Fiction Fragments: Jewelle Gomez

Last week is spoke with poet, lyracist and writer Donna Lynch about the quiet horror associated with growing up in the suburbs.

This week, I have the pleasure of chatting with one of the writers who has inspired my work, and whom I admire as a scholar, a writer, and an activist, Jewelle Gomez.

Jewelle Gomez (Cape Verdean/Ioway/Wampanoag) is a writer and activist and author of the double Lambda Award-winning novel, THE GILDA STORIES from Firebrand Books. Her adaptation of the book for the stage “BONES & ASH: A GILDA STORY,” was performed by the Urban Bush Women company in 13 U.S. cities. The script was published as a Triangle Classic by the Paperback Book Club.

She is the recipient of a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; two California Arts Council fellowships and an Individual Artist Commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Her fiction, essays, criticism and poetry have appeared in numerous periodicals. Among them: The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, The Village Voice; Ms Magazine, ESSENCE Magazine, The Advocate, Callaloo and Black Scholar. Her work has appeared in such anthologies as HOME GIRLS, READING BLACK READING FEMINIST, DARK MATTER and the OXFORD WORLD TREASURY OF LOVE STORIES.

She has served on literature panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council and the California Arts Council.

She was on the original staffs of “Say Brother,” one of the first weekly, Black television shows in the U.S. (WGBH-TV, Boston) and “The Electric Company” (Children’s Television Workshop, NYC) as well as and on the founding board of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). She was an original member of the boards of the Astraea Foundation and the Open Meadows Foundation.

Twitter: @VampyreVamp
Website: jewellegomez.com

Three Questions…okay, Five Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jewelle. I can’t tell you how excited I am to have you as a guest on my blog. Thank you for being here. Thank you for being a source of encouragement and inspiration. And, thank you for being supportive to me as a new writer. When I reached out to you back in 2019 to ask if you’d be willing to blurb my novel, Invisible Chains, I took a risk not knowing if you’d respond. One of the sayings that drives me to take risks, is that if you never ask, the answer will always be “no”. What risks have you taken as a writer, and what advice would you give new writers about taking risks in order to create their most authentic work?

JG: Writing The Gilda Stories was taking a risk of sorts because several lesbian feminists and African American writers insisted that it was going to be insulting to women and lesbians. They thought Gilda would be just another predator reinforcing negative stereotypes. But I think an even bigger risk was when I asked Audre Lorde to read the manuscript which at that stage was just the short stories. She responded that she didn’t care for short stories much or vampires but she agreed to read it. I held my breath the entire time she talked until she said yes! Her response was really positive and she was the person who first said it must be re-edited and presented as a novel. That was a choice my publisher, Nancy Bereano agreed with enthusiastically! I’d recommend that beginning writers stay open to listen to critiques of their work. Sometimes criticism is meaningless but sometimes there are important things to hear–like my book was really a novel. Don’t be afraid that others can tear down your work, only you can do that. And don’t be afraid to imagine the lives of characters who don’t look like you and do the work to make them real. If I hadn’t done that there’d be no vampires in my oeuvre!

GMM: Until recently, I didn’t realize The Gilda Stories was your debut novel. I think it’s interesting that as black women writers, we both chose to write vampire novels that deal with slavery and its affect on the American psyche. Your novel and Toni Morrison’s Beloved were inspirations to me. What inspired you to write The Gilda Stories? Where did this narrative come from and why did you decide to make it a vampire novel?

JG: It’s heartbreaking how this society hasn’t begun to address the ripple effects of slavery on our present-day culture. It seems more important to dismiss history as irrelevant while the police kill black people with impunity as if it were 1860 and not the 21st century. The novel grew out of an incident on the corner of my street when I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I’d gone to the corner to use a telephone booth (remember them) one evening and two drunk black men walked by and stopped to harass me with lewd descriptions of what they’d like to do to me (more ripples). I became furious, asked my friend on the other end of the line to hold on as I set the phone down. I turned to the men and screamed at them like a wild thing! And I wouldn’t back down. Finally one brother said to the other, “Let’s get out of here man, she’s crazy!” And I did go a little mad; if there’d been a weapon nearby I would have used it. Meanwhile my poor friend heard the screaming and worried she should be calling the police to save me. I hung up, went back to my apartment and was shaking with fury at that verbal assault that I and other women endure every day. Adrenaline was coursing through me and I sat down at my typewriter and began the first Gilda story. In the early draft Gilda does kill the guy and toss his body in the Hudson River. After I calmed down and went back to look at the story I wanted to explain her superhuman strength, and I’d always read vampire fiction so I thought that would be the character’s secret.

