Authors of Note: The Crown Jewelle, An Interview of Jewelle Gomez

This story originally appeared August 5, 2011

Jewelle Gomez is one of the most important LGBT literary authors of our time. Ms Gomez has written seven books including THE GILDA STORIES, about an African American lesbian vampire, which won 2 Lambda literary Awards.  It was high time that we spoke about THE GILDA STORIES and her latest endeavor “Waiting 4 Giovanni,” a play about James Baldwin which opens on August 19 at the New Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

PRIDEINDEX: You’re part Native American (Wampanoag & Ioway) and African American on your mother’s side how has that influenced your artistic style?

JEWELLE GOMEZ: My great-grandmother was born on Indian land in Ioway and then her mother moved back to New England so my great grandmother always was somewhat marginalized living in the African American Community.  Two elements of her life have a deep influence on me: being somewhat on the margins seems like a good place from which to view the world. It helped me not be afraid of difference and pushing for change. Her wonderful historic perspective (she was born in 1883) also made me take the long view in life and made me obsessed with who we are/were as people of color in different historic periods. I love writing about other times.

PI: I’ve read somewhere that you are a self-described “speculative fiction writer and cultural worker” what does this mean?

JG: I use ‘speculative fiction’ as an umbrella to include the entire genre of writing such as, horror, ghost, Sci Fi, etc. I write primarily vampire stories but I sometimes do ghost stories too. I think of speculative fiction as the broad rubric under which the specialties fall. And I like to think I might try any one of the specialties sometime. Coming from a tradition in which art and culture are threaded through all we do I feel my art is part of my work for social change. All of my writing is created with the idea of adding to the path toward change.

PI: It’s been 20 years since THE GILDA STORIES, one of the most important works of LGBT literature of the 20th century, was first released why did you decide to write another volume of stories now?

JG: I’ve been reading from the novel almost non-stop since before it was published and people never seem to tire of her adventures and her revelations. And I love her and miss her. I wanted to return to her journey and write more about the internal process of becoming immortal and how she accepts the challenge of maintaining her humanity; a challenge we all face every day.

PI: The vampire genre is popular now more than ever what do attribute its longevity to?

JG: Just about everybody is afraid of death or at the least morbidly curious. Some people rely on religion to explain what death means, others rely on science. Vampire lore is one way that people created to have the possibility of ‘cheating’ death. I think the mythology is doubly appealing to young people because it is often about repressed desire…the danger when two beings come together intimately…appeals to young people who are under the grip of their hormones. My vampires offer the chance to look at the world from that long perspective and see who we might have been in the past and what powers we can have as mortals over our own lives. And there’s repressed desire too!

PI: The heroine Gilda is like most black women, she’s vulnerable yet able to use her “powers” to overcome issues of oppression and/or injustice was that intentional?

JG: I wanted Gilda to be as familiar as possible. She could be our great grandmother or us. She has to learn to use her ‘powers’ to help others find their own power, not just swoop in like Superman and whisk people out of trouble. A real hero to me is someone who helps you find yourself.

PI: If you were casting the lead role for THE GILDA STORIES on Broadway or the movie adaptation what are some of the qualities you would look for in an actress?

JG: I had a wonderful actress/dancer who played Gilda in my theatrical adaptation, “Bones & Ash.” It was like Christine King walked right out of the pages of the novel–humble, shy, aura of inner strength, serious and playful at the same time, not embarrassed to seem naïve in the ways of the world.

PI: Let’s talk about Waiting 4 Giovanni, which opens at the New Conservatory Theater Center in San Francisco, what can audiences expect to see?

JG: Waiting 4 Giovanni is not a biographical piece. It explores what I imagine might have gone on in Baldwin’s mind when he’s told that publishing his novel, “Giovanni’s Room” will ruin his career. As an African American writer and activist (cultural worker I’d say) writing a novel with French, gay characters at the center was a risk. But, he did it anyway; and I wanted to see that how he would handle such anxiety and ambivalence. I was told by some that writing a black lesbian vampire novel was a bad idea. Connecting lesbians and African Americans to that kind of traditionally negative character upset some folks; so I understood, in a small way, what he might have faced. Although, I had nothing to lose by publishing THE GILDA STORIES; Baldwin had a lot to lose.

PI: Why did you decide to write a play about James Baldwin?

JG: About 6 years ago my old friend Harry Waters Jr. asked me to write something for him about Baldwin. We’d known each other in New York City in the 1980s when I was a stage manager and he was an actor. So I wrote a monologue and he liked it, then asked “Where’s the rest?” I’ve been working on if periodically since then. Between finishing a (non-vampire) novel that’s been looking for a publisher and other work I put together an outline. Then we’ve been workshopping the play for about two years around the country.

PI: If you could own only one James Baldwin novel, which one would you choose? Why?

JG: “Giovanni’s Room” without a doubt! Baldwin’s use of language, his exquisite rendering of longing and anxiety are amazing. Maybe because I’ve been reading it a lot as I work on this play and maybe because it was one of the first things I read when I was young and needed to read ‘gay’ literature desperately. Even though the story has a tragic ending I keep coming back to the way the Giovanni loved with (as I say in my play) “the relentlessness of the tides.” 

PI: If James Baldwin were alive today what do you think he would say about the state of the African American and/or gay community?

JG: Hard to presume what such a great mind would have to say about our world today. I think, though, he’d believe we were a bit too short sighted and narrow. He’d wonder when the communities would start to take a global as he did and figure out how to work together to inform and change the world as a whole, not simply little pockets where we live.

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In 2013 Ms. Gomez was honored with an Esteem Award for Outstanding Service – Female, National for more information visit The Esteem Awards