Before Buffy, before Twilight, before Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, there was The Gilda Stories, Jewelle Gomez’s vampire novel.
The winner of two Lambda Literary Awards (fiction and science fiction) The Gilda Stories is an American odyssey. Escaping from slavery in the 1850s Gilda’s longing for kinship and community grows over two hundred years. Her induction into a family of benevolent vampires takes her on an adventurous and dangerous journey full of loud laughter and subtle terror.
An instant lesbian classic when it was first published in 1991, The Gilda Stories has endured as an auspiciously prescient book in its explorations of blackness, radical ecology, re-definitions of family, and yes, the erotic potential of the vampire story.
By Jewelle L. Gómez
Published: March 29th 2016 by City Lights Publishers
*For an own voices perspective, read the amazing review over at The Black Lesbian Literary Collective!*
Growth, survival, family and unquestioned lesbian love are key touch stones in this Intersectional Feminist vampire classic. Gilda courts (and is courted by) a few different lovers over the centuries but her enduring romantic connection with Bird, a vampiress of the Lakota tribe is always present.
Aside from her own relationships, Gilda observes others in supportive relationships throughout time. Gilda’s mentor Sorrel and his partner, Anthony are also notable characters. Gilda and Anthony often lean upon each other as siblings when they need another ear for advice.
On a subversive world-building note, I loved the vampire family’s moral philosophy, which neither demonised their own existence or reinforced a flawed system reliant upon the draining of human blood. Instead, the knowledge of how to create a mutually beneficial exchange of restorative dreams rather than a one-sided lethal draining of human blood is passed down through the vampiric generations:
‘She had learned many lessons in her time. The most important had been from Sorrel and were summed up in a very few words: the source of power will tell in how long-lived that power is. He had pointed her and all of his children towards an enduring power that did not feed on death. Gilda was sustained by sharing the blood and maintaining the vital connections of life. Her love of her family of friends had fed her for 300 years.’
Sharing blood and life rather than taking it, contributes to a philosophy that reconnects vampires with nature instead of casting them outside of it as monsters. I appreciated that ‘true death’ is perceived as a normal part of a vampire’s life cycle rather than being a source of fear too.
The vampires are able to communicate telepathically in addition to other powers such as the ability to enthrall and shape a human’s will. However, Gilda’s family code stops them from abusing a power that would undermine their beliefs. Although the use of telepathic mind bending (even to benefit a human’s life in The Gilda Stories) is perhaps, morally questionable when a human’s self-awareness/consent is up in the air. (This thought struck me when I compared the telepathic vampires to the telepathic beings in Butler’s Patternmaster series).
Even though the vampire code of ethics is largely upheld in the book, Gilda still faces challenges around finding meaning and seeing her vampiric family drift, accept or challenge their vampiric ways of living. The time period of the books spans from 1850 – 2050 and there are moments of horror and hope. However, Gilda’s connection to her memory as an escaped slave, and her African-American heritage informs much of her outlook on privilege and the present no matter what time period she finds herself in.
‘…she knew you’d learn to be…as we are, a living history.’
The presence of nature as a refuge and a connection to life contributes to the environmental awareness. The weariness that some vampires feel as they find themselves participating within human wars, rights activism and environmental upheavals, makes it a thoughtful read.
‘My dream was to see the world, over time. The real dream is to make a world – to see the people and still want to make a world.’
I recommend this intersectional Feminist vampire novel to anyone seeking a great vampire novel. I read an older library copy but the 25th anniversary expanded edition was released this year. Gilda’s immersive memories are poetically and vividly drawn in way that has convinced me to pick up more of Gomez’s work in the future.
*Trigger warnings: There is an attempted rape scene in the opening chapter and Gilda helps protects someone from domestic violence later in the novel.