Vampires in literature are often portrayed as pale male creatures lurking on the edge of society seeking to seduce and destroy. It is rare to find a novel that reflects vampires of color, vampires who are women, or vampires who are same gender loving. The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez is a well-written exception. The series of vignettes focus on a black immortal journeying across centuries gaining perspective on life and how to live.
The book opens with The Girl in 1850 Louisiana. She is a teenage slave running toward freedom when she is confronted by a man seeking to take her back to her dreadful existence, but not before he takes a taste of her womanhood. She fights back and kills him. That act of defense sets in place a series of events that finds her rescued by an elusive figure–a white woman she comes to know as Gilda. The woman takes her to a safe haven, a brothel that she runs with a Native American woman known as Bird. Gomez handles her evolution into a woman with a deft hand, describing how The Girl matures and realizes the situation with Bird and Gilda isn’t typical. She doesn’t fear the truth when it is revealed how Bird and Gilda have remained untouched by the passage of time. The description of how The Girl becomes Gilda in the farmhouse where she was found years before is crafted in a way that puts to shame other literary descriptions of how vampires are created. Gomez describes the process in a way the reader can understand the perspective of all three women: Gilda, whose decision will end her cycle of living; Bird, who isn’t ready to let go of the one she loves; and The Girl, who is ready to live her new existence. When the process is done and the new Gilda is ready to move forward, the reader is prepared to go forward with her.
The Gilda Stories takes the reader on a journey from the San Francisco Bay, South Boston, off-Broadway and even through the jungles of South America. Along her journey, she blends into the fabric of society as a singer, author, and beautician. Gilda finds friendships and foes, gives life and participates in the destruction of one of her own tribe members. The beauty of Gomez’s writing is that each scenario can stand alone in capturing the time Gilda occupies. The supporting characters Gilda encounters feel authentic and fleshed out. Gilda creates and finds a family with those who predate her as well as two she brings into the fold. The fact of her sexuality is never trumpeted, but the reader understands her physical attraction is toward her own.
The Gilda Stories is often placed on the shelves of must-reads of lesbian literature. It holds the reader’s interest in a way few can. After reading it, I am left yearning for more stories about Gilda’s travels. While the overall journey was satisfying, some of the transitions seemed a little bit uneven as she moves from one time setting to the next. Also, adding in details of the social climate of the time would have been welcome. In one passage she talks about the racism Black people faced during the early part of the century, but those details were missing in later passages. It would have been interesting for Gilda to comment on the evolution of how Black women are treated by the greater society over time.
For years I’d heard about The Gilda Stories and was pleased to finally read it. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing it with others.
Reviewer: La Toya Hankins
La Toya Hankins is the author of SBF Seeking, and K-Rho: The Sweet Taste of Sisterhood. She is a native of North Carolina and currently resides in Durham, NC. Hankins considers writer and fellow Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. member Zora Neale Hurston as her role model for her ability to capture the essence of the African American Southern experience and living the motto, “I don’t weep at the world, I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” You can connect with LaToya on Facebook and Twitter.