LESBIAN SELF-WRITING: THE EMBODIMENT OF EXPERIENCE
by Jewelle Gomez
ZAMI, written by Audre Lorde in 1983, is by turns a formal, imposing, conversational and mythic book. It seems to grab daily life as it drifts down from a fire escape and casts it back up into the sky as both a drive-in movie and a cautionary tale. Subtitled ‘‘ A New Spelling of My Name’’ ZAMI was described by Audre as a ‘‘ biomythography,’’ a word she coined to encompass the complexity of her intentions. It is to this fluid and evocative word that I turn as I examine the life of my great grandmother, Grace, and try to find the way to tell her story. In telling of her life I begin, of course, the story of my own.
In an interview in the mid 1980s (Black Women Writers at Work, ed. Claudia Tate) Audre said that biomythography ‘‘ has the elements of biography and history of myth. In other words, it’s fiction built from many sources. This is one way of expanding our vision.’’ Audre’s intent, structure and tone in ZAMI create a sense of immediacy. This also helps define biomythography for me, making it ring inside like the bells of a buoy pointing my way through pea-soup fog into a solid berth. Her book called to mind the Greek myths, folk and fairy tales of my childhood. Vulnerable gods, magical animals and ingenious princesses each possessed human and larger than life preoccupations.
Elements of truth, wound inextricably around the fantastic, were woven through countless tales over the centuries, reinforcing familiar pictures for each successive generation. There is a ceaseless fascination with the mythic: Edith Hamilton who explicated Greek myths in the 1940s; Wade Davis who tried to penetrate the secrets of Haitian vodoun in the 1980s; Italo Calvino, whose interpretation of Italian folk tales in the 1950s was finally translated into English in the 1980s, or more popularly the contemporary mythology of Xena, Warrior Princess.
ZAMI, however, imagines our lives, not those of gods, priestesses or animals, as both magic and epic, expanding the reader’s vision of the past, present and the future. That expansion lies at the heart of all of my writing; finding a focus to help accomplish that has been challenging both emotionally and intellectually.
In my novel, The Gilda Stories, and some of my short fiction, I’ve employed elements of history and myth to relate the stories of the ordinary lives of women, illuminating the extraordinary affects such lives have on others and on our world. Yet those elements are not always so easily accessible. Yes, we can all research things on the net, obtaining obscure, disembodied facts. But what is the psychic, emotional context we use to process the information? None of us is a blank slate (Who’d want to read one?). We each carry inside us the prohibitions and strictures we’ve bumped up against over the years. Learning to recognize them and ‘‘ work’’ them is a process that changes not only what I write, but also how I write. As I did research for The Gilda Stories, for example, I started to recognize elements in the mythology that touched me initially because of my Catholic upbringing. Despite eschewing those beliefs in the distant past, the pathways cut by those teachings still ran deep. The textures of ritual, vibrant color, sensory/ spiritual connections are characteristics of Catholic and vampire mythology. But examining vampires within a lesbian/feminist context led me in a completely new direction.
If I did research, unearthing figures of the past, historical situations, family dis/connections and did not learn and change it would mean my world is flat, without depth or perspective. One way I know I’m on the right track with my research and writing is that I sometimes feel, when I encounter a new fact, confused and
sweaty. The door I’ve opened has neither the lady nor the tiger but some completely unrecognizable animal that I’d better get familiar with quickly. With my novel I slipped surreptitiously into the popular mythology of vampirism, twisting and inverting its traditional precepts so that my perspective as a lesbian feminist (rather than the traditional colonialist/patriarchal underpinnings of most vampire fiction) became the philosophical mooring for my set of vampires. But in order to insert myself I needed to first identify with the vampire figure, a surprisingly easy leap.
