Something in Exchange: Ethical Vampirism and Chosen Family as an Act of Resistance in Gilda Stories
by Samantha Lepak
In her 1991 novel The Gilda Stories, Jewelle Gomez shifts the traditional vampire narrative to a young escaped enslaved girl in 1850s Louisiana. Through the Girl, who comes to be named Gilda, Gomez subverts Bram Stoker’s original depiction of vampirism into an empowering collective of vampiric family that frees Gilda from her enslaved status and grants her the bodily agency to pursue a supernaturally long life. Gomez subverts the Dracula narrative through the use of Gilda’s ethical vampirism and demonstrates mutually beneficial chosen families through a multitude of temporary human communities. This connection between humans and vampires represents queer family-building based on an agreed set of ethics designed to benefit those who need blood as well as those who have blood to give. The analog is not perfect, and Gomez’s narrative explores the complexities of trying to live ethically as a being that requires blood to live, as well as the unique moral issues posed by welcoming individuals into an eternal family. Through Gilda, Gomez sets an example of personal responsibility and reciprocated care as a moral guideline in order to disrupt the damaging effects of racism and LGBT prejudice on queer communities.
Before delving into the novel, it is important to establish a distinction between the two characters named Gilda.This is especially important when considering the political implications of Miss Gilda’s naming her young, formerly enslaved companion. Some critics use the term “Girl/Gilda” throughout their papers, but this naming method is visually distracting. In his article, Jerry Rafiki Jenkins solved this problem by distinguishing between the two Gildas – calling the older, white Gilda “Miss Gilda” and, when discussing the two in the same context, he calls the novel’s protagonist “the Girl.” At the end of the first chapter, after “the Girl” gets her new name, Jenkins refers to the protagonist as Gilda. I follow this example throughout my argument in order to fairly represent both women and acknowledge their progression throughout the novel. It is also significant, though, that the Gilda given the title “Miss” is the white one, which elevates her status over “the Girl”. This title distinguishes her as a woman in charge, but it also draws attention to her social position, as a white woman.
Miss Gilda as a Head of Household
As a woman in 1850, Miss Gilda’s status in her community is nontraditional and conspicuous. Owning a business was not common for unmarried women in 1850, nor was working in a position of authority over men, but it is Miss Gilda’s whiteness that allows her to have that liberty. In her essay on black lesbian sexuality, Cheryl Clarke suggests that a relationship between black and white women is imbalanced by its very nature, and her argument applies to societal privilege as well. She asserts that part of understanding the lesbian as a decolonized body is understanding the racial implications in relationship to slavery’s afterlife. She writes,“because of her whiteness, the white woman of all classes has been accorded, as the black man has because of his maleness, certain privileges in racist patriarchy” (Clarke 249). This establishes an inherent hierarchy within the women at Woodard’s, placing the Miss Gilda on top because of her whiteness. Despite the fact that her gender places her lower on the societal hierarchy than white men, she still benefits from the advantages of her race. The Girl immediately senses this difference in power the moment she sets eyes on Miss Gidla. When the Girl and Miss Gilda first meet, after the Girl has stabbed the man who attempted to rape her, the narrator writes that “The pale face above her was a woman’s, but the Girl had learned that they, too, could be as dangerous as their men” (Gomez 12). The narrator emphasizes the great difference in power and status between the two women, and a large contributor to this strangeness is the difference in skin color – even though Gilda sees that the face is a woman, someone like her, the white skin still poses a threat. While the protagonist is a formerly enslaved African girl who ultimately becomes the hero of the novel, Miss Gilda, a white woman in a position of power, rescues her. Some critics, like Shannon Winnubst, claim that the story falls victim to a “white savior” complex, which implies that a person of color needs a powerful white person to lift them out of their destitution. The novel uses this as a plot device not only to stay true to the politics and laws in 1850, where a young black girl would immediately be spotted as a runaway and be returned to her plantation, but also to symbolize the intentional building of Miss Gilda’s vampiric family. The consequences of capture would be severe and brutal for the Girl, and Miss Gilda understands her need to take charge and responsibility for her, as a human and as a vulnerable child. The Girl feels the stark and sudden changes in her new lifestyle as soon as she enters Woodard’s, and points out the distinctions in a conversation with Miss Gilda:
