Victor Vazquez, 2014 Emerging Voices Fellow, shares his recent experiences in the fellowship. Discussing his immigrant background and his work with his EV mentor Douglas Kearney, Victorconsiders what it means to be validated as a writer.
“Why do we need validation? I can tell you my answer, but by the end of this, I will ask you for yours. My parents have worked their hands off. My father, an immigrant, scratched vinyls on a DJ table with the name Zygnus tagged across wood in white marker. Zygnus -- it means the sounds of the universe. He was a mechanic and then a business owner. My mother, also an immigrant, sold clothes in a swap meet, had five kids, stayed home, cleaned, cooked, and taught us how to be good people. Down the line, parents of parents of grandparents, we were all poor. Why then would I quit working with my hands to turn to the page and write? Better yet, how could I?
I learned English after I took in my native Spanish, went to school, took a big job, and felt lost. I’d sit, sometimes alone during lunch, and feel the trailings of ancestors around me… waiting for me to be a little more brave. I am brave, I thought — I went to college, took the big job, and I’m thinking of professional development like everyone else. I was playing the wrong game. I used to have this child-like vision of myself, this illusive grand magical dream where I’d build a tall ladder and I’d climb towards the sky to pick a star. I was filled with fear when I realized that the star I had my eyes on was a life where I could call myself a writer.
One night, I took a book off the store shelf and brought it home, The Poet’s Market: Over 1,000 Updated Listings to Help You Get Your Poetry Published. I learned how easily overwhelmed I was by the writing world. I did circle one listing, PEN Center USA Emerging Voices, and I underlined the words mentorship, seminars, and kickstart your literary career. I left it circled for three years before I actually applied.
Now I’m a fellow. For the past six months I’ve been building a ladder. One week I’m meeting with my mentor, Douglas Kearney, who is seeing in my writing things I had never seen… You do not know how not to be in war, he said. You are gay. You are Latino. You grew up lower middle class. And yet, there’s so much hope here—the fight is a thing in your writing you’ve accepted without question. Then I’m in a living room with Janet Fitch as she says, I was rejected for 10 years, and then… Oprah called. Then I’m at UCLA taking classes and writing with deadlines for 24 weeks. And now I’m on stage, reading. So let me alter my question…Where are we looking for validation?
The word validate comes from the Latin root valeo,which means I am strong, I am well, I am worthy, and I can. Everything about it is a declaration. As I climb, little by little, I understand there is quite a voyage to be had to reach that star… But, if I may extend the metaphor here, it is PEN Center USA that has allowed me to go from a person at lunch, head cocked up towards the sky dreaming, to actually taking steps towards that something you’ve felt the need to possess, to claim the words: I am a writer. It’s not illusive. It can be real. I’ve realized the work I get to do with my hands is through writing, amongst other things. And now I see how to be practical about it, and yet I can still hear the sounds of some universe saying, This is you being brave.
Why are you looking for validation? Whisper in your mind the answer. I found it, finally, when I moved back home and lived in my parents’ garage for the first half of this fellowship. I felt angsty, you know, like Hamlet felt when he had to come back home… let’s overlook the tragic reason why he had to do that. I thought beyond that angst, I found that the writer has to be the fifth act of Hamlet. It’s not the question of being, or not being, it is accepting the demand to let be.
Let yourself write.”