When writer Jewelle Gomez first moved to New York City in 1977, she met an extremely friendly white-haired woman in her apartment building elevator. After exchanging pleasantries, the woman asked Gomez a few questions.
“I’m a poet,” Gomez recalls telling her.
“Will I have read you?” her neighbor asked.
“Oh, no, I haven’t been published,” Gomez replied.
After hearing this, the woman’s demeanor changed and she scowled and became slightly agitated. “Don’t wait for them,” she implored. “Do it yourself. Find someone who does printing and put a chapbook together.”
In 1979, Gomez followed this advice and released her first book: The Lipstick Papers.
She later learned that the woman who’d encouraged her was activist-writer Grace Paley (1922-2007), author of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and The Little Disturbances of Man. Improbable as it sounds, a decade after the pair’s serendipitous meeting, they were reading together, both as established and well-regarded members of the progressive literary community.
As Gomez became increasingly conscious of misogyny, she became highly attuned to the ways popular culture reinforced white male privilege.
But Paley’s off-the-cuff counsel was not the only reason Gomez felt driven to write and publish. Several years before meeting the renowned author, Gomez had seen an Off Broadway production of Ntozake Shange’s For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf at the Henry Street Settlement on New York’s Lower East Side. At the time, Gomez was living slightly north of the city and teaching theater and Super-8 filmmaking classes at a community arts center. As Gomez describes the impact of a play seen more than 40 years ago, time vanishes and she is able to conjure vivid memories.
“I saw it in 1975 and afterwards I was on fire,” she says, explaining that the play — which she saw six or seven times before it opened on Broadway — not only showcased deeply-felt poetry, but seemed to speak directly to her as a Black and Indigenous writer, telling her in no uncertain terms that she could, and should, write about her own life and the lives of the women she knew.
This realization coincided with a surge in feminist activism and Gomez and her arts center colleagues were already discussing Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique, as well as and Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 best-seller, The Second Sex. As Gomez became increasingly conscious of misogyny, homophobia and the subtle expression of racial and class bigotry, she became highly attuned to the ways popular culture reinforced white male privilege. It enraged her.
In fact, when mainstream critics panned For colored girls as male-bashing, she responded by writing a scathing defense that was included in Homegirls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith and released in 1983. Gomez also took on critics of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, The Color Purple, and notes that, for her, the book presented a monumental shake-up of the status quo, telling both readers and aspiring writers that fiction did not need to focus on urban sophisticates or the middle or upper classes to be worthwhile.
As Gomez talks, her reverence for Shange and Walker is readily apparent; nonetheless, she acknowledges that they are not the only literary giants on whose foundation she stands. James Baldwin, she says, was an early influence. “My dad had all of his books, and by the time I was 14 I was reading them. I learned to love language from reading Baldwin, even if I did not always understand what I was reading.”
Other influences include Octavia Butler, speculative fiction writer Joanna Russ, whose 1975 book, The Female Man, challenged what is now called the gender binary, and Audre Lorde — who allowed Gomez to audit the classes she taught at Hunter College and was an early critical reader of The Gilda Stories, a novel that was first published by Firebrand Books in 1991 and that depicts 200 years of US history through the eyes of an Indigenous/African-American lesbian vampire.
“Presenting history from a single person’s point of view further fascinated me and got me to the vampire idea.”
Each writer’s influence can be seen in Gomez’s output — to date she has published seven books of poetry and prose. Waiting for Giovanni, a play written by Gomez and Harry Waters Jr. — about the publication of James Baldwin’s seminal book, Giovanni’s Room — premiered at the New Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco in 2011. A new play, Leaving the Blues, about lesbian musician Alberta Hunter, was commissioned by the New Conservatory and will open in March 2017. Casting, Gomez reports, will begin this summer.
Gomez smiles as she describes the upcoming play, and it is obvious that she enjoys writing, especially now that she no longer has to work at a day job. For more than 30 years, she tells me, she worked in philanthropy, with stints at the New York State Council on the Arts, the San Francisco Arts Commission, The Horizons Foundation, and the Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University.
Now 67, she is thrilled by The Gilda Stories comeback — the book was reissued in April 2016 by City Lights Books — and the extensive book tour that is taking her to cities across the US.
