Vampire Values

Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories.


Irene Young

From capes and castles to sparkly skin and adolescent angst, the vampire is a creature that writers have created and recreated, over the centuries, very much in their own ideological image. Like Dracula, Edward Cullen, and Lestat de Lioncourt, Gilda, the title character of the groundbreaking novel The Gilda Stories, (reissued in April by City Lights in an expanded 25th anniversary edition), is the bearer of a unique vampire mythology. She is a fugitive slave in 1850s Louisiana as the novel opens, and her story is told from a lesbian-feminist perspective.

Years before African-American authors such as Octavia Butler and Tananarive Due began refashioning narratives of the undead with queer black female protagonists at their center, Jewelle Gomez pioneered what is now a recognizable vampire sub-genre with Gilda, the winner of two Lambda Literary Awards. “In 1991, when Gilda was first published, there wasn't anything like it,” Gomez says from her home in the Bay Area. “As I began working on the book with my editor, she asked me how I was going to write about a vampire that was not a serial killer. As a lesbian feminist, everything I write comes from that perspective, so I work extra hard to make sure that my work doesn’t come across as exploitative, and to create characters that live up to the values that are core to me.”

Gomez achieved her aim by creating vampires that take blood without killing and leave those they drink from with enriched dreams and a sense of well-being. Further, by steering clear of such staples of the vampire genre as guilt, violence, and suppressed erotic desire, Gomez relies upon values, not vices, to delineate her characters. Reciprocity, reproductive constraint, and the right to end one’s life on one’s own terms are some of the issues Gomez deftly explores, and she does so in part by writing a vampire story that is also a piece of speculative fiction.

At the end of the novel, which takes place in the middle of the 21st century, Gilda is again hunted. Only instead of fleeing a 19th-century slave master, she’s running from wealthy people who want to use vampire blood to live prolonged, robust lives in a world of environmental collapse. “Gilda’s invested in her sense of responsibility, which grows out of her power,” Gomez says. “This message runs counter to the capitalistic system in which we live. Speculative fiction is not about prophecy—it is about carefully considering the world we live in today, right now.

“In the speculative fiction classes I’ve visited on college campuses across the country, what I call the post-Buffy audience wants to discuss sci-fi within a social consciousness context. Fracking, the flagrant disregard that government agencies show for resources like clean water, a lack of commitment to envisioning our part in the future: These things spell long-range fallout, and, growing up with my great-grandmother, who was a Native American born in 1883, I have always had a sense of the long term.”

A Native American character called Bird, who is based on Gomez’s great-grandmother, is one of two women who turn Gilda, as well as teach her how to live as a “human who is no longer mortal.” Over the 200-year span of the novel, Gilda thrives, in Gomez’s words, “not only on blood but on her connectivity to other human beings.” This statement is also true of the novel itself.

The theater company Urban Bush Women adapted Gilda for the stage and the play traveled to 13 cities. A young woman at a Florida book-signing presented a battered copy of the novel to Gomez, recounting for the author that when a hurricane hit, Gilda was the only book she thought to save from her badly damaged home. And in a lovely afterward in the novel's new edition, the scholar and activist Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes that her mother keeps Gilda right where she belongs: on the self-help shelf.

Part of why the novel has achieved classic status is because of Gomez’s ingenious reframing of blood-taking. By scripting the act as an exchange instead of one of murderous thievery, Gomez not only contributed to vampire mythology, but she did so based on what she believed to be “possible as a feminist.” Gilda has endured for 25 years and will for many more because it expands the vampire narrative with its vision of a responsible, compassionate, woman-centered power. A game-changing shot in the arm to a genre, The Gilda Stories is an eternal inspiration to readers.

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