GMM: It’s been almost 30 years since The Gilda Stories was published. It has been adapted for film and the stage, and it celebrated a 25-year anniversary with an expanded volume. I’ve been stressing out because people keep asking me when the sequel to my novel, which was released just last year, is coming out. Why did you decide after all this time to write a sequel to The Gilda Stories? What stopped you from writing the sequel sooner?

JG: I spent three years adapting two chapters of The Gilda Stories for the stage (along with Toshi Reagon) for the Urban Bushwoman Company and then toured with it for a year. So I was a bit burned out for a while. That experience sent me back to the stage and I’ve been writing a trilogy of plays for the past decade commissioned by New Conservatory, the queer theatre here in the Bay Area. Cheryl Dunye optioned Gilda for a limited TV series last year so I’m hoping we get to see that soon. But all along I did write new Gilda pieces for different anthologies. I kept in mind they’d be for a new book which I call Gilda Interposed because rather than a sequel the new chapters take place in between the current novel’s chapters.

Don’t be distressed that people ask about the next book…it’s one (unfortunate) way they have to express their admiration for the current work! I’d worry when they stop asking!

GMM: You have accomplished a lot in your career(s) as an academic, as a writer and as an activist. Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of, and what accomplishments do you still have your sights set on for the future?

JG: I feel very strongly that the different aspects of my career are all facets of my activism; I’m most proud of that. As a teacher and director of the San Francisco State Poetry Center and Archives; the 30 years I spent as a grantmaker for government and private foundations; writing the many essays, short stories and plays–I looked at each position through my lens as a lesbian feminist of colour and was conscious always of how I could affect the institutions and the people who were being touched. Holding on to that political perspective means a lot to me and it wasn’t always simple.

As for the future I look forward to seeing Gilda Interposed (which is both darker and funnier) find a publisher and fans. About ten years ago I finished a comic (non-vampire) novel, Televised, about a group of African Americans attending their college reunion and experiencing the effects of their youthful black activism. Again the ripple effects of slavery are alive in the racism they faced on their college campus in the 1960s and are still there decades later when they return. I think this is a good time to finally find a publisher for that. And I have two more plays outlined: in one I give new life to lesbian characters who’ve been demeaned in the work of others, also a comedy. And the second is about the Native American girls basketball team in 1904. If I’m still alive after that, who knows!

GMM: Aside from the fact that you wrote one of my favorite vampire novels of all time, I think the one thing that stood out to me the most in your bio was that you were on the staff of the television show “The Electric Company”. Growing up, I loved that show more than “Sesame Street” and wondered what your role was in creating one of the coolest, most diverse shows on Public Television.

JG: I’d been a production assistant in Boston at WGBH TV (1968-71) on one of the first weekly, black television shows so was hired for the production staff of “The Electric Company” right out of college. It was a job I was ill prepared for because of the complexity of the unionised environment in NYC and the rush of creating pilot shows. Again ripples of racism…for optics they needed to hire a person of colour and didn’t consider how I might not be up to the task. I had little to do with shaping the show but learned so much from working with the educators and writers about how to imbed effective messages in silly little skits. I was inspired watching some of the most immense talents of the time perform. And I made one of my dearest friends there. I’d met Morgan Freeman earlier when he’d done a TV drama in Boston and in the NYC studio he was my one friend. When I was fired he and his (then) wife, kids and I became very close. His encouragement staved off my deep depression from being unemployed in NYC; abandoned in an expensive apartment by a roommate when she realised I was a lesbian; and the death of my great grandmother who’d raised me. His support helped me decide to get my MS in Journalism from Columbia. So I’d say “The Electric Company” gave me more than I gave it.

I Brought You Into This World 1892
for Toni Morrison, who showed me the power of death 

Samuel looked into his wife’s deep brown eyes as he squeezed the life out of her—or at least he thought he had. 

I’ve heard several versions of this story but wasn’t sure how close to truth any of them came. I understood, though, that one beloved woman, abused as a child, had grown up to seduce and manipulate others to be as destructive as the uncle who’d destroyed her childhood. I suppose it was that history which made Eleanor’s cruelty almost invisible to me. Over the subsequent centuries, tales of abuse of children never ceased to wring my heart with a barbed pain. But people had begun to speak of Eleanor and Gilda in one whispered breath infused with romance. All began to unravel for me in Eleanor’s salon where she held sway over the almost elite citizens of the still rustic Yerba Buena. And over me.

