Friday, November 04, 2005
commentary on Jewel Gomez's The Gilda stories
Jewelle Gomez describes herself as an activist for gay rights, womans rights, race and environmental issues.“The Gilda Stories”1 is the first full length novel that she has written. This book is a very difficult one to characterize. It follows the life of Gilda, A black, bisexual female vampire through two centuries of living from slavery in 1850 to environmental devastation in 2050. In the course of Gilda's life, Gomez uses the settings she is placed in and the people she deals with to explore a variety of themes including race, sexuality, environmental destruction, power and its corrupting ability. What makes this book interesting is that, while the overall structure is definitely that of a novel, a majority of the chapters could conceivably be pulled out of the book and read as short stories by someone with no knowledge of the book. Each chapter is basically a snapshot of her life at a point the author thinks we will find interesting.
As usual with my analysis of these books, I start by taking a look at the way race is portrayed in this book. First of all, the only two people Gilda ever kills are both white men attempting to molest and kill her. The first is when she is a young girl on a plantation in 1850 when a man attempts to rape her and she stabs him, which is why she ends up leaving the plantation and becoming a vampire. The second is when she is attacked by two white men looking for a black person to beat up and, in her case, rape. Gilds deals with overt racism in the days when it is overt and less overt racism in the days when its covert. In addition, Gilda's stories mostly happen in predominantly black communities because that is the only place she will not be conspicuous. She works as a hairdresser, poet, and writer in black communities as one of the people. What this does is allow us to use her insights into her life and the people she lives with to gain a better understanding of the people in those communities and the lives they lead. Her black characters are people. Dancers, writers, poets, prostitutes, pimps, slaves etc. They are portrayed in a manner fitting the time period about which she is writing. However, she spends as much time examining issues within the black community as she does examining external racism. One of the biggest issues she mentions is what she considers to be the short-sightedness of a large part of the black liberation movement. Namely the fact that it failed to include the issues of other minority groups like women and homosexuals in the struggle for equality and, in doing so, hamstrung itself. This critique is made
Sexuality is another theme that receives a lot of attention in the book. This is not that surprising considering the fact that Gilda is bisexual. Throughout the book I never got the impression that Gilda was fully comfortable with her sexuality. There is one scene where she has sex with a woman and another one in which she is intimate with a man. For me, however, both of those scenes seemed very awkward as though Gilda could never fully accept herself sexually. In the one scene of lesbian sex in the book, Gilda is almost seduced. When she turns another woman into a vampire she is said to be feeling shame as well as desire. Its especially interesting because the book has a lot of prostitutes in it, from the whorehouse where Gilda lives for a while before her conversion to the prostitutes she services as a hairdresser. With few exceptions, the prostitutes are portrayed as sexually mature and confident women. They are shown as victims of manipulative people as well so its not as though she glamorizes them but they are definitely not written as helpless women but instead as mature women in control of their sexuality making the choices they need to in order to survive.
Another important topic that gets a lot of attention, especially at the end of the book, is the issue of the environment. It is also linked with a larger issue of power and its possibility for misuse. We become aware, the further we get into the future, that the world is slowly being destroyed by man to the point that it is almost unable to maintain human life. The reason this is happening, we re told, is human greed. Basically, the world's issues have been ignored in favor of profit to the point that the human race can't safely live on the planet. The poor must struggle to somehow afford passage to another planet where it is cleaner. The rich, on the other hand, employ Hunters, people trained and chemically enhanced to fight and kill vampires so their blood can be used to give immortality to the same rich, selfish people responsible for the state of the world in the first place. We already know Gilda is environmentally conscious because she leaves at the end of one of her stories to go work for a group of environmentalists but obviously they are unable to bring about the kind of change they are trying for. There are several other points in the book when the theme of the corrupting influence of power is fairly obvious. The book even makes us aware of the fact that there are vampires who, unlike Gilda, enjoy their power over people and use it to manipulate them and then shows us a couple of examples of power- mad vampires. One of whom , Eleanor, enjoys manipulating people and another, Fox, who enjoys inflicting pain because he can.
In the end, this book is really hard to characterize. Gilda is a very interesting, if greatly conflicted, character who serves to examine a wide range of social and personal issues for the character. In that sense it more than achieves its aim. However, it would have been nicer if Gilda hadn't been written as being so unsure of her own nature. Taking the time to create a character like Gilda and then saddling her with guilt both over the fact that she is a vampire and the fact that she is bisexual seems counterproductive to me. Despite that, it is still a great story.