Poet, novelist, activist. Jewelle Gomez has delighted readers and inspired a generation of social advocates. She’s also a super nice person who agreed to take time from her busy schedule to tell me a little more about her life and work.
RLM: Tell me a little about your early life and what led you to become a writer and activist.
JG: I was raised by my great-grandmother, who was Ioway, in a working-poor African-American neighborhood in Boston in the 1950s & 60s. She was introspective and a big reader so I think I followed her lead. I found myself interested in writing because of her story telling and I was interested in the historical perspective because of her age. And it was the period when the Civil Rights Movement and Black Arts Movement were blossoming.
As early as I can remember art, culture and politics were always intertwined. I think they are interrelated for most folks but they just don’t recognize it or if they’re in the dominant culture they don’t want to acknowledge it. All mainstream writers are writing from a very specific cultural/ethnic/class/gendered/regional perspective. They just think it’s the baseline; it’s just ‘how it is.’ I loved coming to understand that we’re all writing from a very specific perspective and getting others to come into our world is very political.
RLM: Much of your writing deals with racial and gender issues. What do you most want readers to understand about those issues?
JG: I always hope that people will come away recognizing and appreciating the amazing differences between us and stop being afraid of each other. All of us are capable of oppressing others if only in giving primary focus to only our own wants and needs. As a feminist I believe we can’t sustain that kind of myopic approach to our society and still claim to hope that harmony will be reached in any more than a superficial way.
I also hope that people will see how strong and creative we all are; and see how much we can accomplish if we put ourselves to the task whether it’s finding a job, telling our stories, de-escalating violence or solving the problem of hunger in the US.
RLM: When you’re writing, do you think at all about who will be reading you?
JG: I don’t think about specific readers but more about being true to the characters and the narrative. Who reads my work is often a complete surprise when I’m on the road. I had no idea when I first wrote The Gilda Stories how many different types of readers it would appeal to – from goth to historians! Early on it had a faithful lesbian audience and my grandmother loved it! Now when I do readings from it on campuses I always pay attention to who in the audience looks the most disinterested or even hostile. Sometimes I’ll seek them out and amazingly that person is often so engaged they have no idea how their expression reads. So I never characterize who my audience will be.
RLM: The Gilda Stories crosses a lot of genres and examines several high-tension social issues. What led you to use urban fantasy to explore those issues (specifically feminism and racism)?
JG: I loved fantasy fiction when I was in college but didn’t consider writing it myself until the mid-70s when I read Octavia Butler’s Kindred. She was the only woman of color I knew of who wrote speculative fiction. Then I read Joanna Russ’ brilliant novel, The Female Man and understood that anything was possible. Growing up in the midst of movements and having an evolving political consciousness it was natural to me for it to be reflected in my characters, the story and circumstances. All writers do that. Luckily a writer can talk about a lot of ‘heavy’ issues when writing in the context of some specific genre — scifi, detective, westerns, comedy, etc. I think that’s one reason I always come back to Gilda, she can engage readers in things they might not expect to care about.
RLM: Do you foresee writing another book-length story about Gilda?
JG: The 25th anniversary edition of The Gilda Stories will be coming out in 2016 from City Lights Books!!! And I’m already working on what one could call the sequel, Gilda: The Alternate Decades. It takes place in the decades between the ones in the original novel and I hope to dig into her emotional life a little more deeply, and romance, of course.
RLM: You’ve translated The Gilda Stories into a play and you’ve also co-authored a play with Harry Waters Jr. (Waiting for Giovanni). How does playwriting differ from novel writing? Which would you say you prefer?
JG: Playwriting is more, to me, like writing poetry. In, fact I included some poetry in Bones & Ash based on the novel. In plans I have to think about the spaces between the words as much as the words. I can’t simply describe and therefore guide as you do in a novel. The dialogue and physical interactions are the primary ways to reveal who the character is and what she wants. With a novel I play with language as myself in the narrative not simply through somebody else’s voice. I love doing both! And when I stay away from Gilda I miss her terribly so am always jotting down ideas for stories even when I’m in the midst of a play.
RLM: Tell me about your publishing journey. What led you to make the choices you did?
JG: Again the political times really helped me develop my work and shaped my journey. Once I saw the original production of Ntozake Shange’s play For Colored Girls… (1976) I knew women were at the center of my writing which meant few magazines or publishers were really going to be interested in me. In fact, The Gilda Stories was turned down by many of the mainstream publishers before Firebrand, the feminist press, took it on. Fortunately in the 1980s there were an amazing number of women’s literary journals and publishers so I could write what I wanted, have interested editors and have a venue to publish the work. I’m very proud that I got to write an essay for the first African American radical feminist anthology, Home Girls (1983), where I got to write about the impact of Shange’s work and of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple despite the horrific backlash against them.
Coming up from the laundry room in my apartment building I bumped into poet Grace Paley who lived there too. It was her suggestion that I self-publish my first collection of poems, Flamingoes and Bears. She knew it would work because of the network of independent/women’s bookstores that could sell it. There was an active women’s movement filling bookstores with women waiting to read fresh work and then talk about it at readings; and it all fed into activist events. The healing that women need to do from patriarchal abuse really needs to be done in person with other women. So the books, the stores, the readings were a major part of creating a new generation of confident, accomplished women.
RLM: In 2000, you released an anthology of gay and lesbian fantasy stories (Swords of the Rainbow, coedited with Eric Garber). Tell me how that project got started? How did the role of editor versus author feel?
JG: The late Eric Garber was a dear friend, so when he invited me to work with him to edit the project I was very eager to get to hang out with him and have complex, ongoing conversations about writing. Then it was exciting to search out queer writers doing speculative fiction and to try to help them realize their potential as writers in the genre. Being an editor is so different from writing and I actually enjoy it sometimes. I work to see inside of someone else’s vision and help them shape it and try to keep myself out of it! If it’s a good experience it can help move a writer along and can also inform my own creativity.
RLM: If you could only write one more sentence in your life, have one last chance to convey your life’s message, what would that sentence/message be?
JG: This is a long one: Please evolve from the myopic, cave man/woman perspective and start to embrace the fact that we have only one planet and each other; it may be too late but do it anyway–after the initial discomfort you’ll feel better.
RLM: So, what can we look forward to next from you?
JG: Well, I’m very excited about the 25th anniversary reprint of The Gilda Stories in 2016 and then sometime in the further future Gilda: The Alternate Decades.
I’m also currently finishing a play about singer/composer Alberta Hunter entitled: Leaving the Blues which will premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center in 2016 (a busy year for me!). They did a fabulous job with my James Baldwin play, Waiting for Giovanni. Alberta was quite famous in the 1920s, 30s and 40s and was a lesbian. She retired, became a nurse then was ‘rediscovered’ when she was in her 80s and sang to sold out houses–including The White House–until she died at the age of 89! I actually saw her perform several times in New York City; she was smart and tough and so much fun. She had an indomitable spirit that filled you up as soon as you were in the same space with her. Not a bad role model as I hit my mid-sixties!