[Miss] Gilda spoke aloud. ‘You don’t have to tell me anything. I’ll tell you. You just listen and remember when anyone asks: You’re new in the house. My sister sent you over here to me as a present. You’ve been living in Mississippi. Now you live here and work for me. Nothing else, do you understand?’ The Girl remained silent but understood the words and the reasons behind them. She didn’t question. She was tired, and the more she saw of this white world, the more afraid she became that she could no longer hide from the plantation owners and the bounty hunters. (Gomez 17)
The narrator explains that there is a sensible, legal reason for Miss Gilda to treat the Girl this way, and the novel seems to argue that saving the Girl from capture, even if it means keeping her essentially imprisoned within the house at Woodard’s, is an act of love. As Clarke says in her article, “the black woman, not under the thumb of one man, can now be squashed by all” (249). Perhaps, by keeping the Girl under her guard, Miss Gilda acts as a protector. Matt Richardson, in his book on Black Lesbian Literature, argues that, “[Miss] Gilda replaces the main character’s slave mother and becomes her redeemer.” He further explains that Miss Gilda convinces “the Girl that she is involved in an even exchange of power” (Richardson 32). One can see this uneven power exchange particularly in Bird’s effort to teach the Girl to read. The narrator says, “Bird gazed into the African eyes which struggled to see a white world through words on a page” (Gomez 21). Because this new “white” world, based on the sudden new opportunity and freedom, is so different from the past she knows, Gilda finds it difficult to understand. Further, the narrator’s problematic reference to the Girl’s “African eyes” brings the narrator’s identity and motives into question. It is unclear whether the narrator (or the novel) believe that Miss Gilda is acting out of a white savior complex, but the resulting reality is that, because of Miss Gilda’s attention and charity, the Girl is able to remain alive. And avoid enslavement.
However, the narrator demonstrates Miss Gilda’s overt power over the Girl, as well, somewhat to a concerning degree. This, again, relates to Richardson’s reference to Miss Gilda replacing the Girl’s slaveholding master as a position of authority in her life. Miss Gilda shows the Girl great care and compassion while the two live at Woodard’s together, but she also exhibits traits of a white person in the 1850s who struggles with the racial imbalance in society at the time. Miss Gilda physically imposes herself over the girl (Gomez 42), she keeps much of her life a mystery (Gomez 37), and she even gives the Girl a name, like a master would to a newly purchased enslaved person or to a pet. Upon Miss Gilda’s True Death, Bird tells the Girl that, “she wanted you to be called Gilda” (Gomez 49). While Miss Gilda does, in a sense, possess and value the Girl’s body as an objectified person, the Girl sees her inclusion in this little family as an honor and a privilege, refusing to leave Woodard’s when offered because, she says, “this is my home now” (Gomez 35). These actions are a colonizing of the Girl’s body, and despite the fact that she believes Miss Gilda has good intentions, there is textual evidence to support the novel’s questioning of these ethics. Earlier, the Girl asks Bird “Why white people feel they got to mark us”, and Bird responds, “Maybe they’re afraid they’ll be forgotten.” (Gomez 23).Whether or not this is the case the narrator ties Gilda’s name to a physical mark, like the scars covering Bird’s body and the calluses of hard labor that relate to her former enslavement. This tie indicates a significant power imbalance being passed off as a mutually beneficial relationship. Miss Gilda’s chosen family, therefore, is one built on a hierarchical structure placing Miss Gilda at the top. This family resists the expectations put onto them by society at the time in terms of gender and power over a business, but the family of women results in inequality that problematizes the family unit and results in its falling apart as Gilda and Bird separate from Woodard’s.