This evening, I was rejoining Eleanor, eager for the intimate warmth emanating from her presence. I noted how the green velvet of the draperies matched the green of her eyes and was thrilled at the manner in which her voluminous gown was caught so tight in her corset it made one wonder how she could breath. Of course, breathing was not an ordeal for either of us. It was then that Samuel, an early conquest of Eleanor’s, burst through the door and marched toward her. He was not uncommonly tall nor short and quite fit. His tailor must have worshipped him because he was never less than exquisitely turned out. Except tonight it was all slightly askew.

“I’ve finally come to you a free man, my darling,” he said in a low, tremulous whisper as he arrived at the small table where Eleanor sat. With our preternaturally acute hearing it almost sounded as if he whispered in my ear as well as Eleanor’s. He noted the table was set with places for two. “And I see you’re expecting me.”

“No, I am not,” Eleanor’s voice was unmistakably unwelcoming. Please leave my salon and make an appointment if you wish to see me on a future evening.”

From my place by the curtains I could see rage pass over Samuel’s face and I thought to step out and be prepared to defend Eleanor. Fortunately, I remembered that although she was diminutive in size, Eleanor was not of meager strength herself. Additionally, she had been the one to bring Samuel into our dark life so he would not risk hurting his maker. 

I use the phrase ‘dark life’ not to denote negativity. In fact, dark to me means rich like fertile soil; warm as were the dark faces of the family I lost to slavery; or unbounded like the night sky. I know so many, even in this unruly place of Yerba Buena, look upon the darker races with scorn—free Africans, Chinese railway workers, Mexican vaqueros, the indigenous tribal peoples—are no more than paving stones on the White’s path toward riches. For Whites he have little value beyond what our sweat can produce or to serve as receptacles for their lust or anger. I knew Samuel to be one of those who felt this way so tried to avoid his company.

He moved closer, towering over Eleanor as he said. “She’s dead. I did it for us.”

“Should I ask who?” Eleanor’s icy tone almost frosted the glass in her hand which sparkled with the effervescent wine that was gaining popularity.

“You know who.”

“Does your wife have no name?”

“She doesn’t need a name now.”

“Please cease your nattering and remove yourself or I’ll have you removed.”

At that I stepped from the shadow of the drapery and faced Samuel. I too am of medium height and build, although my shoulders are of extra width because of my labour on the plantation when a child. My physical vessel is complimented by my finely tailored wool and silk purple jacket and split skirt. I wear my thick hair in a braid wrapped as a crown on my head and my dark skin now shines with a mist of angry perspiration. The hatred in his eyes was a fire he would not contain but for the audience around us.

“Good evening, Samuel,” I tried to employ the even, musical tones that often served Eleanor so well.

“Ahh,” he barely glanced in my direction as his voice raised in pitch. “You are interviewing for a new maid. I’m so sorry to interrupt. We’ll talk at another time.” He must have seen the flame in my eyes because he turned so quickly, he was barely visible as he left the salon.

“Gilda, I am sorry for that. Samuel is impossible.” Eleanor looked up at me with a smile that felt like sunshine; the sunshine that those of our nature could never fully enjoy. Ringlets of crimson curls caressed her handsome face as if she’d not a care in the world. “He’s famous for his fabulist nature. He’ll say anything to get my attention.”

“Even confess to murder?”

“I suppose.” Eleanor responded. “But murder may have to brush closer to him than just his wife.” 

I gasped and Eleanor said with the sweetest of tones, “Dearest Gilda, let’s not speak of death when we have so much life to live together.”

The initial stoniness inside her voice and the ease with which it melted into honeyed tones sent chilled ripples through my entire body. Without her speaking another word I understood she was opening a door she expected me to walk through. A door to the true death for her former lover; her creation which she wished to discard…for me.

***

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Jessica McHugh

Last week, Girl Meets Monster spoke with Nick Cato about the relationship between horror and humor. And this week, I am pleased to welcome the delightful Jessica McHugh.

authorpicJessica McHugh is a novelist and internationally produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-three books published in eleven years, including her bizarro romp, “The Green Kangaroos,” her Post Mortem Press bestseller, “Rabbits in the Garden,” and her YA series, “The Darla Decker Diaries.” More information on her published and forthcoming fiction can be found at JessicaMcHughBooks.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hi, Jessica. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. I’m dying to know what happens next for Duncan Dwyer; I wanted to keep reading when your fragment ended. Can you give a brief synopsis of this story? What inspired the story and where on Earth is Dickety Downs? Is it based on a real place?