What resonated for me first was the sense of history such a character would hold. Having grown up with a great grandmother who was born into the Ioway tribe in Oskaloosa, Iowa and who lived to watch the landing of the first astronaut on the moon on television, I’d lived with the expanse of history every day. Other familiar elements were: the sense of being an outsider, existing in opposition to the dominant culture and the isolation that imposed; a longing for forbidden companionship; and resistance to Christian dogma. Being able to make that identification with an ‘‘ alien’’ character made my own personal sense of ‘‘ otherness’’ (as a lesbian, woman of color, and raised poor) seem almost pedestrian. Creating the idea of a mythic context, the story of my life and that of my characters were then cast against a larger tapestry and implied a sense of the past and the future with which I wanted to work.
Once reinvented, the vampire genre seemed the perfect medium to explore the ideas which sit at my core: examining the connection between power and responsibility, learning how we create ‘‘ family,’’ making a place in history and speaking to future generations. All of these issues had landed in my lap when I was a teenager in a tenement in Boston’s South End and the blood of civil rights activists splashed through my television screen and splattered my existence. Their blood ignited my own, which was already restless with the overwrought Gothic of Catholicism.
With the 1960s movement for human rights, the patterns of history became palpable. Artists of the period such as James Baldwin, Sonia Sanchez, Lorraine Hansberry and Audre Lorde all made that history and its relationship to politics intrinsic to their work and their lives. Their typewriter keys were protest signs waved in the belligerent faces of small town sheriffs and big city school boards. The ensuing years and subsequent movements annealed the concepts of creativity/activism/life for me in ways that no deliberate political indoctrination could ever have done. Participating personally as well as consciously witnessing specific acts that changed generations of behavior from the past and will affect generations to come is not like watching them on television or reading a history book. It was the lived personal and public experience of phenomenal social change in the 1960s and 70s that made me able to really see myself and set my words vibrating, off the page as well as on. Watching the pages of history turn also helped make all events ripe for mythological treatment.
Thirty years later, as a visiting lecturer in a seminar at The Ohio State University, I looked out at the 15 or so faces of a class in lesbian feminist theory. I answered questions eagerly, but was absorbed by the realization that this particular class had read The Gilda Stories–a black, lesbian vampire novel–as one of their texts. The ideas that had forged my life and which had been imbedded in mythic concoctions–earth-laden cloaks, faces untouched by time–had revealed themselves to the professor and to these young students. They perceived, within a genre narrative, my core ideas: we are responsible for our actions today and tomorrow. We make change by how we live. Despite the academic setting they marveled at a popular fiction that confirmed these political ideas.
That this particular readership was focused on lesbians and lesbian feminism seemed particularly appropriate. Although much of the impulse for my writing was formulated during the Black movement, it was the development of a social circle as a lesbian which ultimately coalesced my hunger for the words so they began to form stories. The sense of myself being creative during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s was ‘‘ other-directed’’ even as it addressed my issues as a person of color. The oblique omission of a conscious and independent female perspective marginalized women of color and focused our gaze on male standards and goals. Lesbian cultural life of the 1970s and 80s contextualized my female sexual desire as nothing else had.
Audre Lorde wrote in her essay, Uses of the Erotic: ‘‘ The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.’’ Experience as an open lesbian enabled me to see the political as well as personal ramifications of female and lesbian desire, and begin to perceive the complexities of identity which were merely hinted at by my great grandmother’s origins and her sparse memories of them.
When my best friend from high school read The Gilda Stories, she too perceived similar messages about responsibility and family. She responded differently, of course; no jargon, but she got the issues and ideas without feeling flattened by heavy rhetoric or abstractions. The appreciation of a Black, heterosexual friend was another bonus I never counted on. I knew further satisfaction when I was able to adapt this mythology to the stage. Audiences across the U.S. were drawn to the mythic characters despite their ‘‘ alien’’ nature. A cross-section of theatergoers nodded their heads and applauded as if they’d always gone to see black lesbian vampire stories on stage. They, too, were able to make the leap to identify with the core emotional and political ideas the characters raised.
