The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez. ★★★
Trigger warning: sexual assault
This collection of black lesbian vampire stories is more focused on the idea of immortality than vampire lore. The Girl was born a slave in the American South. She escapes and is on the run when a slave catcher finds her and tries to rape her; she kills him and is soon after found by Gilda, a woman who turns out to be a vampire. Gilda gives the Girl immortality, and the Girl takes on her name in her memory. The Gilda Stories are the stories of the Girl’s (now Gilda’s) life from 1850 to 2050.
The stories are not directly related, and the book does not have much of an overarching plot. It’s more focused on Gilda’s character and her life as the world changes around her. Gilda is immortal in a sea of mortals, and she tries to remain tied into their world rather than stand apart from it. In the two hundred years the book covers, she lives in different communities in different parts of the country, presenting through Gilda’s immortality a look at African American history and experience. The intertwining of black identity and immortality reminded me of Wild Seed by Octavia Butler, although The Gilda Stories is very much its own narrative. It’s a lot more of a literary book than I usually read, and I can see how it won the Lamda Award for lesbian science fiction.
Unfortunately, The Gilda Stories also furthers some stereotypes about bisexual people. There is only one character who is depicted as being attracted to multiple genders, Elanor. She’s an alluring, seductive redhead who takes a shine to Gilda. Gilda’s enchanted by her, despite warnings of others. As it turns out, Elanor gets off on manipulating and using people. She previously seduced both a husband and wife for the amusement of turning them against each other with jealousy. Biphobia is an issue within the queer community as well as without, so Gilda’s lesbian identity doesn’t affect the troubling depiction of bisexuality in The Gilda Stories.
The Gilda Stories is more interested in the heroine’s immortality than her dependence on blood. While Gilda’s vampiric nature is not the focus of the story, there were some interesting takes on vampire lore. Gilda’s protected from the sun as long as she has the dirt of her homeland sewn into her clothes and in her bed, a take I’ve never seen before. It’s also interesting how The Gilda Stories mixed vampires in with science fiction, through continuing the stories into 2050, when the human population is aware that vampires exist. I’m not sure if I’ve seen futuristic vampires before!
There’s a lot to love about The Gilda Stories, including it’s portrayal of queer subcultures and found families. However, it wasn’t to my taste. Primarily, the structure didn’t work for me. I tend to want more of an overarching story and wasn’t feeling the slower paced, short story like format. I also felt like there wasn’t any sort of conclusion — the book just ends. There’s nothing special about the last story; the narrative just as easily could have kept going. Throw in a biphobic stereotype and the overdone opening scene of the heroine killing an attempted rapist, and you get a book I’m iffy on. There are reasons to recommend The Gilda Stories, but I don’t know how often I will be doing so.