and Soniya Munshi, who describe Lambda's Writers Retreat as having a profound effect on developing their identities and voices in queer literature.
“My first job in high school was at my public library, so I’ve always had a vague awareness of Lambda Literary and the sorts of work they champion,” said Bell.
Now with a new executive director in Samiya Bashir, and a renewed goal to reconnect in-person with LGBTQ writers and readers after a pandemic pushed everything online, previous Lambda Literary Writer’s Retreat fellows said the experience is even more purposeful as queer writers face LGBTQ book bans and anti-LGBTQ legislation. The first in-person retreat since the pandemic is set for July 30-August 5 at Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia.
"Lambda has been important to many for a lot of years," said Bashir. For her it's been 30 years, "since I first discovered the Lambda Book Report, when I was a young little baby dyke writer in the world at the Different Light bookstore, and the Lambda Book Report was the only place where you could find reviews of queer and trans books."
With retreat program manager Chloe Feffer at the helm, Bashir said the organization plans to bring its retreat back bigger and better as a hybrid in-person and virtual experience.
“We created a whole new multi-genre cohort that is specifically virtual, so that people who are unable to physically be present still have access to the writers retreat,” said Bashir. “We are going to bring that virtual cohort into our in-real-life space as much as we can. We are setting up big screens, and we are going to have a lot of interactivity.”
Another part of the retreat process Bashir emphasized is the availability of scholarships. "It is particularly important, in this difficult and dangerous time, for us to be able to support our Fellows, many of whom require scholarship support in order to attend the retreat," said Bashir.
Feffer added that the organization has been able to provide partial and full scholarships through its own fundraising efforts. Tuition for the retreat is listed at $1,875, and money raised for 2023 scholarships has reached above $5,000. "We also encourage Fellows to raise money via peer-to-peer fundraising," she said. "We believe lack of funds should never be a reason to miss out on this opportunity."
For Bell the retreat gave him a much-needed audience with his peers. “Personally, I’d say my biggest takeaway is about my work: that these things I make in private, words I put down mostly to entertain myself, speak to a community of peers I didn’t know I was in dialogue with,” he said. “More broadly, I’d say queer literature is A Thing, it is a force and a community, and it is in flux.”
He added, “For me, a person who wrote in quiet isolation for years, it gave me an instant writing community I am grateful to be a part of.”
Describing herself as an older student but at a young stage of fiction writing, 2022 fellow Soniya Munshi said, "One of the things that I appreciated about the retreat was that there was such a range of experiences among the participants."
Working on a forthcoming memoir, Munshi explained that the retreat gave her the perspective that her work was part of the larger queer literature genre. "The things that I think about memoir is that it is an individual story, but it's also part of a collective story," she said. "The retreat really helped me understand that in a different way. I was so invested in my other fellows' writing. It helped me to think about my voice and sharpening what is my perspective and my own unique experiences, but also understanding that it's going to be a part of something larger."
For Willse, the retreat was his first formal workshop, pursuing fiction after having done mostly academic writing for the last 15 years.
“Being in community with so many talented, committed writers helped me feel like my new writing life was really real,” said Willse. “I learned a lot in terms of craft and writing practice, but just as importantly, through Lambda I entered a world that encouraged me to take myself seriously as a writer.”
Attending the retreat virtually in 2021, Willse said Lambda as an organization remains more relevant now than ever.
“I think Lambda absolutely remains relevant, and as an organization has shown its willingness and even eagerness to grow and change and challenge itself,” said Willse. “There is so much amazing work coming out right now, across a wide range of genres. Also, we are in a strange, turbulent moment around queer/trans politics in the United States, and I think it is forcing many of us to reckon with the ways that increased visibility is not the same thing as material safety/security."
Bell added, "What’s funny about all of these thoughts is how the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices, in centering queerness, makes queerness totally irrelevant. I was in community with talented writers who were so different from me in so many ways but at no point was my personhood up for debate, my experiences weren’t questioned. My art was all I brought to the table and that is what we discussed. We did the work."