Coffee With Jewelle Gomez
By Owen Keehnen
(This interview originally appeared in the following gay and lesbian periodicals - 'Chicago Outlines' (12/93), 'The San Francisco Sentinel' (12/93), and 'Out' (Albuquerque - 2/94).
In 1991 Firebrand Books released Jewelle Gomez' first novel The Gilda Stories to superb reviews. The mythological fantasy adventure tale about an African-American lesbian vampire went on to win two Lambda Literary Awards. But this vampire tale is not a gore fable; Ms. Gomez "revamped" the myth as well. At the core of this suspense novel is the importance of a close and nurturing group, family, and a sense of community.
Family is central to Forty-Three Septembers as well. This recent Firebrand publication is a collection of fifteen essays by Jewelle Gomez. Topics vary, ranging from Ms. Gomez' experience as an African-American lesbian, to current politics and feminist thought and application. However, the centering force is once more the importance of a central familial group. Forty-Three Septembers is also a tribute to the people and ingredients that have molded and shaped a life.
Recently Jewelle Gomez and I talked over coffee. We discussed her themes, her upcoming projects, and the responsibility of power. I only wish we would have had time for another cup!
In both The Gilda Stories and Forty-Three Septembers there is an overwhelming sense of family at its most nurturing. Do you foresee this as an ongoing theme in your work?
I had the good fortune to not only be in a family that was supportive and interesting, but to know it at the time. I didn't need retrospect to notice. It gave me a bigger perspective on my life and my relationship to the world. It helped me survive despite the benign neglect of the educational system of Boston and just general attitudes about who I would be as a black woman. Family gave me a foundation. In my writing style I've used that to suggest to other people that they can do it, they should do it. The idea of how we create new families in this society, in spite of the religious right and the mythology of television, fascinates me. It's more than a unit designed to uphold the idea of capitalism.
Many of the essays in the new book are tributes to the influences in your life, mainly family. How closely do you relate storytelling within your family to your life as a writer today?
Oh, very directly. I used to sit and listen to them all like radio shows, and usually they were more interesting. The stories were not only funny, they were revealing. The stories they told helped me to know them in different ways. I was never good at telling jokes, I always forgot the punch line or I'd be laughing so hard I couldn't get it out, so I told stories. As I wrote more and more I understood very much came from my family’s ability and joy with stories. For me writing is more grounded in the oral and it's not merely an academic exercise.
Forty-Three Septembers also presents a black lesbian heritage - Alberta Hunter, Moms Mabley, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde. Was the need to present role models a fundamental issue with the book?
The Gilda Stories to a large degree were a tribute to people in my life who I felt were mythological and heroic. Forty-Three Septembers is sort of a continuation of that tribute, except now I am talking about the people directly. These are people who will be characters or ideas in my books for the rest of my life. I wanted the opportunity to almost list on the page the reasons these people affected me. I'm a combination of diverse cultural elements and I wanted people to know what they are - many are black, many are lesbians, and many are Hollywood or TV land.
What do you think is the underlying importance of creating an African-American lesbian myth, such as The Gilda Stories, within the fantasy genre?
The elements of mythology in our childhoods shape a lot of who we are who we think we can be. Thinking of my father and grandmother in mythological terms over a long period of time made me have more possibilities. If you can think of people in your life you find worthy of admiration it sheds a certain light on them. I like the idea of creating heroic characters that are ordinary really, but that do extraordinary things - then the reader can identify. In The Gilda Stories that meant giving her a job and putting her in the realm of all of us. I want to create a mythology that is not only bigger than life, but that says you can be bigger than life too.
What you do with the vampire myth is fascinating. Blood is equated with cleansing rather than hunger, and the vampire leaves dreams in replacement of the blood. Was restructuring the myth minus the brutality necessary for you to work with it?
