Fresh Faculty: Victor Wei Ke Yang

Victor Yang is a visiting assistant professor of English who has worked as a writer, educator, and organizer. Yang received a B.A. from Harvard College in 2012, a M.A. in 2013, a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford in 2016, and a M.F.A. from Boston University in 2021.

Fresh Faculty: Victor Wei Ke Yang
Professor of English Victor Yang reflected on the power of literature to help people see one another, the experience of moving between an elite education and work like labor organizing, among many other topics. Photo courtesy of Emma Spencer '23E.

Q: What do you think first brought you to love writing?

A: When I was in college, I was pre-med. I majored in something called history in science. I studied the history of medicine, specifically its activism, and that’s how I got onto the track that I told you about. I never took a creative writing class in college. When I was 25 and I started working in the union, it was a lot of long days, sometimes back to back meetings with workers or coworkers or staff, and walking around with protest signs and bull horns … it was a lot of being around people and seeing a lot of stuff go down. Some of it was injustice and the grander sense and also sometimes there was injustice within our own organizations. It just was a lot to hold, I felt. It made me reflect on my own life, why I did this work, and what drew me to this work. I think to be an undocumented janitor is a very different story than my parents’ immigration story, but in other ways, there are still very similar themes, because racism and classism and sexism are universal. While I was organizing, in some way just to make sense of the grief and the contradiction that I saw every day, I started stealing time away in the mornings before I went to work, just to write. I started writing more, and then I started taking classes after work. Then I did an M.F.A. program … and I actually was like, “Wow, I really like this.”

If I had gone into medicine, there’s a very clear staircase of, you do your pre-med requirements, you do med school and residency, fellowship, etc. I think for a lot of careers, most people go on zigzags. And then when you tell the story backwards, you can draw a straight line, but when it’s actually happening, it’s a bunch of squiggly lines. But when I look back, even when I wasn’t writing and doing the organizing work, or the research and the interviews, so much of it was just trying to understand and really see people, and I think that’s the power of the written word. Of all the art forms, I think literature is unique because of the way in which it allows access to people’s mind and people’s thoughts in ways you can’t get in a piece of art or even a movie … I just think it’s really beautiful the way that we can, in writing, make the unsaid said.

Q: One of the many jobs that you worked before coming to Amherst as a professor was as a labor organizer in Boston. What brought you to that work?

A: I was finishing up a Ph.D. in political science, and I was studying the HIV/AIDS movement in the U.S., specifically in Philadelphia, and specifically as it related to queer people of color, and the class racial, and gender divides in the movement. I wrote a thesis, and did the things you have to do to graduate and finish grad school. But I think in the process, the heart of it was spending a lot of time following this ragtag group of AIDS activists in Philadelphia. A wide range of people, everyone from some of the top global AIDS experts, to homeless people, to drug users and former drug users, and people that have been in and out of jail.

I did almost a hundred interviews with activists, but also spent a lot of time being a fly on the wall, essentially watching people. I was kind of an activist with them, for the most part, 10 or 20 years younger than anyone in the room, the only Asian, and pretty quiet. So I just spent a lot of time observing people, and seeing who talked in the room, and who didn’t. And I think a lot of that is, in essence, training of how to be a writer and how to be a person. It also just impressed upon me how unglamorous social change work is, but also how inspiring it is to really get to know someone. In the case of Act Up Philly, which is the group I worked with, they got the price of HIV/AIDS drugs for a patient in Sub Saharan Africa from $10,000 a year to $200 to $10, by changing global patent policy, and also kind of forcing the Obama administration, and Gore before that, their hand in committing billions of dollars into AIDS, globally.

[Later] I ended up taking a job as an organizer and also as the lead educator and one of the key political people for a labor union of 18,000 [at the time] janitors and security officers in Boston, mostly Latinx folks, mostly immigrants. That union … over its history of the past 15 years, they got janitors from $6 an hour to now over $20, and their insurance may be better than my insurance here. There’s just a lot of really concrete wins, but for me … where my energy is, and where my love is, is seeing how people who might never come to that kind of meeting get kind of dragged in sometimes, or stumble upon their way inside, and make it from the corner of the room, to the center, to [with] a bullhorn at a rally, to inspiring other people.

I think what connects my work in the labor movement, my work as a writer, and also my work as a teacher is … the work that I’ve done for the past 10 years is trying to make spaces for people who might otherwise never look each other in the eye and to sit in the same room together, and tell each other stories and laugh and cry and imagine each other in the other’s shoes. And through listening and reading and reading other people’s stories or your own, [you] come to understand yourself better, and be able to show more of yourself than you used to … When I teach, something that I try to do, I think back to a quote by a Black poet, June Jordan, and she talks about school as a place where she always felt like oftentimes, the way school works is you can only show certain parts of yourself. And the way I interpret the quote is, if you go into a literary theory class, you have to have your literary critic hat on your, your American Studies hat, or whatever it is, and I think in the most genuine activist spaces, or the ideal creative writing classroom, is where you can shove all those hats aside, and you can just come with your full, messy self with all of its beauty and all of its mess.