Queering Gender Since 1850
While they are in the house, the Girl makes several narrative comments about Miss Gilda looking and acting like a man. Miss Gilda wears men’s breeches and a heavy jacket and her gesticulations cause the Girl to think, “This is a man! A little man!” (Gomez 16). It is not only to the Girl that this masculine portrayal comes off as power. As mother of the house, Miss Gilda stands up for the girls she employs, protecting the rights they deserve as women, regardless of their skin color. Early in the novel, there is an instance in which a patron pursues the Girl, and Miss Gilda uses her authority to overrule the desires of the man. Miss Gilda confronts the man who insists on being entertained by the Girl, saying, “‘If you’ll leave the management of my girls to me, you just go about having a good time… let me do the managing. You enjoy yourself’” (Gomez 31). Although Miss Gilda’s tone is polite and measured, her decision and power are absolute.
Later in the novel, the lady of the house’s dominant “masculine” power shifts to the Girl, now called Gilda, as she leaves Woodard’s and journeys about the country. One primary example comes from her feeding process, which she presumably learned from Bird after Miss Gilda takes the True Death. Gomez writes, “Gilda sliced the soft flesh of his neck and caught him up in her arm. She bent to him in the shadow that protected them from the endless electric night below” (Gomez 57). Here, Gilda subverts the expectations of typical gender roles, much like Miss Gilda did, describing the man’s neck as “soft” and catching him like a damsel. She bends over him, demonstrating her authority and power, and drinks blood from his neck. While this location of the bite is not new to the vampire genre nor is it specific to Gomez’s vampire mythology, the act of biting a neck is an intimate exchange that imitates either a predator’s bite or a lover’s kiss (Henry 26). This speaks to the novel’s concern for destabilizing the patriarchal power structure; giving Gilda a masculine role also allows her to assume the power she has previously been denied by enslavement and assault. Gilda’s portrayal of gender through actions and dress parallels that of her vampiric mother, leading to Gilda also mirroring Miss Gilda’s use of clothing as gender expression to assert her physical power and dominance (Gomez 72).
This topic, then, speaks to the gender-reversing effects that vampirism has on those it afflicts. It is not only women who are masculinized by their new immortal responsibility, but men, too, who find that their gender expression is less traditionally masculine and more feminized. This seems to be a common trope in the vampire genre. For example, Stoker depicts Dracula as slightly effeminate and domestic, indicating that something about his vampirism mitigates his masculinity. Some of that feminization is evident in Anthony, who is especially domestic and soft. He takes on a waiter or butler role in Sorel’s establishment, bringing drinks and entertaining guests. But, much like Miss Gilda, Anthony keeps a particular eye out for dangers and other vampires, spending extra time with those in Sorel’s family (Gomez 69). Part of his feminine presence is his emotional acuity and submissiveness. Throughout the novel, he notices that Gilda is deciding what to say, and he consistently gives her time to “orient her thoughts,” directly contrasting Eleanor’s intrusive and non-consensual listening (Gomez 89). He appears more submissive to Sorel instead of in a position of authority over him and over the business, as Miss Gilda is to Bird. Both Anthony and Sorel have a tendency to create a very private atmosphere about them, and no matter where they live, in Yerba Buena or in New York, they hold parties and act as perfect hosts. Sorel holds an air of authority and power over his environment that Anthony lacks, but neither man is especially traditionally authoritative or masculine. Instead, Anthony’s perceptive nature enables him to understand the effects of his words and to read social situations exceptionally well. None of the other characters in the novel are as perceptive as he is in this way. In addition to the shifted gender expression that comes with vampirism, Gomez gives Anthony a sort of androgyny – a simultaneous male and female presence in the novel. Gilda describes him as “a brother and sister to her at the same time,” feeling relaxed and comfortable enough to let him dry her body after she bathes (Gomez 71). Though Gilda is not physically attracted to Anthony, sharing her body with him is an act of familial vulnerability.