JM: This story was originally inspired by a publisher’s plan to release a series of RL Stine Fear Street-eque books. It didn’t happen, but I ended up with several chapters of this WIP story and some characters that I’d grown to love. Nuts and bolts synopsis: it’s about loss coming to terms with how loss changes us, but it’s also about reinvention and not always with a positive spin. Dickety Downs, and the town of Alton where it’s nestled, is pretty much a dead space to the rest of the world. And to a lesser extent, so is Hampstead, the town where I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I was shocked a few years back when I realized my once idyllic suburban neighborhood enveloped by lush and tangled woodland where I pretended to be an explorer and soldier and unicorn and spent countless hours making joyful noise with my friends had become a silent stretch of empty houses hastily vacated. All around my childhood home where my father and brother still live are trash-filled shells of suburban dreams. A few years ago, my high school even closed down, and the police department moved into its still-warm corpse.

Hampstead definitely inspired the town of Alton where Duncan Dwyer and her father move at the novel’s start, but as much as I hope my old hometown is able to reinvent itself, I hope it doesn’t go down the same dark path as the one laid out in this story.

GMM: When did you start writing YA fiction? As an adult, is it easy to get into the headspace of children and teens, or do you struggle to find their voices? How much of yourself is in your young female characters? Do you prefer writing YA fiction or fiction for a more adult audience?

JM: I’ve been writing YA for a while, though I didn’t always write with a YA audience in mind. Because of the protagonists’ ages, Rabbits in the Garden and Danny Marble & the Application for Non-Scary Things were marketed to a younger audience that…ahem…might not have appreciated the gore level. However, even though my 5-book series, the Darla Decker Diaries, was written for middle grade and up, I still pushed the boundaries a bit. (And by now, you’ve figured out that I *really* like alliteration, right?) I don’t feel like I struggle to channel a younger voice, but I’ve also spent a lot of time around kids and teens teaching creative writing, and living and working in downtown Frederick provides a lot of inspirado and research opportunities.

I feel like there’s a sliver of me in every character I write but certainly more than others, at least in the beginning. Darla Decker was directly inspired by my childhood diaries, so she started out very much like me. But she grew as a person over five books and made lots of decisions I never would. Duncan Dwyer, on the other hand, feels already grown. She’s gone through a lot more than Darla—death, abandonment, depression and anxiety—and just when she’s starting to heal, she’s thrown into this dilapidated town teetering on the success of an experimental private school. I started writing this story a year or so after my cat died when I was having severe depression and panic attacks so bad I couldn’t hold a pen. I was on medication for the first time in my life, and in the first few chapters Duncan discusses her meds and visits her new therapist.

As for what I prefer…I just don’t know. But based on my published works, this work-in-progress, and the two middle-grade horror books I’m writing currently, it sure seems like I unconsciously prefer YA.

GMM: Your story has a light-hearted humorous feel to it, but I suspect Duncan is about to experience something strange or even traumatic. Is there usually an element of horror in your work even though you write in several genres? Last week, Nick Cato talked about how humor and horror work together in his fiction. How would you describe the relationship between humor and horror in your own work and in other fiction you’ve enjoyed reading?

JM: Oh, absolutely, there are always horrific elements in my work. Maybe it’s because real life seems to overflow with all varieties and intensities of horror, it just comes out naturally. I truly can’t help it, nor would I want to.

While I’m not sure I’m as adept as Nick Cato at incorporating humor into horror, there’s no doubt I love using it. It’s a great way to manage the intensity of the reader’s fear. While humor can diffuse a tense situation, it can also prolong the reader’s comfort so terror can creep up slow—or methodically unravel in the background while the characters are having a nice laugh. Again, I believe real life follows similar patterns, so I’m just keeping it real creating this delicious genre goulash.

Who Died in the House Next Door, by Jessica McHugh

Chapter One

The squirrel on the porch was dead before Duncan dropped her suitcase on its head. That’s what her dad said anyway. While he scrubbed blood out of her luggage, he repeated frantic assurances like, “This isn’t a bad sign, honeybee,” and “It could happen to anyone.”