When we meet she’s in Brooklyn, New York, preparing to read at one of the city’s few remaining independent bookstores. We’re sitting in her friend’s incredibly beautiful art-filled apartment, and as we jump from topic to topic, it’s as if we’re old friends, with none of the awkward pauses that sometimes occur during interviews. We laugh — a lot.
Where did the idea of writing about a lesbian vampire, the protagonist in The Gilda Stories, come from? I ask her. “I kind of backed into the idea,” she begins. “In 1971, my great grandmother, a member of the Ioway tribe, died. I’d lived with her until the age of 22 and I’d been thinking about how much scientific and political change she’d seen over the course of her life. She was born in 1883 and was often incredulous over the shifts she’d witnessed, but she was not stuck in the past. Nonetheless, the sense that she’d lived in time and out of time stayed with me. Presenting history from a single person’s point of view further fascinated me and got me to the vampire idea.”
The award-winning novel — winner of Lambda commendations for lesbian fiction and lesbian science fiction/fantasy — begins with a young Black girl’s escape from slavery in 1850 and travels 200 years into the future, with numerous stops along the way, moving her from the 19th century, to the turn of the 20th century, to the environmental calamity facing North America in 2050. Reflecting sensitivity to ever-evolving race and gender relations, the book is not heavy-handed. At the same time, Gomez puts forward many ideas through it, including a reverence for life. For example, although Gilda is a vampire, she takes only enough blood for sustenance, killing as a last resort. “I didn’t want Gilda to be a female serial killer,” Gomez says. “I had to think really carefully about the moments when she might take a life. At the beginning of the book, when Gilda is fleeing slavery and has to fight off a rapist, it seemed likely that her instinct for survival would be strong enough to push her to kill her abuser. Later, when she strikes out at two predatory males who intend to hurt her, she again kills. But even then,” she continues, “she can’t just murder them and walk away.”
Vampires are more than blood-sucking monsters, Gomez stresses, and the undead in Gilda represent a model that diverges from contemporary representations. “Most of today’s vampire stories are not well told,” she says, “but I do understand their appeal, especially among young people. Vampires contain the angst that runs through most teenagers. The idea that they belong, but don’t belong, courses through them and you can sense their sexual uneasiness. Vampires ask how you fit into the world.”
Then there’s the idea, put forth in The Gilda Stories, that relations between men and women, and between people of color and white folks, can be respectful, nurturing and healthy. Many of her closest friends, she says, are men, gay and straight; her wife is white. “I felt I wanted The Stories to reflect the life I was raised in,” Gomez says. “I had a white stepfather and a white half-brother who I adored and who adored me. It didn’t mean there were no hurdles, but I wanted to show that life side-by-side is possible.”
Throughout The Gilda Stories, deep friendships develop and provide Gilda with love and support, something she willingly reciprocates. “Most human beings want connection with other people,” she explains. “Today we travel across the continent and have the illusion of intimacy through our devices and apps, but in my experience, people have to be intentional about maintaining interpersonal relationships.”
“I feel gratitude that I’ve been able to meet people from everywhere and live in a lesbian-feminist context. I want my work to reflect that.”
Preserving ties, she continues, is crucial, and she is heartened to see loads of old friends as she tours with Gilda. Overall, she adds, the response to the book’s reissue has been mostly positive. Despite some negative reviews (Publishers’ Weekly called the book “an uninteresting romance novel” and Kirkus Reviews criticized it for “inadequate writing”), Gomez was recently awarded the Barbary Coast Award by Litquake, a Bay Area literary group, and the 2016 Trailblazer Award from the Golden Crown Literary Society in Virginia.
She’s pleased with these acknowledgements, of course, but for her, writing — whether poetry, prose, fiction or a play — is about more than winning accolades or gaining approval. “The Surrealists believed that in order to change the world, people had to change their dreams,” she notes. “Novels are dreams.”
Indeed. The Gilda Stories dreams of a world in which women and men of all races live in peace, using violence only in the rarest and most extreme situations. And the ways her personal dreams infuse her work? Gomez sits back, sips her tea, and takes a moment to consider her response. “I feel fortunate to have lived to this age and still be writing,” she says. “I feel gratitude that I’ve been able to meet people from everywhere and live in a lesbian-feminist context. I want my work to reflect that.”
The first edition of The Gilda Stories was published by Firebrand Books in 1991; the 25th anniversary edition is published by City Lights Books, with an afterword by Alexis Pauline Gumbs.