LESBIAN SELF-WRITING: THE EMBODIMENT OF EXPERIENCE
by Jewelle Gomez

ZAMI, written by Audre Lorde in 1983, is by turns a formal, imposing, conversational and mythic book. It seems to grab daily life as it drifts down from a fire escape and casts it back up into the sky as both a drive-in movie and a cautionary tale. Subtitled ‘‘ A New Spelling of My Name’’ ZAMI was described by Audre as a ‘‘ biomythography,’’ a word she coined to encompass the complexity of her intentions. It is to this fluid and evocative word that I turn as I examine the life of my great grandmother, Grace, and try to find the way to tell her story. In telling of her life I begin, of course, the story of my own.

In an interview in the mid 1980s (Black Women Writers at Work, ed. Claudia Tate) Audre said that biomythography ‘‘ has the elements of biography and history of myth. In other words, it’s fiction built from many sources. This is one way of expanding our vision.’’ Audre’s intent, structure and tone in ZAMI create a sense of immediacy. This also helps define biomythography for me, making it ring inside like the bells of a buoy pointing my way through pea-soup fog into a solid berth. Her book called to mind the Greek myths, folk and fairy tales of my childhood. Vulnerable gods, magical animals and ingenious princesses each possessed human and larger than life preoccupations.

Elements of truth, wound inextricably around the fantastic, were woven through countless tales over the centuries, reinforcing familiar pictures for each successive generation. There is a ceaseless fascination with the mythic: Edith Hamilton who explicated Greek myths in the 1940s; Wade Davis who tried to penetrate the secrets of Haitian vodoun in the 1980s; Italo Calvino, whose interpretation of Italian folk tales in the 1950s was finally translated into English in the 1980s, or more popularly the contemporary mythology of Xena, Warrior Princess.

ZAMI, however, imagines our lives, not those of gods, priestesses or animals, as both magic and epic, expanding the reader’s vision of the past, present and the future. That expansion lies at the heart of all of my writing; finding a focus to help accomplish that has been challenging both emotionally and intellectually.

In my novel, The Gilda Stories, and some of my short fiction, I’ve employed elements of history and myth to relate the stories of the ordinary lives of women, illuminating the extraordinary affects such lives have on others and on our world. Yet those elements are not always so easily accessible. Yes, we can all research things on the net, obtaining obscure, disembodied facts. But what is the psychic, emotional context we use to process the information? None of us is a blank slate (Who’d want to read one?). We each carry inside us the prohibitions and strictures we’ve bumped up against over the years. Learning to recognize them and ‘‘ work’’ them is a process that changes not only what I write, but also how I write. As I did research for The Gilda Stories, for example, I started to recognize elements in the mythology that touched me initially because of my Catholic upbringing. Despite eschewing those beliefs in the distant past, the pathways cut by those teachings still ran deep. The textures of ritual, vibrant color, sensory/ spiritual connections are characteristics of Catholic and vampire mythology. But examining vampires within a lesbian/feminist context led me in a completely new direction.

If I did research, unearthing figures of the past, historical situations, family dis/connections and did not learn and change it would mean my world is flat, without depth or perspective. One way I know I’m on the right track with my research and writing is that I sometimes feel, when I encounter a new fact, confused and
sweaty. The door I’ve opened has neither the lady nor the tiger but some completely unrecognizable animal that I’d better get familiar with quickly. With my novel I slipped surreptitiously into the popular mythology of vampirism, twisting and inverting its traditional precepts so that my perspective as a lesbian feminist (rather than the traditional colonialist/patriarchal underpinnings of most vampire fiction) became the philosophical mooring for my set of vampires. But in order to insert myself I needed to first identify with the vampire figure, a surprisingly easy leap.

What resonated for me first was the sense of history such a character would hold. Having grown up with a great grandmother who was born into the Ioway tribe in Oskaloosa, Iowa and who lived to watch the landing of the first astronaut on the moon on television, I’d lived with the expanse of history every day. Other familiar elements were: the sense of being an outsider, existing in opposition to the dominant culture and the isolation that imposed; a longing for forbidden companionship; and resistance to Christian dogma. Being able to make that identification with an ‘‘ alien’’ character made my own personal sense of ‘‘ otherness’’ (as a lesbian, woman of color, and raised poor) seem almost pedestrian. Creating the idea of a mythic context, the story of my life and that of my characters were then cast against a larger tapestry and implied a sense of the past and the future with which I wanted to work.

Once reinvented, the vampire genre seemed the perfect medium to explore the ideas which sit at my core: examining the connection between power and responsibility, learning how we create ‘‘ family,’’ making a place in history and speaking to future generations. All of these issues had landed in my lap when I was a teenager in a tenement in Boston’s South End and the blood of civil rights activists splashed through my television screen and splattered my existence. Their blood ignited my own, which was already restless with the overwrought Gothic of Catholicism.

With the 1960s movement for human rights, the patterns of history became palpable. Artists of the period such as James Baldwin, Sonia Sanchez, Lorraine Hansberry and Audre Lorde all made that history and its relationship to politics intrinsic to their work and their lives. Their typewriter keys were protest signs waved in the belligerent faces of small town sheriffs and big city school boards. The ensuing years and subsequent movements annealed the concepts of creativity/activism/life for me in ways that no deliberate political indoctrination could ever have done. Participating personally as well as consciously witnessing specific acts that changed generations of behavior from the past and will affect generations to come is not like watching them on television or reading a history book. It was the lived personal and public experience of phenomenal social change in the 1960s and 70s that made me able to really see myself and set my words vibrating, off the page as well as on. Watching the pages of history turn also helped make all events ripe for mythological treatment.