Q: How do you bring this frame of thinking with you to teaching at Amherst?

A: I’ve had a lot of different jobs … I worked on three deportation campaigns, I worked on changing certain cities and towns outside of Boston into sanctuary cities. I did a lot of different cool policy work that, when you say it, sounds really cool and meaningful. But ultimately, what I found most meaningful was just working with individual people in ways that — unless you’re writing a feature article — the news would never pick up. I think that’s the everyday work of education.

I think to bell hooks, and what she says about education is the practice of freedom. And I think that every day work that we do in the classroom is the kind of revolutionary work that doesn’t get reflected in the news. [I think of that practice] when we can teach creative writing in a way … where we have high expectations for the craft, but we also don’t separate from the content of the lived realities of college students, and people generally.

The class I’m teaching this semester … the craft question is, how do you write a short story from scratch? We go through the different building blocks that make a story. And then the content question is, what does it mean to grow up in a racialized body in America? All of us have racialized bodies, no matter our social location, or racial or ethnic identity. College for me was such a crucial time where I felt like I started to ask questions that I’m still asking today, and I also made friends who have very much been my guideposts and my role models through all these years. To be a small part and witnessing that happening for people here… the education here, from what I understand, it’s very much about not encouraging people to settle or to do things just because it’s the thing you’re supposed to do.

I’m [also] trying a lot of new stuff out pedagogically. There’s a book —The Anti-racist Writing Workshop — that has a lot of ideas that I think remind me of a lot of things I learned while I was [working in a workers’ school while labor organizing]. And a lot of the things I learned in AIDS activism I took to labor, and the things I’m learning that I learned doing that kind of education I’m hoping to take here. It’s just also an exciting place to experiment as an educator, and to be in a different space and time to write and think and reflect.

Q: How do you think about moving between places like Harvard and Amherst, and your work as a labor organizer?

A: It’s complicated. The labor union I worked at, they represent … hundreds, at least, of janitors and security officers on Harvard campus. Some of the workers I worked most closely with were janitors at Harvard. One of my coworkers, who was a staff organizer, used to be a security officer. And I imagine I probably passed her — she was in the Science Center, and I was actually pre-med in college — so I must have passed her everyday, for four year, and never noticed her.

Earlier, we were talking about hats, but I think you could also talk about it as your different identities, or your different selves — I’m a different person talking to you versus talking to a student in one of my classes versus Chris versus my mom versus whoever. And I think being queer, you learn from a very young age what parts of yourself you hide, and what parts of yourself you show, to various people. I think one axis of closeness, it’s not the only axis, but one axis of closeness, is how much of yourself you’re actually able to show to someone … I think learning to navigate life in a socially acceptable way is sometimes learning how you separate your very selves into these different Russian [nesting] dolls, and how you keep them separate, and how you pretend like these two dolls on the table don’t even talk to each other, even though they’re both you. And that’s how I feel a little bit sometimes about having the product of a very elite education but also doing organizing work where, at the labor union, a lot of my coworkers were former janitors who had become leaders in the union and got promoted up. I’m thinking about one woman who I thought was particularly brilliant, and I don’t think she finished third grade in El Salvador.

It took me a few years of working there to even tell some people that I went to Harvard because I had so many feelings about it. But I think I came to learn that other people didn’t have feelings about it, they were just like ‘oh, that’s great.’ I have a lot of guilt around my privilege educationally. And I think some of it is around the opportunities that I’ve had in my life that some of my coworkers at the union have not … and also, how a lot of immigrants I work with also remind me of my own mother in particular, and the opportunities that she hasn’t had, and how they’re very much connected to the opportunities I’ve had. I think it’s not a zero sum game, but I do think [about] something I learned very early on in college in a social justice program, a pre orientation that I was part of. They pointed to a very pretty bridge in Boston … we walked through downtown, and there were all these gorgeous buildings and architectural pieces, and they were like, “If you think about the amount of exploitation and labor that went into this, this is kind of a representation of how … how the things we celebrate in society are always built on the backs of people who are not remembered.” I think a Harvard degree is very shiny, and being a low wage worker in America is not, and I wish I had a prettier answer to give you, but I’m still working through it.

Q: What advice would you give Amherst students for moving forward and making change in the world?

A: I think there can be such intense pressure after being in a college environment like this one, where even if there’s so much choice of the classes you can take, there’s still a certain framework or a container where you have your semesters and you have your four classes and you graduate after you finish eight semesters of classes. And then if you don’t go down one of these very pre-grouped elite paths, it can be extremely scary. I just know so many people who are now doing jobs where they make a ridiculous amount of money, and are not quite sure where they find meaning in their day to day. I just hope that as all of us continue to be older — and this is why I love working with college students — that we can continue to remember the sense of possibility and idealism that we had in places like these. I think life is a reality of scarcity, of never having enough time or money or ability or resources. But I think even with that, just trying to find joy and wonder in the way that I think we try to do what when we write, and the way we can be really unfiltered. Going back to the Russian doll thing and being our full selves, finding ways of living in the world after Amherst that allow us to do that as much as possible, even if there are compromises and contradictions and difficulties that we face along the way.