By Latonya Pennington
I first learned about Jewelle Gomez and her book The Gilda Stories through the short story Chicago 1927. While the story featured the same protagonist in The Gilda Stories and reads like a chapter from the book, the story wasn’t published until nine years after the book was. At its 25th anniversary, The Gilda Stories is an amazing introduction to the power of black female queer vampires.
The Gilda Stories tells the story of an escaped slave originally known as The Girl. After being taken in by a white lesbian vampire brothel owner named Gilda, The Girl learns about freedom from the other women at the brothel and Bird, a vampire woman from the Lakota tribe and Gilda’s lover. Eventually, The Girl is initiated as a vampire by Gilda and Bird and christened Gilda after the original Gilda dies. From there, the new Gilda spends the next 200 years learning to live, love, and protect her freedom.
One of the most incredible aspects of the book is the use of the vampire mythology. In this book, most of the vampires just take the blood they need from humans and leave a good idea or thought in its place. This draws on their previous lives as humans to remind them of their obligation to humanity while nourishing their immortality. They were once human and can move among humans, but can never truly be part of them. This idea is particularly reinforced in the way that the vampires must carry the soil of their birthplace with them in order to move in the sunlight.
In fact, the vampire mythology is especially relatable to the escaped slave, Gilda, and the Lakota woman, Bird. For them, becoming a vampire represents the transformation from a victim of oppression to a woman with power. Despite being Othered, Gilda and Bird reclaim their bodies and preserve their souls while never forgetting where they came from. They also manage to find peace among other vampires and humans who are Othered in some way. However, it is with the vampires that they feel the most peace, because they are among those who “share the blood”. Since the initiation of humans as vampires involves sharing the blood of another vampire, the vampires have formed a community that functions as family and lovers. Both Bird and Gilda’s situation represents black women, Indigenous women, and QTPOC who can find comfort with other black women, Indigenous women and QTPOC, but not with sexist and homophobic people of color or racist white people.
One of the best examples of how the vampire mythology represents Gilda occurs at the start of the book. In this scene, Gilda is a child on the run from the slave plantation and is sleeping in a farm. She is dreaming she is working on the slave plantation with her mother when a white man sneaks up on her and attempts to rape her. Terrified and not wanting her flight to freedom to end, Gilda uses a small knife she hid in her clothes to kill the white man.
After Gilda becomes a vampire, this scene is later repeated from a more powerful perspective. One night, Gilda goes out to get her nightly fill of blood when she is accosted by two white men who threaten to “teach her a lesson” with a whip. With her vampire strength and speed, she kills one man and takes the blood of another. In exchange for the blood, she leaves no good thoughts or ideas, but merely modifies his memory of the event to something less horrifying.
Gilda is not only developed through the vampire mythology but also through the unconventional and unrestrained bonds with other women. For instance, Gilda is raised among brothel women who are innocent like children yet talk freely about sex, politics, and economics. Gilda is also physically and emotionally intimate with other women of color in the book. When put together with the vampire mythology, the lesbian relationships depicted have a wonderful erotic charge. A particular sex scene in the book evokes consensual sadomasochism that is so vividly written that you can feel it in your body. Out of all the relationships between women, the bond between Gilda and Bird is the most powerful, especially since they help each other through their personal hardships by playing multiple roles in each other’s lives.
Gilda’s development from a nameless child who is expected to be submissive to a young vampire who can reclaim her body from her oppressors is very empowering, especially for the speculative fiction genre. Before The Gilda Stories was published in 1991, there were few black female vampires that had agency. In the 1980s, Grace Jones played a vampire named Katrina in the film Vamp. Black female horror site Graveyard Shift Sisters commented that the character had very little lines, but commanded respect from her facial and body expressions. The site also made similar statements about the character Rita from the 1995 film Vampire In Brooklyn. Rita is stated to have the most complex character arc because she was Othered in a normal society and morally depraved as a vampire.
By combining multiple genres such as horror, historical fiction, and sci-fi, The Gilda Stories also paved the way for other black female vampire books such as Tananarive Due’s My Soul To Keep, Octavia Butler’s Fledging, and L.A. Banks Vampire Huntress Legend series. Through this wonderful book, Jewelle Gomez showed that black women can transform, free themselves, and move on toward a better future.
Latonya Pennington is a queer freelance writer and blerd. She specializes in pop culture and entertainment and has written for Superselected magazine, The Mary Sue, Black Girl Nerds, and more. When she isn’t freelancing, she can be found on Twitter, streaming shows, listening to music, reading, and writing poetry.