Jewelle Gomez: The 20th Anniversary of The Gilda Stories

“As a black woman, Gilda recognizes situations that put her in jeopardy. As a vampire she has power to overcome these situations, but she knows that other people don’t have that same privilege. She experiences life as a black woman, but she has privilege as a vampire…”

Author, poet, playwright and activist Jewelle Gomez (JG) was born and raised in Boston, MA and has been a longtime resident of San Francisco. Her books include: Don’t Explain, Oral Tradition and Forty-Three Septembers. 2011 marks the 20th anniversary of The Gilda Stories (a new edition has been released by Firebrand Books). The Gilda Stories (TGS) is a double Lambda Award winning novel that follows the life of an African-American lesbian vampire through the nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries. Two chapters of TGS were commissioned for performance by the Urban Bush Women Company and toured thirteen U.S. cities from1995-96. TGS continues to be taught in colleges and universities worldwide. Jewelle is currently at work on a second volume of Gilda stories. She has also written a play based on the life of James Baldwin, Waiting 4 Giovanni, opening in August at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco. This interview took place at the Horizon’s Foundation where Jewelle is the Director of Grants & Community Initiatives.

SB: Let’s jump right in. What do you know about Gilda now that you didn’t know about her in 1991?

JG: I know that Gilda has more emotional conflicts about her early life than I imagined when I wrote the first novel. I conceived Gilda as a feminist superhero. As I am writing the new Gilda novel, I am more aware of Gilda’s emotional flaws and how these flaws shape her relationships with people and politics. It’s hard being a child who was abandoned, whether you were put in a foster home or because your parents died in slavery. I wanted to show the toll that sexism and racism take on Gilda as she moves through time and as she sees these oppressions enduring.

After twenty years I am also stunned how vampire mythology has endured. Of course I knew the allure of the genre because I did tons of research. But even so, you’d think that younger people would move on to something else. But clearly not.

SB: What is the pull of this genre?

JG: Humans have always been afraid of death. We don’t know what will happen. Not knowing makes us anxious, so we’ve invented religion and we’ve invented vampires to understand death–to cheat death. The attraction may also be that many contemporary vampire stories emphasize the romantic and de-emphasize the horrific acts that a vampire does. The idea of the vampire as a serial killer gets underplayed and the forbidden love between the mortal and the immortal is highlighted. We can look at Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story or any of those interpretations of forbidden love. Young people can’t resist these stories because they embody the anxiety they feel simply due to their hormonal growth. Older people, I think, can’t resist the hope this type of story offers.

SB: How do you perceive TGS in the canon of lgbt literature?

JG: Gilda is a direct descendent of the lesbian feminist writer Joanna Russ who wrote The Female Man and other groundbreaking, transgressive fiction.  The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s was fueled by speculative fiction writers who imagined a world where women had power to change things and to change themselves.  Gilda is also related to the work of Chip Delaney; not in style, but again, Gilda embodies that queer concept of remaking oneself that has been core to lgbt literature over the past four decades.

SB: At the time TGS was published we weren’t as saturated with the vampire narrative as we are today.

JG: I worked on Gilda for ten years, and I read nearly everything that had been written about vampires. Before TGS was published I read at various events. Following Gilda was akin to following a soap opera. Still, I didn’t quite know enough about the genre and the fandom. Then, in 1995 Urban Bush Women Company commissioned Bones and Ash, based on the TGS. When the play was touring many Goth vampire fans showed up. I realized then that I had tapped into a huge fan base. People didn’t care if the protagonist was a lesbian, or was black. If it concerned vampires, they wanted it.

SB: Let’s talk about the vampire as one who cheats death. Even though vampires potentially can live forever, at some point most will choose the true death.

JG: Well, the first Gilda says, “I can’t take another war. I’ve seen enough killing.” The first Gilda had lived for hundreds of years; she had seen and been through so much and was ready to be done. We see that with people who are ill and who decide that they are ready to end their lives. This choice is denied a lot of people. I see this as similar to taking the true death.

