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.
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 email@example.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.