The road to my audience was not very direct. It wound through many dark forests and unpaved patches. There was about a ten year period when I couldn’t imagine what I’d write about. The years of illiteracy and silence forced on people of color, jammed down the throats of women, slapped across the mouths of lesbians, built into the paths of the poor, all snapped at my heels, even when I was expanding and solidifying my identity. I’d grown up understanding the power of the media to inform and help reverse public opinion. The narrow, pixillated images of television and movies dominating popular culture in the 1970s supplied neither texture nor context for the work I wanted to do. While I wouldn’t have concurred with the dismissal of television or U.S. culture as a ‘‘ vast wasteland,’’ it was certainly a vast straight white land. I began to question what fiction I could create that represented me, if I didn’t always want to write a political essay.
Ironically, it was developing my consciousness as a lesbian of color–pushing me to the furthest margins of the political movements of my youth (which were each implicitly heterosexual), along with my affinity for stories embodying ‘‘ otherness’’ in the extreme that enabled me to imagine my fiction within the legacy of U.S. storytelling. The less I tried to fit into the traditional picture (White, American, heterosexual, realism), the easier it was to see myself and write the words that would take their place in our culture.
Now I open my eyes each day with a story in my body trying to find its way out, onto a page and into the world. I have no dearth of stories to tell; the past is now an engine inside me churning out ideas, plots, and characters, blown up to mythic proportions. My only fear is that I won’t live long enough to get many of them out. It could take several lifetimes.
After writing for 20 years I still marvel at the decades of activism it took to get me here. Yet I now comprehend the simplicity with which each issue, each identity, was viewed in those tumultuous and ex hi la-rating times. As I look back to the places where my stories began, the unseen facets begin to reveal themselves. I see myself seated on the floor in my great grandmother Grace’s house as she combed my hair. I can feel the careful tugs as she tried to tame the cottony mass and hear her low even voice. She’s cautious as she recounts the little she re-members of her childhood in Iowa, a mythological place from my child’s perspective. Her memories of ‘‘ Indianness’’ sit uncomfortably in the air of our Boston tenement, the life of the Black movement swirling around us, dominating the atmosphere.
I wrote that moment down one day because I missed her and wanted to try to remember everything about it. In capturing the rhythm of her combing and talking I discovered a way to reconcile the many elements of her life so the value of her time on earth might be seen and felt. With the small strands of her memory, Grace had imparted to me a direct refutation of all the information that was conveyed to me through public school education, television, films and books. The demons that John Wayne heroically slaughtered could not be (for me) faceless ‘‘ bad guys’’ shrinking at the sound of the approaching cavalry. They were relatives. Just as the movement for human rights in the 1960s made African American history and culture more defined for me and my generation, my research into the Ioway history of Grace (and her Wampanoag husband) further re-frames my sense of self. Searching for those missing parts helps explain who she was. The ordinariness of her life, as when she combed my hair, is what made life extraordinary for me. Her easy enjoyment of modern conveniences such as television, frozen foods and VW vans brought together the past and the present simply, miraculously.
As I dig amongst the shards of history, mythology, and biographical facts my heart pounds with anticipation. No essay can contain the pulsing life implied at every discovery. I might convey the facts credibly but, more importantly, I want the reader to feel the tug of Grace’s comb and the tentative pressure of her hand. I go to (great) grandmother’s house, expecting to find almost anything behind the door, including a wolf. Whatever the facts, fiction, like mythology, is just another way of imagining the truth.
The Embodiment of Experience
Journal of Lesbian Studies
Volume 4, Number 4
Jewelle Gomez is a writer and activist and the 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.
She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship and two California Arts Council fellowships.
Her fiction, essays, criticism and poetry have appeared in numerous periodicals. Among them: The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, The Village Voice; The Advocate, Ms Magazine, ESSENCE Magazine and Black Scholar. Her work has appeared in such anthologies as HOME GIRLS, READING BLACK READING FEMINIST, DAUGHTERS OF AFRICA and the OXFORD WORLD TREASURY OF LOVE STORIES.