In many ways the second Gilda is a parallel to the United States. The U.S. is a young country. Most of us have no idea of an enduring history. When I was in the Southwest last summer I went to Chaco Canyon where there are structures that have existed for a thousand years. Native Americans certainly know way more about history, because their history on this land is centuries older.  The second Gilda has to come to terms with her naïveté; she has to understand that she is young and privileged. She is privileged to see the world change over time. Still, I didn’t want her to get so overwhelmed that she would want to prematurely take the true death.

As we were producing Bones and Ash it was difficult to get the dancers/actors to understand that true death was an absolute end, that there was no heaven or hell. Gilda’s taking of the true death wasn’t her going to join the ancestors or anything like that. Surprisingly, the actors had a tough time imagining such an end. Once we came to the understanding that there was nothing after death, the song that the actors sang to guide Gilda to her true death was harrowing.

SB: In most vampire novels the vampires are read racially as white. In TGS the skin of this vampire cannot be ignored.

JG: The second Gilda being black is core and informs how she makes meaning of her world, and how she is responded to. Gilda understands the various ethnicities of the girls in the bordello. She knows that Bird is a Native American. When Gilda visits Sorrel’s salon in Yerba Buena, she understands that people look at her askance because she is black. As a female, Gilda knows she is vulnerable on the road alone so she dresses as a boy. It is from Gilda’s perspective that we learn these things. For me, people of color and women are the center of the universe; it’s natural. Assuming this centrality allowed me to address people’s racism without having the racism take over the story.

As a black woman, Gilda recognizes situations that put her in jeopardy. As a vampire she has power to overcome these situations, but she knows that other people don’t have that same privilege. She experiences life as a black woman, but she has privilege as a vampire.

SB: So that night in 1919 when Gilda is attacked by two white men she could have easily killed them. Yet she is bound to a moral code, an understanding of the use and abuse of power. Vampires in TGS take blood, but they also leave something with the person.

JG: As a feminist it is important to have a moral center and I think it is impossible to measure the worth of your life without a moral compass. Unfortunately, the more that capitalism subsumes our lives, the more vacant our moral center seems to become. The heroic vampires at the center of my novel have this too. It’s what separates them from the average murderous, sometimes guilt-ridden vampires in literature and movies.

SB: Your vampires have strong connections to mortals. The second Gilda seems particularly fascinated with mortal life.

JG: Gilda has her feet in both worlds–it’s part of her maturation. Gilda consented to be a vampire but like all the vampires in her family she shares the love of mortal culture. To vampires, mortal life is like daytime television. They need this connection to continue to respect mortals. Gilda comes to understand that it is the emotional connection to mortals that feeds her, not just their blood.

SB: Integration is key to maintaining their moral code. The vampires practice their code through relationships with mortals.

JG: If your moral code becomes too abstract it becomes useless. During the Vietnam War, our soldiers got drummed into them this idea that the Vietnamese weren’t fully human. The Vietnamese were much smaller than the Americans and they wore clothing that soldiers called ‘pajamas.’  This objectification encouraged American soldiers to commit atrocities against the Vietnamese people. For my vampires it is important that mortals not become abstract.

SB: I was surprised that the vampires in TGS moved freely in the daytime. I was also struck by the importance of the native soil. Is this native soil part of traditional vampire lore?

JG: I kept some traditional ideas and discarded others. The native soil, a traditional concept, was compelling. Usually a vampire would sleep in a coffin lined in their native soil. I was not fond of the coffin motif, so I shifted my vampires onto futons. You can fill a futon with soil–who is going to know? The native soil also speaks to the sense of being rooted. The vampires need to be rooted in something to keep their lives in perspective.

I got the idea of having the soil on their person from Chelsea Quinn Yarbro who has written a beautiful and brilliant series about the Count St. Germain vampire. Even still, these vampires have limitations. Just as the circumstances of mortality shape mortals, the vampires also have to make accommodations; these accommodations shape who they are culturally.

