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Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient: Denver David Robinson

We’re excited to be featuring the 2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipientson our blog this spring! The applications for 2017 fellowships are due Friday, June 24, 2016 and you can read the guidelines and download an application by clicking here.

2016 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient

Denver David Robinson


Literary Nonfiction


Denver David Robinson is a Portland-based writer and photographer. His work has appeared in The Boston GlobeThe AdvocateThe New York TimesThe Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. In 2014, We Are Here: LGBT in Uganda, a photo essay on which he collaborated with several key Ugandan activists, won GLAAD’s Outstanding Digital Journalism – Multimedia Award and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association’s Excellence in Photojournalism Award.

Q&A with Literary Arts

1. What are your sources of inspiration?

Lately I’ve been inspired by the letters of Flannery O’Connor (collected in The Habit of Being). I often binge read these in the early morning or just before bed. There’s much to learn in her deadpan humor and simple instruction, in her quest and questioning, particularly for the artist. She makes me laugh and then she takes my breath away. (I learned recently in one letter that I am likely using these readings as a distraction.)

Walks and bike rides around Southeast Portland, particularly now that it is spring, are continual sources of inspiration. I like to wander, to see what there is to see. Occasionally I even see someone I know.

2. How would you describe your creative process?

I find writing to be a difficult and slow process. I aim to be disciplined, to sit at the desk every day, but this isn’t really how I work without a hard deadline. When I am stuck or inspired (or when I need to lighten up), I employ a trick I learned in a workshop years ago with Oregon writer Sallie Tisdale: I set a timer and write by hand; I do not allow myself to stop writing or erase or cross out any words during this time. I can only write. I usually learn something from this exercise.

Most days I carry a notebook and scribble down ideas, lists, observations, questions. Often these entries are useful when I sit down to make something later.

3. What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?

I had forgotten about the fellowship when I received the phone call from Susan Moore of Literary Arts, so I was confused, then stunned. Receiving the fellowship, however, has been hugely validating and helpful. It has encouraged me to return to ideas and work I felt were too complicated and risky or not meaningful to others. The fellowship has inspired me to stay focused. When I later learned that the fellowship is named after William Stafford, I was further moved. Stafford died less than a year before I moved to Oregon and for years I carried volumes of his poems and essays on hikes all over Oregon, longing for his mentorship, lamenting the fact that I would never be his student. It took me nearly a decade to realize that his work enabled (and instructed) me to step forward and meet the community of writers, poets, and teachers in my midst.

4. What are you currently working on?

The project I’m currently working on is a collection of essays and stories about experiences I had in 2012 while living in Uganda. Although I had gone with the idea that I would be helping and making a difference in a rural community, I ended up being the one who was enlarged and, to some degree, saved through the exchange. When a Ugandan friend I’d known since 2010 came out to me and introduced me to Uganda’s marginalized and feared LGBT community, pretty much everything changed. In this work I hope to draw a line from the village to the city and back again, weaving in my personal experience and our Western influence, shortcomings, and vulnerability, while acknowledging our differences and sameness.

5. What advice do you have for future applicants?

Sit down and ask yourself why you need a fellowship. Be very clear and honest about this. Then write the application and send in a sample of work that you feel is strong. If you think a piece is possibly flawed or risky, but is one that is deeply important (to you), that may be the right sample.

OLF Judge’s Comments

“Unexpected things happen when one befriends persecuted LGBTI activists in a highly homophobic land.”  Robinson writes deftly with the eye of a journalist and the heart of a memorist. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie claims there is “Danger of a Single Story”; thankfully, Robinson’s story adds to the community of LGBTI stories that have been and are being written, as he examines how “individuals and cultures connect (or don’t) and how we fail each other-and why.”  As a reader I search for more than one story; I search for multiple perspectives.  Robinson’s story, his relationship with Cleo, gives the reader  personal/political insights of a gay, white American male who went “to live and work in rural Uganda for a year” knowing it was “considered by some ‘the world’s worst place to be gay.’”

—Sherry Lee

Excerpt from current work: 

I met Cleo at a celebration beneath a white canopy on an outlying hilltop in Kampala. It was a sunny afternoon in May and not so hot after a morning of heavy rain had flushed the sky free of pollutants and dust. From the height of Ntinda, I took in the simple green and red beauty of the dilapidated East African capital. I’d learned the names of several of the districts that stretched out before me and practiced saying the name of each aloud as I pinpointed their location. Kololo, Bukoto, Nsambya. Kabalagala, Busega. Kasanga. In Munyonyo, an immense wall of cumulus clouds stacked several stories high had stalled over Lake Victoria, exactly at the city’s shoreline.

Cleo had been the first to rise to tell her story before the gathered crowd, some forty or more women and men. Together they were recognizing the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, known in most places around the world by its acronym, IDAHOT. […] It was the first time I’d seen her and I assumed that she was gay or, actually, that he was gay, because that is what I saw―a slight, effeminate male with a crew cut in a tight shirt and faded jeans. He had some curves, sure, but what Ugandan did not? Even the small buds on his chest were not unlike those of some men I know.

And yet Cleo told another story. “My parents and siblings were protective and allowed me to be a girl. But when I entered primary school, people began to question my family and me. To others, I was simply a boy. They called me Caesar.”

Something in her words and demeanor stirred and unsettled me; I was uncertain, captivated. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know her.

[T]he afternoon’s entertainment soon commenced and brightly costumed women and men gyrated in sync to an intricately choreographed dance. During the finale, a young man in drag and red stilettos approached me while lip-synching to “My Heart Will Go On,” the overwrought theme song for the blockbuster film Titanic. “Dance with me,” she whispered through lips exactly the color and shine of her shoes. At first I declined―I knew well what the Ugandans see and think when bazungu dance. I was self-conscious. But the guests at my table and around the room shouted that I stand and dance, and so I leapt from my chair and took the young queen’s hand. Round and round the makeshift ballroom we danced, our bodies pressed tightly together. I looked into her eyes and forgot the crowd. Beads of sweat slid down her cheeks, leaving streaks in the foundation caked unevenly on her face. Her odor―a saturated mingling of flowery perfume and long perspiration―filled my head. The heat from our bodies increased with each movement, and soon I too was drenched in sweat, particularly at the points where we met―clasped hands, groins and abdomens pressed into one another for balance or guidance. At the song’s conclusion, we fell into a table of guests when I tried to dip and hold her as she writhed and wailed soundlessly into her microphone, our bodies unwittingly reenacting the sinking of the great ocean liner. Everyone laughed; ululations and applause were our reward.

The celebration closed with a benediction. Across the lawn, away from the tent and departing guests, I saw Cleo standing with a few of her friends. Empowered by the dance, I decided to speak to her. I approached the group. Cleo’s talk was still playing out in my mind and I wanted to consider assumptions I’d always held as facts―labels, gender, pronouns even. My gaydar was suddenly on the fritz. I waited uncomfortably with my thoughts until Cleo looked up at me. I cleared my throat.

“Your story moved me.” She smiled and thanked me; it was the first time she called me dear.


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