She has served on literary panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, the California Arts Council and the San Francisco Arts Commission.
She was on the original staff of “Say Brother,” one of the first weekly, black television shows in the U.S. (WGBH-TV Boston) and on the founding board of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). She is currently on the national advisory boards of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, POETS & WRITERS, Inc., and the Human Sexuality Archives of Cornell University. An early member of the board of the Astraea Foundation she is currently on the funding board of the Open Meadows Foundation. She also serves on the national advisory board for a new film by Nancy D. Kates, AMERICAN SOCRATES: The Life of Bayard Rustin.
Her publications include three collections of poetry-THE LIPSTICK PAPERS (1980) FLAMINGOES AND BEARS (1986), both self published. The most recent is ORAL TRADITION from Firebrand Books (1995). She edited with Eric Garber a fantasy fiction anthology entitled SWORDS OF THE RAINBOW (Alyson Publications (1996) and selected the fiction for THE BEST LESBIAN EROTICA OF 1997 (Cleis).
She is also the author a book of personal and political essays entitled FORTY THREE SEPTEMBERS (Firebrand Books 1993) and a new collection of short fiction, DON’T EXPLAIN (Firebrand Books 1997).
She has presented lectures and taught at numerous institutions of higher learning including San Francisco State University, Hunter College, Rutgers University, New College of California, Grinnell College, San Diego City College, The Ohio State University and the University of Washington (Seattle). She is the former director of the Literature Program and the New York State Council on the Arts and most recently served for three years as executive director of the Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University.
Her new projects include a comic novel about black activists of the 1960s as they face middle age. She is also working with actor Harry Waters, Jr. and director, Arturo Catricala on a collaborative performance piece based on the life of author James Baldwin.
The Gilda Stories
review by Amy Harlib
In The Gilda Stories, Jewelle Gomez presents an unusual first novel, a distinctive ‘take’ on vampires from an African-American point-of-view. The text of this episodic work is divided into 8 segments depicting the life of the eponymous protagonist from the time she was a runaway slave rescued by and incorporated into a vampire ‘family’ in Louisiana in 1850 to a troubled but not hopeless future 200 years later when the secret is out and the hidden society of vampires-among-us is revealed to the world.
The interval between, the story of Gilda’s life, is also the story of African-Americans in the USA—as social/political/technological changes necessitate growth, adaptation, maturation and wisdom. Jewelle Gomez excels in not only describing each phase of Gilda’s life in vivid local, geographical, social and economic detail as she moves from one area to another in the course of her now immortal life, she also is exemplary in depicting a form of benevolent vampirism. This involves the non-fatal sharing of blood that happens alongside the sharing of dreams and life-force to the mutual benefit of both individuals involved in the encounter. Yet the author makes it clear, in scenes that add a chilling excitement and drama to the narrative, this power can be abused and used to exploit victims as well.
The Gilda Stories positive portrayal of the undead compares favorably to a popular, more mainstream, long-running, multi-volume vampire-as-hero series by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro about the Count St. Germaine with Gilda daring to go beyond the relentless heterosexuality of Yarbro’s character to sensitively, tastefully and even poetically get involved in lesbian and bi-sexual blends of vampirism and eroticism. The narrative is also distinguished by the sensitive and positive way relationships of all kinds are portrayed between Gilda and those she cares for, most notably Bird, the Native American immortal who initiated Gilda into the hidden world of the vampires in the first segment of the story.
Jewelle Gomez deserves the highest praise for producing this book, beautifully written in gorgeous, poetic, emotionally intense prose that dares to be unique—a lesbian, feminist vampire novel, character-driven yet full of exciting events and thoroughly satisfying as it enlightens about and illuminates for the reader, the lives of people of color in the last 100 years in America and extrapolates into the future. This reviewer doesn’t hesitate to recommend this book for adventurous readers of all persuasions willing to try something different and really special.