Soon after starting I realized I couldn't create and sustain a character over time that killed people. It didn't hold up for me. I'd end up creating this tragic figure that's doomed because they took life. It was very difficult to replace the kill and make it work because we are so programmed by the power of death. The exchange was my way of creating a certain level of tension that was fulfilling. And there is always the bad guy…
In the essay 'Transubstantiation' from Forty-Three Septembers you speak of writing erotica in response to Women Against Pornography. What was the importance of that action for you?
In this society women are thought of and presented for the most part as sexual property. That's how commercialism has structured the female. In our need to realign that structure we must be careful not to give up our right to sexuality. The way the questions were raised to Women Against Pornography was inflammatory. They ended up conflating all the elements so badly that there was no room for discussion. I went to The Meese Commission hearings in New York and there was Andrea Dworkin basically saying if you disagree with me about pornography you're a racist and a Nazi. She constructed her argument around specific pornographic images that utilized a Nazi uniform, a black man being subjectified, an Asian woman being subjectified…as if that was the sum total of pornography. It wasn't a valid thesis. I will not condone across the board condemnation of sexual writing. As women and as lesbians we certainly need to be careful about giving away our rights because as we’ve seen the first thing attacked is always gay and lesbian books and bookstores. I'm not willing to take that chance. For me creating stories that are explicitly sexual offers people the opportunity to take a chance. If all writers with a name really believed in free speech that would write a pornographic story. There's no point in trying to be safe in this culture. If they can ban Heather Has Two Mommies they can ban anything.
While we've touched on the subject, I understand you are currently working on a book for gay and lesbian adolescents on the life of Audre Lorde.
It's for Chelsea House. They've just started a series of biographies of famous gay and lesbian people for young adult.
It's wild, isn't it? The books aren't analytical studies or anything, but they will be wonderful tools for teachers brave enough to use them.
Do you think overall that gay and lesbian publishers are improving in terms of encouraging African American gay and lesbian literature?
Firebrand, my publisher, has always had a real good sensibility about it. The author list has always been mixed. I feel at home there because I don't have to be the token black lesbian. People of color won't send their work to publishers who don't reflect them in some way. They won’t send to some places because they've never seen anything by a person of color there, then the publisher will say, "We can’t find anything by people of color." It's a distressing cycle. In general what you have is a small group who get published because we are whom people feel comfortable with. A well-known feminist publication, which shall remain nameless, called me up at the eleventh hour and said, "We realized we don’t have a black person in here and we need you to do this." I said, "Excuse me, this is 1993 and you're saying this to me."
That's the exception I hope. In addition to the Audre Lorde book and the new novel you're currently working on, you are also adapting The Gilda Stories as 'Bone and Ash' for The Urban Bush Women performance group.
I'm creating a compilation of two chapters for the stage. I'm changing a lot because of the size of the company. The project is a complete collaboration and I am very excited about it.
As a keynote speaker at this year's Outwrite convention what core message did you wish to impress upon your audience?
I talked somewhat about the power and privilege we had by being in that room; so many gay and lesbian writers didn't have the money or couldn't get away from family or jobs to be there. I spoke of writing from a very political place as a feminist, as writers we need to find a philosophical base where we can feel grounded. I wasn't saying being a feminist, I was saying just be something. Get a base that guides you in the world because the world is out to eat us alive. It was easy for me; feminism came to me in such a natural way that there was no stretch. I also had my cousins at the convention, and my nine-year-old niece -- and I told the audience I’m not just writing books for you, I'm writing for them. There was nothing like this for me to read when I was a kid.
What is the message you want to pass on to those coming generations?
That family is community and as human beings we are always searching for that. Most of the time we think of it as a small group of people. From that circle we extrapolate our value and ability to effect change in the world. So, in effect, family is taking care of everyone, not just you and the person you live with. I'd also like to see people realize that the more power and privilege you have the more responsibility you have. That's definitely something that is not taught in this culture.
Definitely not. And thanks for taking the time to talk Jewelle.
Thank you Owen.