Thirty years later, as a visiting lecturer in a seminar at The Ohio State University, I looked out at the 15 or so faces of a class in lesbian feminist theory. I answered questions eagerly, but was absorbed by the realization that this particular class had read The Gilda Stories--a black, lesbian vampire novel--as one of their texts. The ideas that had forged my life and which had been imbedded in mythic concoctions--earth-laden cloaks, faces untouched by time--had revealed themselves to the professor and to these young students. They perceived, within a genre narrative, my core ideas: we are responsible for our actions today and tomorrow. We make change by how we live. Despite the academic setting they marveled at a popular fiction that confirmed these political ideas.

That this particular readership was focused on lesbians and lesbian feminism seemed particularly appropriate. Although much of the impulse for my writing was formulated during the Black movement, it was the development of a social circle as a lesbian which ultimately coalesced my hunger for the words so they began to form stories. The sense of myself being creative during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s was ‘‘ other-directed’’ even as it addressed my issues as a person of color. The oblique omission of a conscious and independent female perspective marginalized women of color and focused our gaze on male standards and goals. Lesbian cultural life of the 1970s and 80s contextualized my female sexual desire as nothing else had.

Audre Lorde wrote in her essay, Uses of the Erotic: ‘‘ The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.’’ Experience as an open lesbian enabled me to see the political as well as personal ramifications of female and lesbian desire, and begin to perceive the complexities of identity which were merely hinted at by my great grandmother’s origins and her sparse memories of them.

When my best friend from high school read The Gilda Stories, she too perceived similar messages about responsibility and family. She responded differently, of course; no jargon, but she got the issues and ideas without feeling flattened by heavy rhetoric or abstractions. The appreciation of a Black, heterosexual friend was another bonus I never counted on. I knew further satisfaction when I was able to adapt this mythology to the stage. Audiences across the U.S. were drawn to the mythic characters despite their ‘‘ alien’’ nature. A cross-section of theatergoers nodded their heads and applauded as if they’d always gone to see black lesbian vampire stories on stage. They, too, were able to make the leap to identify with the core emotional and political ideas the characters raised.

The road to my audience was not very direct. It wound through many dark forests and unpaved patches. There was about a ten year period when I couldn’t imagine what I’d write about. The years of illiteracy and silence forced on people of color, jammed down the throats of women, slapped across the mouths of lesbians, built into the paths of the poor, all snapped at my heels, even when I was expanding and solidifying my identity. I’d grown up understanding the power of the media to inform and help reverse public opinion. The narrow, pixillated images of television and movies dominating popular culture in the 1970s supplied neither texture nor context for the work I wanted to do. While I wouldn’t have concurred with the dismissal of television or U.S. culture as a ‘‘ vast wasteland,’’ it was certainly a vast straight white land. I began to question what fiction I could create that represented me, if I didn’t always want to write a political essay.

Ironically, it was developing my consciousness as a lesbian of color--pushing me to the furthest margins of the political movements of my youth (which were each implicitly heterosexual), along with my affinity for stories embodying ‘‘ otherness’’ in the extreme that enabled me to imagine my fiction within the legacy of U.S. storytelling. The less I tried to fit into the traditional picture (White, American, heterosexual, realism), the easier it was to see myself and write the words that would take their place in our culture.

Now I open my eyes each day with a story in my body trying to find its way out, onto a page and into the world. I have no dearth of stories to tell; the past is now an engine inside me churning out ideas, plots, and characters, blown up to mythic proportions. My only fear is that I won’t live long enough to get many of them out. It could take several lifetimes.

After writing for 20 years I still marvel at the decades of activism it took to get me here. Yet I now comprehend the simplicity with which each issue, each identity, was viewed in those tumultuous and ex hi la-rating times. As I look back to the places where my stories began, the unseen facets begin to reveal themselves. I see myself seated on the floor in my great grandmother Grace’s house as she combed my hair. I can feel the careful tugs as she tried to tame the cottony mass and hear her low even voice. She’s cautious as she recounts the little she re-members of her childhood in Iowa, a mythological place from my child’s perspective. Her memories of ‘‘ Indianness’’ sit uncomfortably in the air of our Boston tenement, the life of the Black movement swirling around us, dominating the atmosphere.

I wrote that moment down one day because I missed her and wanted to try to remember everything about it. In capturing the rhythm of her combing and talking I discovered a way to reconcile the many elements of her life so the value of her time on earth might be seen and felt. With the small strands of her memory, Grace had imparted to me a direct refutation of all the information that was conveyed to me through public school education, television, films and books. The demons that John Wayne heroically slaughtered could not be (for me) faceless ‘‘ bad guys’’ shrinking at the sound of the approaching cavalry. They were relatives. Just as the movement for human rights in the 1960s made African American history and culture more defined for me and my generation, my research into the Ioway history of Grace (and her Wampanoag husband) further re-frames my sense of self. Searching for those missing parts helps explain who she was. The ordinariness of her life, as when she combed my hair, is what made life extraordinary for me. Her easy enjoyment of modern conveniences such as television, frozen foods and VW vans brought together the past and the present simply, miraculously.

As I dig amongst the shards of history, mythology, and biographical facts my heart pounds with anticipation. No essay can contain the pulsing life implied at every discovery. I might convey the facts credibly but, more importantly, I want the reader to feel the tug of Grace’s comb and the tentative pressure of her hand. I go to (great) grandmother's house, expecting to find almost anything behind the door, including a wolf. Whatever the facts, fiction, like mythology, is just another way of imagining the truth.


Lesbian Self-Writing:
The Embodiment of Experience
Journal of Lesbian Studies
Volume 4, Number 4
liminal