Coffee With Jewelle Gomez
By Owen Keehnen
(This interview originally appeared in the following gay and lesbian periodicals – ‘Chicago Outlines’ (12/93), ‘The San Francisco Sentinel’ (12/93), and ‘Out’ (Albuquerque – 2/94).
In 1991 Firebrand Books released Jewelle Gomez’ first novel The Gilda Stories to superb reviews. The mythological fantasy adventure tale about an African-American lesbian vampire went on to win two Lambda Literary Awards. But this vampire tale is not a gore fable; Ms. Gomez “revamped” the myth as well. At the core of this suspense novel is the importance of a close and nurturing group, family, and a sense of community.
Family is central to Forty-Three Septembers as well. This recent Firebrand publication is a collection of fifteen essays by Jewelle Gomez. Topics vary, ranging from Ms. Gomez’ experience as an African-American lesbian, to current politics and feminist thought and application. However, the centering force is once more the importance of a central familial group. Forty-Three Septembers is also a tribute to the people and ingredients that have molded and shaped a life.
Recently Jewelle Gomez and I talked over coffee. We discussed her themes, her upcoming projects, and the responsibility of power. I only wish we would have had time for another cup!
In both The Gilda Stories and Forty-Three Septembers there is an overwhelming sense of family at its most nurturing. Do you foresee this as an ongoing theme in your work?
I had the good fortune to not only be in a family that was supportive and interesting, but to know it at the time. I didn’t need retrospect to notice. It gave me a bigger perspective on my life and my relationship to the world. It helped me survive despite the benign neglect of the educational system of Boston and just general attitudes about who I would be as a black woman. Family gave me a foundation. In my writing style I’ve used that to suggest to other people that they can do it, they should do it. The idea of how we create new families in this society, in spite of the religious right and the mythology of television, fascinates me. It’s more than a unit designed to uphold the idea of capitalism.
Many of the essays in the new book are tributes to the influences in your life, mainly family. How closely do you relate storytelling within your family to your life as a writer today?
Oh, very directly. I used to sit and listen to them all like radio shows, and usually they were more interesting. The stories were not only funny, they were revealing. The stories they told helped me to know them in different ways. I was never good at telling jokes, I always forgot the punch line or I’d be laughing so hard I couldn’t get it out, so I told stories. As I wrote more and more I understood very much came from my family’s ability and joy with stories. For me writing is more grounded in the oral and it’s not merely an academic exercise.
Forty-Three Septembers also presents a black lesbian heritage – Alberta Hunter, Moms Mabley, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde. Was the need to present role models a fundamental issue with the book?
The Gilda Stories to a large degree were a tribute to people in my life who I felt were mythological and heroic. Forty-Three Septembers is sort of a continuation of that tribute, except now I am talking about the people directly. These are people who will be characters or ideas in my books for the rest of my life. I wanted the opportunity to almost list on the page the reasons these people affected me. I’m a combination of diverse cultural elements and I wanted people to know what they are – many are black, many are lesbians, and many are Hollywood or TV land.
What do you think is the underlying importance of creating an African-American lesbian myth, such as The Gilda Stories, within the fantasy genre?
The elements of mythology in our childhoods shape a lot of who we are who we think we can be. Thinking of my father and grandmother in mythological terms over a long period of time made me have more possibilities. If you can think of people in your life you find worthy of admiration it sheds a certain light on them. I like the idea of creating heroic characters that are ordinary really, but that do extraordinary things – then the reader can identify. In The Gilda Stories that meant giving her a job and putting her in the realm of all of us. I want to create a mythology that is not only bigger than life, but that says you can be bigger than life too.
What you do with the vampire myth is fascinating. Blood is equated with cleansing rather than hunger, and the vampire leaves dreams in replacement of the blood. Was restructuring the myth minus the brutality necessary for you to work with it?
