Book Review: The Gilda Stories: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition, Jewelle Gomez (2016)

June 17th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A subversive and exhilarating read!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for violence, including rape.)

“Why do you say others may kill and we must not?”

“Some are said to live through the energy of fear. That is their sustenance more than sharing. The truth is we hunger for connection to life, but it needn’t be through horror or destruction. Those are just the easiest links to evoke. Once learned, this lesson mustn’t be forgotten. To ignore it, to wallow in death as the white man has done, can only bring bitterness.”

My love is the blood that enriches this ground.
The sun is a star denied you and me.
But you are the life I’ve searched for and found
And the moon is our half of the dream.

That she hit him with his own whip seemed to startle him more than the pain.

The Girl is just nine when her mother passes away – of the flu, contracted from one of the white women she was caring for in the main house. Scared that she’ll be sold off like her father, she runs away, getting as far as the state line that separates Mississippi from Louisiana before being discovered by a bounty hunter. Gilda finds the Girl in her cellar, shaking and covered in blood – and with the corpse of her would-be rapist at her feet.

As with many girls before her, Gilda takes the Girl in, offering her sanctuary in her saloon/brothel. But Gilda and her lover/business partner, Bird, take a special interest in this girl, teaching her how to read and write in multiple languages; how to grow her own food and run a business; and, eventually, in the ways of their kind. Gilda is a three hundred-year-old vampire, you see, and her days walking this earth are numbered. Tired of the war, hatred, and inequality that surrounds her, Gilda yearns for her “true death,” and hopes to turn the Girl so that Bird will not be left alone in her absence.

The stories within these pages are not Gilda’s, but the Girl’s, who at her second mother’s request assumes her name upon her passing. After the original Gilda dies, Bird stays on only long enough for the Girl to finish her lessons; then, bereft, she seeks out her own people, the Lakota (and, eventually, other native peoples as well).

Gilda, in turn, embarks on a search of her own, traveling the United States: she visits Gilda’s father Sorel and his companion Anthony in 1890 Yerba Buena, California; she purchases a farm and mentors a young widow named Aurelia in 1921 Rosebud, Missouri; she opens a beauty parlor in the South End of Chicago, circa 1955, where her clientele is primarily sex workers and women of color; she buys a tenement in Chelsea and works off-Broadway (1971) and as a singer in Riverside (1981); relocates to Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, where she and her lover, Effie, watch the world sputter to an end in 2020; and, thirty years later, she tries to make her way to safety in Machu Picchu, with Hunters hot on her trail.

Throughout it all, Gilda holds the lessons taught her by Gilda, Bird, Sorel, and Anthony close: never take more blood than a person can safely give. Always leave something in return: a peaceful dream, a reassuring thought; confidence and direction. Never kill unless absolutely necessary; and then, only if you’re willing to carry your victim’s face with you for all of eternity. In this way, you nurture a connection to humanity, to nature, and to life.

Gilda’s search for family and self-identity form the core of the story. As a young vampire, she sometimes find herself tempted to turn a human she’s taken a special liking to: Aurelia in Missouri, Savannah in Chicago. Yet she’s been taught that this must not be a selfish act: the would-be vampire must know what she’s signing up for, have no qualms, and be well-suited to the life. Otherwise you risk creating a monster, like Eleanor and Samuel.

Gilda finds herself drawn to humanity, even as she walks apart from it. She desperately wants a family of her own, yet indecision plagues her. A young black woman who lived through slavery (and an escape); the terror of night riders; Jim Crow; race riots; and racism and sexism of every flavor, Gilda craves a connection with her people. Yet while they are black, like her, they are also human, which she is not. She is both of them and separate from them: “Her connection to the daylight world came from her blackness.”

The Gilda Stories is strange and wonderful; unlike anything I’ve ever read, and especially anything I might have been able to get my hands on when it was first published in 1991. It is subversive and exhilarating; imaginative and yet grounded in history; and looks at what was and what could be.

The novel crosses genres in an exciting way: fantasy, horror, historical fiction, speculative fiction, coming of age – there’s a little bit of everything here. As Gilda travels through space and time, the story assumes the vibe of a time travel tale – even though the narrative is linear, and Gilda lives through every one of those two hundred years, even if we’re not privy to the details. While memories of Gilda’s time as a slave are thankfully hazy, few and far between, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another scifi American slavery tale: Octavia Butler’s Kindred. (Kindred in reverse, if you will.)

