Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

Publisher:          Firebrand Books

Jewelle Gomez’s book is considered a classic in lesbian literature and the nice thing about classics is that they can be discovered by other people long after they are published.  Gomez recently announced that she’s working on another volume of stories about Gilda, so reviewing the first book seems especially appropriate now.

The book opens when Gilda is a nameless slave running for her life in Louisiana in 1850.  She’s rescued by the original Gilda who takes her to New Orleans where she runs a brothel with an Indian woman named Bird.  Gilda and Bird take the girl under their wings, educate her and expose her to a multitude of experiences that change her from a slave into a confident woman.  Eventually it is revealed that Gilda and Bird are vampires and they offer the girl the chance at eternal life.  The original Gilda is tired of her existence and wants to let go of life, so she arranges for the girl to take her place and her name.  The book then propels the new Gilda through two centuries, ending in 2050.  During her travels she mingles with her kind and normal humans, witnessing the rise of African American culture, the civil rights movement and feminism.  She also deals with sexuality, racism and environmental issues.

Gomez created a different type of vampire, especially for the time when this book was written.  Most of these vampires don’t kill humans unless forced to do so and the act of taking blood is portrayed as a mutually beneficial exchange.  Gilda is taught to look into people’s thoughts and find something that is important to them; then she is to leave them with the belief that they can achieve it.  Gomez relies on some of the vampire myths, but the purpose of this book isn’t to be horror fiction.  The motif of the vampire gives her the ability to take her character through time and observe the changes that take place.

Gilda’s story is one of being the ultimate “outsider.”  As a black female lesbian vampire she’s about as outside as a character can be.  She lives in the times that are examined, but she’s also not part of those times.  It gives her a unique perspective as she examines humans in their development, especially the areas where they have failed to improve.  This is a conflicted character, but coming from four minorities makes this seem natural.  What she does do is gain strength over time and that reflects the changes that have occurred in American society. 

The most speculative chapter is the last one which takes Gilda into an almost apocalyptic 2050.  What is most interesting is that Gomez had to guess twenty years ago where the world would be in approximately sixty years due to environmental degradation.  What is sad is that, as the earth has moved closer to that date, her predictions have become more accurate.  Gilda ends the book as she started it, being hunted, but she also ends it with hope and love.

The Gilda Stories can appeal to a wide range of readers. The story moves along very smoothly and is very informative.  Vampire lovers, feminists, lesbians and African Americans will all find something in this book.  That’s why it’s a classic.

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