Q&A: Bashir Leads Lambda Literary

Jonathan Vatner
From the March/April 2023 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In September 2022, Samiya Bashir became executive director of Lambda Literary, succeeding Sue Landers, who served a nearly four-year term. With origins dating to 1987, the nonprofit has supported LGBTQ+ writers through the Lambda Literary Awards, or “Lammys”; LGBTQ Writers in Schools program; the Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices, which will be held this year from July 30 to August 5 at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia; and more. Bashir was previously an associate professor of creative writing at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and a founder of Fire & Ink, an advocacy organization and festival for LGBTQ+ writers of African descent. The author of three poetry collections, including Field Theories (Nightboat Books, 2017), Bashir recently spoke about her goals for Lambda Literary.

Samiya Bashir, executive director of Lambda Literary. (Credit: Nina Johnson)

In your bio for Lambda Literary, you use many different words to describe your work: poet, artist, writer, performer, educator, and advocate. Which is most important to you and why?
There’s not a “most important”—there’s not a segmentation. Every single part of me informs every other part of me. Every bit of work I do informs the rest of the work I do. That’s one of the things about being a multimedia poet: Yes, I’m working with language, but I see language in sound; I see language in feathers and flesh. How do I engage all of that in the making of poetry?

I feel the same way about leadership and organization. There’s a poetics of what I’m hoping to do here that is important. That’s one of the things I’m bringing to this role that is unique and different and exciting. I am coming as a practitioner, as a poet, as a writer. I’m bringing all this to my role as an advocate, as I always have.

What is your vision for Lambda, and how can you get there?
I really want to build a home for us. I think Lambda has done so much. One of the surprises for me was how much Lambda has been able to do with so few resources. It’s really inspirational and exciting. We can do so much more with the right investment and support. That “so much more” is this home building I’m talking about, a home where all of us are welcome. A space where we can teach and learn and grow.

I want to invite all writers into the tent, across mediums and audiences. How can Lambda support that? With our retreat, we have specifically been reaching out to writers of speculative fiction and playwrights. Writing for performance is critical. We are reaching out to screenwriters—so many of whom, by the way, are poets. We are a cross-genre community; we are the culture creators. How to embolden and secure that so we actually can have our lives supported, have our work supported, help it get out into the world?

One of the things that’s important, too, is supporting the staff. We are writers and readers. I’m trying to break up the traditional nonprofit grind where you work yourself to death for nothing. I want to create a space where we can have lives.

When you say “home” and “space,” do you mean a physical headquarters? I know Lambda has been in diaspora for a while.
Diaspora is a good way to put it. I am looking for a physical space and for partnership. Can we share space with another organization? Can we create a hub where many of us might work near each other? What might that look like? It’s bigger than just New York. One thing critical to my vision is reinforcing the nature of this national organization. Formerly based in Los Angeles, currently based in New York, but with a national reach.

The retreat went virtual during the pandemic, and it’s coming back live. That’s one of my goals for 2023. We are bringing the Lammys back live in person, and we’re bringing back the retreat live in person. That said, we have a large population of immunocompromised people, and [in addition to retreat cohorts in seven genres] we will have our first completely virtual cohort that is cross-genre. How can we create a space where we all can be in community together? What does a hybrid event look like in this moment? How can we include everyone and not just livestream it?

The world has changed; the way we have done everything has changed. How can we respond to that and help our communities respond to that? How can our communities work together and find spaces of support across our intersectional identities? Places where we can read each other more, talk to each other more, both virtually and in person. And that means across the country. I’m looking to make the Lammys a year-round program. And where are the readings of the finalists? Where are the readings of the winners? We could host regional events sharing their work. Publishers are less likely to send LGBTQ+ writers out on tour. How can we bring readers to our writers? What kind of regional book parties can we have? We want to create opportunities for people to connect, share resources, and find mentorship.

You have talked to a lot of writers in preparation for this work. What did they tell you?
I was at MacDowell when I got this job. Speaking with the people there, I realized funding and opportunities need to be available to more of us. How do we get access to resources—and how do we get access to knowing about these resources?

One thing I’m fundraising for is simple emergency support. A monthly emergency grant, where we can give $500 to someone to cover their needs. That’s the kind of micro-grant that can keep someone afloat: I can make it through this month while finishing this book. Or figure out what I’m trying to write here. We are partnering with residencies like the Fine Arts Work Center [in Provincetown, Massachusetts] and getting scholarship support from the Academy of American Poets. We will announce more soon.