There’s even a bit of an ecofeminist bent to the story, which this vegan feminist just loved. Telepaths, vampires are able to communicate with both human and nonhuman animals. Of course, this requires that animals be able to think, to feel, to suffer. In a word, sentient. This is established very early on – on page 13, to be exact – when Gilda encounters a group of “satisfied, sentient horses” outside of Gilda I’s establishment. It’s reaffirmed time and again, whether Gilda is commiserating with the fear and anxiety felt by a pair of night riders’ mounts, or bedding down with a group of benevolent wolves while traveling the wild.

While her “gifts” set Gilda apart from the species to which she once belonged, they also make her better equipped to travel among them, and offer assistance when needed; for example, rescuing a sex worker from her pimp in the South End. This seems to be what Gilda the first so struggled with: though she, too, tried to help make the world a safer place, the constant cycle of warring for freedom became too much to bear. The end of slavery was on the horizon when she took her true death – yet the world remained a dangerous place for blacks (not to mention many other minority groups, to which vampires would eventually belong), just as Gilda feared. Family, community, and compassion are central tenants of the story.

The expanded, 25th anniversary edition of the story includes a forward by the author, as well as an afterward by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Especially interesting is the story’s genesis: Gomez began the first draft after an incident of street harassment one night in Manhattan. One of many, this one was notable in that she lost her shit and raged at her harassers. Thankfully Gomez escaped unharmed, and The Gilda Stories was born. Its heroine walks a fine line between fighting the monsters in her midst, while trying not to become one herself. It’s a lovely story, full of heart and intellect.

Gomez’s writing is sometimes hard to follow, which is why I gave this four stars instead of five. Her transitions can be rough: one moment, Gilda is holding Anthony’s hand as they converse in earnest; and in the next sentence, her coat is already on and she’s at the door, poised to leave. It’s almost evocative of the superhuman way vampires can move when desired: so fast it’s imperceptible to the human eye. One moment you’re in the doorway; the next, on your stagecoach, taking leave. Anyway, it’s disconcerting at first (in the opening chapter especially), but eventually I got used to it.

That said: it’s still a must read.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: First published in 1991, The Gilda Stories was ahead of its time – a lesbian-feminist interpretation of vampires in the days before Buffy (or, perhaps more accurately, the First Slayer and Kendra). The story follows Gilda – known simply as the Girl when we first meet her – an escaped nine-year-old slave in 1850 Louisiana. She’s taken in by a white woman named Gilda, a lesbian vampire who runs a salon/brothel with her lover, a Lakota woman named Bird. The two women raise her and, when she’s old enough, Gilda turns her to be a companion for Bird and then takes her “true death.”

Now known as Gilda, after her second mother, the Girl travels the United States: she visit Gilda’s father Sorel and his companion Anthony in 1890 Yerba Buena, California; she purchases a farm and mentors a young widow named Aurelia in 1921 Rosebud, Missouri; she opens a beauty parlor in the South End of Chicago, circa 1955, where her clientele is primarily sex workers and women of color; she buys a tenement in Chelsea and works off-Broadway (1971) and as a singer in Riverside (1981); relocates to Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, where she and her lover, Effie, watch the world sputter to an end in 2020; and, thirty years later, she tries to make her way to safety in Machu Picchu, with Hunters hot on her trail.

Gilda’s search for family and identity form the core of this story, as she struggles to stay connected to humanity – and, consequently, her blackness. Gilda surrounds herself with people who look like her – people of color, particularly black women – mostly of a matter of choice. Both of the humans Gilda chooses to turn – Julius, a light-skinned black man she meets off-Broadway, and Ermis, who Gilda rescues from a suicide attempt in 2050 – are black.

Many of Gilda’s women friends and family – including the original Gilda, Bird, Effie, Eleanor, Kaaren, Chris, and Ermis – are either gay or bisexual. I think that Sorel and Anthony are also lovers, though it’s a little unclear whether their relationship is romantic or platonic.