SB: The soil represents the land, rootedness, and the place of return. Bird leaves the second Gilda to return to her native soil. The soil speaks also to Africans taken from their native soil, who spent so much time working the soil throughout the African Diaspora. For the second Gilda there is also the trunk that contains among other things, her quilt, her knife, and her cross. With each move she brings these small items of her history with her.

JG: We all carry a core part of us wherever we go. If we are healthy, we discard the things that don’t work, and hold on to those memories, habits, and ideas that nourish us.

SB: As a vampire you would have to be selective. After hundreds of years you could be quite burdened by the past.

JG: It was one of the reasons I wanted a methodology for what a vampire does when they kill a mortal. The chance that a vampire might kill is high. But, you can’t just kill and walk away as if that life meant nothing. If a vampire had to take a life, I decided that she had to be able to always recall the face of the person killed. As the person was dying, the vampire also had to find something positive inside that person, and hold on to that as well. They could perhaps live without the bitterness and regret of being a killer or without becoming a vampire that enjoys killing.

SB: If you have to hold the memory of even one life it becomes more difficult to take a life in the future.

JG: You need something to keep that discipline in place. When I wrote a scene where someone was killed, I experienced an adrenaline rush and I think I understood a fraction of what one might feel when he or she killed someone. That rush is addictive. It helped me understand that there’s something vital to learn about how killers come to be and, by extension, the discipline a vampire has to maintain to not be predatory to humans. The disregard for another’s humanity gets drilled into some people; all they see are small people in pajamas. That’s what I believe killers experience. We have not resolved how to interrupt that behavior and retrain people so that killing does not become their sport.

SB: Let’s talk about the ending chapters, the ones taking place in the 21st century. These chapters seem to set stage for the next volume of Gilda Stories. Gilda is now in the reader’s future. A new energy emerges as we move into speculative fiction.

JG: The stories do take on a different tone–an apocalyptic quality. I had written the chapter where the immunological and ecological systems had disintegrated just before the AIDS crisis.  I realized that I had been reflecting this upcoming epidemic in my novel. The future was catching up with me. That is where science fiction can be really insightful. You think about how to project where the culture will be in the future. You can come pretty close.

SB: Will the new Gilda stories be set in the future?

JG: The first story will take place in 1910 New Orleans. Gilda returns there searching for Bird. The other chapters are the alternate decades that were explored in the first book. There is at least one story that occurs in the future.

SB: Give us a preview of what we can expect from the new volume.

JG: The new stories are more psychologically complicated. They are more about Gilda’s psychological and emotional growth. Gilda will be dealing with the hurts she has lived through. Her relationships with mortals are more complicated. She has important lessons to learn about longevity. She will make huge mistakes. Gilda will face a moment when she believes she should take the true death because of these mistakes. Is she a failure as a vampire?

SB: Lastly, Jewelle, How have you changed/matured as a writer over these twenty years?

JG: I hope my writing has gotten better!  I’m still as disturbed by social injustice but I have a more global view. I see how repression of lesbian voices is connected to busting up unions in the Midwest, trafficking children in Asia, and the endless landscape of oppression. I also understand that the work of social change is not just something that you do when you are in your teens and twenties.  Keeping the fire going at sixty is sometimes a more conscious effort, and I can’t stay up as late, which is hard for a vampire writer!

I understand why mystery writers stay with the same character over multiple books. I feel really lucky with Gilda. It’s exciting to have a character that you can grow up and deepen over time.

I also finally accept that mainstream publishers still don’t really see lesbians of color as potentially universal. They think that not enough people want to read our work for it to be worthwhile to market. They’ll market a novel about an elephant saving the circus or a mute person living with dogs in the woods, but lesbians are too far out for them. But I just keep writing Gilda and all kinds of people keep buying her.

SB: The Gilda Stories could go on forever.

JG: They could, and maybe they will.