Recently, at WisCon 40 (a feminist sci-fi and fantasy convention in Madison, Wisconsin), we had the opportunity to sit down with the phenomenal Jewelle Gomez, author of The Gilda Stories, which is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year with City Lights Books! Jewelle Gomez talks vampires, community, and radical change in this interview.
CBSD: The Gilda Stories was one of the first stories that was a vampire story that wasn’t just about vampires. Why not just make it realistic fiction?
JG: Well, the first Gilda Story I wrote is really a story about retribution, and about a woman being harrassed on the street, and then she kills the guy. And then I realized, “well, that was interesting,” but what I really wanted to write about was women feeling powerful. . . I wanted to write more about that character. Then I thought, well, maybe she’s a vampire, because then she can travel through time and she can be part of culture and yet apart from cultures. And I was very interested in an African American character, specifically a woman, being a part of history, and not only a slave (which is what she starts out as) but as a person who is acting on their own terms. Having her be a vampire made it possible for her to see time, see life over time, and to struggle with how to be powerful without being exploitative. Gilda’s growth over time was emblematic of the things that I hope for in any oppressed community—the opportunity to gain power without becoming oppressive yourself. We’re still trying to get to that.
CBSD: One of my favorite things about The Gilda Stories is the way the long timeline allows for that complexity. It shows how different groups shift in social hierarchies, from their inception (or “discovery,” in the case of the vampires) to their acceptance, to their rejection.
JG: Exactly. That’s one of the things I was hoping to do. We only get a snapshot of the culture if we live to be ninety—such a tiny little snapshot. There’s the one line in the novel, in which the original Gilda says, “The real gift is to see people over time and still want to make a world.” Because people are really disappointing. Ha! And I think that’s what anyone who’s an activist, at their core, has to understand. People are really disappointing, but our role is to keep being activists. You have some gains, and that will be lovely, and some setbacks, and that will be disappointing, but at the heart of it, as activists, our role is to keep doing what we do. It does not stop at, “oh, I got what I want. I got marriage, so now I’m happy.” (I don’t know why you’d be happy with that, but, you know.) Well, how is that person over there doing? And then knowing you have to protect those people. The rights, when you get them, they don’t stay. You have to protect them. Because you really want a shift in the culture, not just a law here and a law there.
CBSD: How did you first get started working with City Lights, and what has your experience with them as a publisher been?
JG: I knew City Lights already because I knew San Francisco, and of course everybody knows them, and I had a kind of friendly relationship with them already. I think they saw the political perspective that it had, and it really fit in with their kind of progressive, thoughtful publishing history. . . It’s been heaven. Having an independent press is really amazing for me. When I was first trying to get Gilda published, all of the commercial presses and the sci-fi presses turned it down. It was too … something. I don’t know. One letter from one of the editors at one of the mainstream presses said, “Gilda is a lesbian, she’s black, and she’s a vampire. That’s too confusing.” And my thought was, well, I’m two of the three… I don’t think I confuse people. (I didn’t say which two of the three I was.) Twenty-five years later to have an important press like City Lights to reissue, for me, was such an honor. The team was so great, and they set up readings for me, a tour up the coast, and helped me figure out how to do the Twitter, and I know I’m not their only author! They still gave me everything they could possibly give me. . . How lucky can a girl get?
CBSD: What has touring been like?
JG: I didn’t go “on the road,” per se [for The Gilda Stories‘ first publication]. With City Lights, this year, I really just had to say, “I think I want to go here,” and then they’d find a bookstore for me. Along the tour, I would ask, “Who here has read Gilda before?” And I got all of these stories—you know, “I was in graduate school,” or “I was giving birth to my first child, and I was trying to distract myself” … and I said, “Gilda’s good, but I don’t know if she can distract you from labor!” But people had all kinds of stories they wanted to tell me about where they were when they first met her, and that was very sweet.
CBSD: What’s next?
JG: Once I’ve gotten this Gilda launched, probably this winter I’ll start again. I have about five chapters… it’s not a prequel—somebody called it an “intra-quel,” because the chapters take place between the chapters of the current novel. I try to track more of Gilda’s emotional growth . . . I love being able to think about Gilda as a human. I mean, she’s not mortal, but she is a human being, hyper-realized, so everything she feels is huge.
CBSD: That sounds fascinating. We can’t wait to see where Gilda goes next!
The Gilda Stories: 25th Anniversary Edition is available now from City Lights Books. Find out where to purchase this and other titles here on the Consortium website.