Marcie, one of the tenants in Gilda’s NYC tenement, is a trans woman. (She’s present in both 1971 and 1981.)

Nadine, Aurelia’s great-granddaughter with whom Gilda exchanges letters under the pen name “Abby Bird” in 2020, is deaf.

Gilda’s memories of plantation life are few and far between. Her father “Tack” (so named because he good with horses) was sold away before she was born. Because she was good with herbs, her mother was allowed to work in the house; but she caught the flu from one of her “patients” and died when Gilda was nine. Shortly after, Gilda ran away, afraid that she’d also be sold (which to her young mind = disappeared) like her father. She left nine sisters behind.

The bounty hunter who caught Gilda while she was on the run tried to rape her; Gilda suffers from PTSD for years afterwards. (Though, presumably, not once she becomes a vampire.)

The original Gilda was pale enough to pass as white in late 1800s society, but she had hazy memories of crossing a desert with her family; nomads, following the water; “a gathering of people with burnished skin.”

Smallpox struck Bird’s clan, claiming many victims. Bird caught the disease but recovered. Convinced that she was a witch, her family drove her away. Later on, after the original Gilda’s death, Bird spent most of her days traveling, searching for her roots and meeting other native peoples.

Animal-friendly elements: The back matter describes its philosophy as “radical ecology,” but I sense a strong ecofeminist bent to The Gilda Stories. Gilda is taught (and teaches others) to live in harmony with humans, only taking as much blood as a person can spare and always giving something – a pleasant dream or reassuring thought, for example – in trade to her partner. This is done not just to avoid detection, but also to remain connected to life and to humanity. True sustenance comes not from destruction and death, but sharing and compassion. When killing is necessary – whether it’s a bounty hunter in 1850s Louisiana or a night rider in 1920s Missouri – it’s essential to carry that person’s face with you wherever (and whenever) you go; as a lesson and a reminder.

This is the difference between “good” vampires and “bad”; the former you might describe as “vegetarian” vampires.

In terms of nonhuman animals, I think The Gilda Stories is best described as welfarist. (Though this probably holds true of the “good” vamps’ attitudes towards humans, too.) On the one hand, Gilda and her fellow vampires readily acknowledge the sentience of nonhuman animals – in no small part, perhaps, because they are telepathic and can “read” all animal minds, human and non and wherever vampires fit in relation to the two. Just thirteen pages in, horses are described as sentient – in so many words, and in the year 1850, to boot!

Later on, when Gilda is accosted by two night riders on horseback in 1921 Missouri, she can sense the fear and apprehension of their animals: the horses do not care for their “masters” any more than Gilda does. To the night riders, they are equally subhuman; less than; property and chattel.

In 1890 Yerba Buena, when describing her travels to Eleanor, Gilda describes befriending a pack of wolves:

“And there is almost no pleasure greater than lying down in the warmth of benevolent wolves listening to their thoughts.”

Eleanor hid her surprise under a question. “And do they have thoughts?”

“All living things have something we can consider thoughts.”

“And did they ever have thoughts of devouring you?” Eleanor asked with a wickedly brilliant smile.

“Of course. But as I’ve said, the trip was civilized and we know those thoughts are everywhere, not just in the woodlands.”

As a black woman, Gilda also marvels at how much safer she feels traveling among wild animals than (supposedly) civilized humans:

“It soon became clear that although the institution of enslavement was no longer sanctioned, our world had not become a more hospitable place for me or my people. Often it was only the gifts that I acquired in this new life that saved me from those we call civilized. My safest, surest moments were spent in the wild with those we call animals.”

and:

“On the road I met many more beasts on two legs than on four. My fears were not of wolves or mountain cats. They have an understanding of the reasoning of nature. I found it comforting to share that reasoning that needs no words. But with men there is no reasoning at all sometimes.”

While vampires don’t have any need of regular food – they sustain themselves on human blood, and sometimes drink alcohol for fun – animals are used in other ways: travel by horseback, for example. There isn’t any suggestion that rights should follow from sentience – only that sentience exists (which is still so rare it’s a revelation, but still). The consumption of animals by humans and their exploitation in other ways, by humans and vampires alike, continues unchallenged; yet the “good” vampires seem to take a much more compassionate view of their plight.

 

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