How can writers get involved with Lambda Literary?
First, by coming to our events online. I also really want to build a more robust and clearly operable volunteer system. We’re not a membership organization, but there are so many people who want to get involved. We remain a tiny staff. The amount we somehow manage to get done, hats off to the whole staff; it’s astonishing. Even trying to negotiate bringing in volunteers is one thing we’re working to figure out. How can we do this in a way that staff can be present and supportive to people coming to be present and supportive of Lambda? Volunteers and community members are what enable nonprofits to live. People do that because they get something out of it. Having pizza and stuffing envelopes and talking to other writers. You come because you’re community building.

I’m talking to a community member about creating a weekly online writing space. Everybody on Zoom, writing and sharing work. We’re all struggling with finding the time and space to write, and things feel very precarious again and again, so having that support and focus is so important.

How will Lambda Literary reach underrepresented audiences?
I have two different answers, one based on identity and one on genre. So many in the margins remain underrepresented. That plus sign in the LGBTQ+ are millions of us. But the categories [of writers we welcome] remain inaccessible to some. If a Native Two-Spirit writer can’t [take part], we’re not doing our job. Romance as a genre is huge: [Romance writers] sell more books than most anyone. That’s something that should change—they’re not here! That we brought speculative fiction in, honestly, that it took so long to do so is an issue. I want to open up that tent of writers, creating more space under the “literary” in Lambda Literary, opening up space for TV writers, screenwriters, and also journalists before they write a book. How do we work with the Association of LGBTQ Journalists to see what partnerships are available? What about songwriters? How do we make space for everyone?

I’m a poet and an advocate. I make poems of all sorts, and I do sculpture and I do installations, and sometimes those installations are poems. All of those are part of who I am as a poet. How can we release questions of categories and instead create nurturing space for us all?

What has surprised and challenged you in your first months as director?
I previously served as a communications director at various nonprofits, doing LGBTQ+ work and HIV/AIDS work. So many executive directors come from programming. To come from communications is a less traditional step, to come to an organization where we don’t have communications infrastructure, we don’t have development/fundraising infrastructure—yet. I’m working to build that. People think our budget is way bigger than it is; that’s a testament to the good work we do.

The need is there. I want to build the capacity of the organization to meet that need. That’s going to remain my biggest challenge but also my most exciting challenge. Especially these days. Our books are being banned hither, thither, and yon. Our voices are being stamped out and silenced violently. We need a home. We need to work through this. We have got to shift how we do things. We have to shift our expectations of our work, what our organization is able to do and be, what we as staffers are able to do and be. All of that has to shift. I’m a new executive director entering an organization in flux.

I’m taking over for Sue Landers. And a shout-out to the interim executive directors, Maxwell Scales and Cleopatra Acquaye-Reynolds, who left me an organization I could carry. Sue Landers got this organization through the pandemic when so many others could not make it. I had a teary conversation with her, just thanking her. For me it is such an honor to lead an important legacy organization, something that has been important to me as a writer for the past thirty years. I don’t take this lightly.

Your plans are ambitious. Where do Lambda’s programs stand?
Right now the Lambda LitFest is on pause. As for LGBTQ Writers in Schools—this is a program we’re taking across the country. We are looking to grow ourselves outside New York City.

I’m working diligently to erase barriers. If you can’t afford to apply for our retreat, that’s never a problem; you don’t have to pay. If you come to the retreat and can’t pay, we have resources for that. In the beginning of our writing lives, we don’t have resources. And there are also writers with a lot of resources who want to share with those who don’t.

We’re definitely bringing the LitFest back. It’s been on pause since the pandemic. I don’t want to bring it back wackadoodle; I want to bring it back right. It may remain in L.A., and it may move around the country. I don’t want to lose our L.A. footprint.

What else do you want the readers of Poets & Writers Magazine to know?
If I may invoke the great Mariah Carey: We belong together. Poets & Writers is a magazine that’s been important to me since I was the babiest of baby writers. I found organizations like Cave Canem, which was so critical to me as a young writer, in the classified ads in Poets & Writers.

Sign up for our newsletter; we are doing interesting things with it. The Lambda Literary Review was on pause for some months, as the organization began its transition. We have begun to bring it back to full strength with a much more robust review schedule and some exciting new features. That’s going to be an important part of the literary conversation again. So look out for us and jump in! I’m still listening. I’m going to be traveling around the country, listening, meeting with our communities, asking, How can we serve you? And if you have a question, write to me!


Jonathan Vatner is the author of The Bridesmaids Union (St. Martin’s Press, 2022) and Carnegie Hill (Thomas Dunne Books, 2019). He is the managing editor of Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and teaches fiction writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center.