Gomez, Jewelle. (1991). The Gilda Stories. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.
I picked up this book about a Black lesbian vampire because I was in the mood for a cheesy, light read. I was delighted to discover that The Gilda Stories is neither cheesy nor light, but instead a deeply moving tale of complex characters navigating outsider status and creating family across centuries and continents.
The story begins with the titular character escaping slavery in Louisiana in 1850. At this point she is nameless and full of terror, yet tenaciously fighting for her life and autonomy. She is accompanied by rich memories of her mother and a stolen kitchen knife that she uses to save herself from sexual violation. From the beginning, she is hungry for life and justice, strong and sure of herself. When she is rescued by Gilda, a powerful woman who can speak directly into her mind, she begins a new life as a kitchen helper in the brothel Gilda operates. She learns how to read and write from Bird, Gilda’s lover; about current events and how to discuss politics and social reform with the brothel workers; and much about family and love from Gilda herself. Eventually, her benefactor initiates her into vampirism and gives her her name before leaving; she had been seeking a new companion for her lover because she was ready to die the true death.
Over the next two centuries, Gilda travels and creates community for herself with both vampires and humans. She meets a wide variety of people with different backgrounds, ambitions, personalities, and experiences with privilege and marginalization. She observes and appreciates the differences but focuses on the shared aspects of humanity: love, finding meaning in life, and the vast human potential. Gomez has a real gift for character development; Gilda and the other characters are fully realized and fleshed out. Although certain characters occupy archetypal roles, they are not one-dimensional, but complex and full of contradictions and abundant past experiences. Even when a character is engaged in reprehensible behavior, we are shown the path that led them there, and they are sympathetic or at least understandable.
I enjoyed Gomez’s unique take on vampire lore. Instead of attacking humans to feed, Gilda and her brethren “share the blood.” When drinking blood, she examines the human’s thoughts for their desires, what troubles or excites them, and leaves them with hope, renewed motivation, or new helpful thoughts. In this way, the act of nutrition is not a solitary endeavor but a communion, an exchange. Gomez is also a very skillful writer in terms of identity: descriptions are rich, nuanced, and realistic. Bird does not have a monolithic Indian identity but is Lakota; Gilda is not African but Fulani. Sexual identity and expression are also portrayed with realism and vivid description. I really appreciated Gilda’s butch presentation, her discomfort with dresses and desire to outfit herself in clothing that fits her body and personality.
A major theme in this book is relationships. Through her life, Gilda seeks companionship and community with many types of people. She has deep bonds of affection with friends, works toward social justice in various communities and historical times, and nurtures romantic ties with lovers. She consistently seeks and appreciates shared humanity. However, many relationships Gilda encounters and participates in are antagonistic- particularly structural race and class relations. This book does not shy away from an honest portrayal of racism, both through descriptions of historical and everyday events and through discussions the characters have together. As Gilda travels and time goes by, she learns much about oppression and social systems of various times and places. As a Black lesbian, she is intimately familiar with racial and sexual discrimination, and much of her community-building efforts are explicitly radical. The Gilda Stories manages to provide a fictionalized history of Black race relations as well as a strong reminder of the power of love and community.
Although this book is not recent, it is certainly not dated. I’m surprised that I found it quite by accident and haven’t seen it on LGBTQ lists. I recommend it for any public library with a base of fantasy/paranormal fiction lovers. It is particularly important in this genre because of the range of diversity represented. The Gilda Stories was published by well-known feminist and lesbian publishing house Firebrand Books, and won two Lambda Literary Awards.