Soon after starting I realized I couldn’t create and sustain a character over time that killed people. It didn’t hold up for me. I’d end up creating this tragic figure that’s doomed because they took life. It was very difficult to replace the kill and make it work because we are so programmed by the power of death. The exchange was my way of creating a certain level of tension that was fulfilling. And there is always the bad guy…
In the essay ‘Transubstantiation’ from Forty-Three Septembers you speak of writing erotica in response to Women Against Pornography. What was the importance of that action for you?
In this society women are thought of and presented for the most part as sexual property. That’s how commercialism has structured the female. In our need to realign that structure we must be careful not to give up our right to sexuality. The way the questions were raised to Women Against Pornography was inflammatory. They ended up conflating all the elements so badly that there was no room for discussion. I went to The Meese Commission hearings in New York and there was Andrea Dworkin basically saying if you disagree with me about pornography you’re a racist and a Nazi. She constructed her argument around specific pornographic images that utilized a Nazi uniform, a black man being subjectified, an Asian woman being subjectified…as if that was the sum total of pornography. It wasn’t a valid thesis. I will not condone across the board condemnation of sexual writing. As women and as lesbians we certainly need to be careful about giving away our rights because as we’ve seen the first thing attacked is always gay and lesbian books and bookstores. I’m not willing to take that chance. For me creating stories that are explicitly sexual offers people the opportunity to take a chance. If all writers with a name really believed in free speech that would write a pornographic story. There’s no point in trying to be safe in this culture. If they can ban Heather Has Two Mommies they can ban anything.
While we’ve touched on the subject, I understand you are currently working on a book for gay and lesbian adolescents on the life of Audre Lorde.
It’s for Chelsea House. They’ve just started a series of biographies of famous gay and lesbian people for young adult.
It’s wild, isn’t it? The books aren’t analytical studies or anything, but they will be wonderful tools for teachers brave enough to use them.
Do you think overall that gay and lesbian publishers are improving in terms of encouraging African American gay and lesbian literature?
Firebrand, my publisher, has always had a real good sensibility about it. The author list has always been mixed. I feel at home there because I don’t have to be the token black lesbian. People of color won’t send their work to publishers who don’t reflect them in some way. They won’t send to some places because they’ve never seen anything by a person of color there, then the publisher will say, “We can’t find anything by people of color.” It’s a distressing cycle. In general what you have is a small group who get published because we are whom people feel comfortable with. A well-known feminist publication, which shall remain nameless, called me up at the eleventh hour and said, “We realized we don’t have a black person in here and we need you to do this.” I said, “Excuse me, this is 1993 and you’re saying this to me.”
That’s the exception I hope. In addition to the Audre Lorde book and the new novel you’re currently working on, you are also adapting The Gilda Stories as ‘Bone and Ash’ for The Urban Bush Women performance group.
I’m creating a compilation of two chapters for the stage. I’m changing a lot because of the size of the company. The project is a complete collaboration and I am very excited about it.
As a keynote speaker at this year’s Outwrite convention what core message did you wish to impress upon your audience?
I talked somewhat about the power and privilege we had by being in that room; so many gay and lesbian writers didn’t have the money or couldn’t get away from family or jobs to be there. I spoke of writing from a very political place as a feminist, as writers we need to find a philosophical base where we can feel grounded. I wasn’t saying being a feminist, I was saying just be something. Get a base that guides you in the world because the world is out to eat us alive. It was easy for me; feminism came to me in such a natural way that there was no stretch. I also had my cousins at the convention, and my nine-year-old niece — and I told the audience I’m not just writing books for you, I’m writing for them. There was nothing like this for me to read when I was a kid.
What is the message you want to pass on to those coming generations?
That family is community and as human beings we are always searching for that. Most of the time we think of it as a small group of people. From that circle we extrapolate our value and ability to effect change in the world. So, in effect, family is taking care of everyone, not just you and the person you live with. I’d also like to see people realize that the more power and privilege you have the more responsibility you have. That’s definitely something that is not taught in this culture.
Definitely not. And thanks for taking the time to talk Jewelle.
Thank you Owen.