Of course it could happen to anyone, but it happened to her, Duncan Dwyer, less than two minutes after arriving at her new home. So maybe it wasn’t a bad sign, but it sure as hell wasn’t a good sign.

Her dad blamed himself, and she wanted to blame him too. It was because of him that she had to uproot her life in Joliet and move to a neighborhood too empty and boring to be called something as crazy as “Dickety Downs.”

She sighed. Duncan Dwyer of Dickety Downs. That should go over well at the new school.

Her father’s bushy black eyebrows formed a somber “w” between his eyes, and Duncan launched into assurances of her own. That’s what they did—what they had to do to protect each other. So, yes, even though he was the reason they left Joliet, he’d done it for the greater good, in pursuit of a better life for them both. Besides, no sane person could’ve refused the generous offer from the principal of the newly constructed Alton Academy. A free house and double her father’s previous teaching salary was more than they could’ve asked for. Add in the privilege of attending the trial run of Alton Academy’s so-called Experimental Learning Facility, and Duncan’s dad was packing up their possessions before Duncan could even think of objecting.

Not that she would have. After more than a year of homeschooling with Dad, she wasn’t eager about returning to a typical school setting, but he obviously was. He missed the madness of high school halls and unpredictability of being a teacher who actually cared about underachievers and outcasts. Besides, if her dad was telling the truth about Alton Academy, it wasn’t exactly a “typical” school.

“We needed our own doormat anyway,” Duncan said as her dad dropped the faded straw thing into the trash bag with the squirrel. The word “Welcome” permeated the white haze like a mocking grin, but she refused to let it venture beyond the rim of her vision. “What do you think? Something nice and flowery, or maybe something a little more realistic? ‘Buzz off’ comes to mind…”

His eyebrows relaxed, and his mouth stretched to a grin. “No shock there, honeybee.” He dropped the bag and wrapped his arms around her, but for all the ways his embrace filled the fractured places, it was as temporary as chewing gum. It lost its flavor quickly, and she swallowed it dry as he lugged the dead squirrel and tainted rug down their new driveway to their new curb in their new, severely weathered, neighborhood.

Anxiety curled her veins like frayed ribbon as she scanned Dickety Downs. They’d entered the town of Alton in the teasing pink of evening, before the trees scraped off their makeup and hunkered down in their truth, gnarled and hideous in the dull light of faulty streetlamps. Most had shed their summer skin and stood as cracked and bare as the numerous driveways leading to dark, empty houses.  Not only were the Dwyers the only ones rustling in the falling evening, they appeared to be the only ones who actually lived in Dickety Downs.

Duncan backed inside and turned on the foyer light, followed by the living room, kitchen, and the long slate throat to the basement. Her dad closed the front door, and she scuttled back to the hall to see his pointer finger fall on the lock like Midas before the rude awakening. From the lock, his fingers leaped to the delicate curvy trim bisecting the foyer walls. He didn’t look up, but he knew she was watching, otherwise he wouldn’t have kicked up his index finger and made a dancer of his hand. He dashed and tapped his fingertips over the trim with his usual flair, but he soon ran out of dance floor. There were no picture frames for leaps or rond de jambe, no chachkis for him to bounce between. There were only the walls and Duncan, and she didn’t feel like being danced on tonight.

Cumbersome boxes surrounded her, wearing labels like “basement,” “kitchen,” and the name “Gail,” which had been angrily x-ed out. None were labeled with Duncan’s name, much to her disappointment.

“When’s the rest of our stuff getting here?” she asked.

Dad’s dancer didn’t land; it simply ceased to be as he strolled past Duncan to wash his hands.

“Some are going to be late, but the furniture should be here soon. The mattress and couches at least.”

“How late?”

He dried his hands and tossed the towel on the sink. “It might be a few days, Dunc. I messed up some of the forms and—“Exhaling, he grabbed the towel again and whirled it as he opened the refrigerator and said, “Ta-da!” A raspberry drizzled cheesecake stood alone on the center shelf, with “Welcome Home” written in shining scarlet glaze.

Dad carved a large slice of cake and flopped it onto a paper plate. “Water, Milady?”

“Is there anything else?”

He started to give an answer she knew wouldn’t please her, so she added a quick “Never mind” and “Yes, please.”

They sat cross-legged on the cold blue tile, which clashed like peanut better and kale with the orange planks of wood paneling clumped along the kitchen walls.

I know you have a fiction fragment or two hiding in a drawer. You should totally send them my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.