Queer and Racial Implications: Mixed Blood Families
Further, while neither Gomez nor the narrator say for certain that both Sorel and Anthony are white, that both men at least pass for white and, therefore, have a different experience with presumed or assumed authority. Though the two men are not described as people of color, Jenkins discusses Anthony and Sorel as racial others in his essay, writing, “Sorel suggests that every human has African blood in them; therefore, ‘white’ people are also ‘black.’ Consequently, if ‘white’ people are ‘black,’ then it follows, as Anthony implies in his honoring of [his and Gilda’s] ancestors, that ‘blood’ does not unite a race…it is our ideas about blood that group us into races” (Jenkins 317). He goes on to discuss Gomez’s philosophy that subverts the meaning of the idiom, ‘blood is thicker than water.’ He argues that the concept of blood as connecting people is an Afrocentrist idea that ties groups of African-descended people together (Jenkins 317-318). Jenkins’ idea is self-contradictory, since his article simultaneously suggests that blood does not unite a race and that blood ties a people together. Instead, the kind of blood that connects individuals in groups of vampires, like Gilda’s and Sorel’s families, is the blood on which they feed. The process of transforming a human into a vampire involves an exchange of blood flowing back and forth between individuals, as well as the need for blood that connects them for the rest of their lives. In the dystopian end of the novel, the vampires’ blood is what makes them desirable to and hunted by the wealthy in order to preserve their lives. This shared blood, both literally and metaphorically, connects the vampires to each other through shared experience and trauma, bonding them together as a queer, outsider community.
This found family is analogous to the sort of found family found in the LGBT community. In her article about Octavia Butler’s afrofuturist novel Fledgling, Susana Morris equates the struggles vampires experience to the constraints imposed on those in real marginalized communities, especially those marginalized due to race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. She writes, “I argue that the Afrofuturist feminism of [Fledgling] illuminates epistemologies that do not suggest utopian panaceas but instead underscore the importance of transgressive manifestations of family and intimacy” (Morris 147). Much like the Ina in Butler’s novel, Gomez’s vampires join together and form familial bonds with each other, but the Ina have a much different relationship with those from whom they feed, the Symbionts. The relationship between the two species forms a symbiosis that bonds them to each other at risk of the human Symbiont dying from venom withdrawal. While these two novels handle vampiric familiarity differently, they are incredibly similar in their analogues to reality and their subversive methods of sustaining a marginalized community in the face of resistance. For Gilda and the rest of Sorel’s family, the family unit acts as a sort of makeshift protectorate, an alliance upon which each member can depend for safety and wellbeing. Morris’s argument compares this to the safety and comfort often found within a close-knit LGBT community. The companionship of a chosen family bound together by shared experience and similar trauma is a valuable asset to the characters in Gilda, and would also be valuable to Gomez, a self-identified lesbian and founder of LGBT activism group GLAAD (Murphy, Khader).
Gomez’s awareness of the benefits of queer community on LGBT individuals is evident in her depiction of Sorel’s family. Sorel’s bars, in Yerba Buena and in New York, are both social gathering places where people of all types – mortal, immortal, and multiple genders and racial backgrounds – tend to gather, creating a mixed, queer community. Sorel’s previously mentioned comment about civilized society having roots of African descent within it coincides with his idea of the value of his own created family, although he considers his human companions visitors in his home whereas his fellow vampires are family. In this situation, then, if Sorel’s family represents the LGBT community, his vampiric family would be analogous to those included in the LGBT community, bound together by shared experience, and those visiting the bar are similar to the visitors (or “allies”) to the community. The analogy is imperfect, as it ignores the fact that none of Sorel’s human visitors are unaware of his vampirism, and, potentially, his romantic relationship with Anthony. Still, I argue that Gomez wrote Sorel’s family to parallel – however loosely – the chosen family of the LGBT community.
Similarly, the elements of queerness that unite the LGBT community while separating it from heteronormative society permeate the novel’s handling of familial roles. On two particular occasions, the novel features shifting roles and relationships in relation to Gilda, particularly with Bird and Julius, that are particularly queer in nature. Bird’s role as Gilda’s family member is first as a mother, letting Gilda (as the Girl) drink her blood from below her breast to bring her into the vampire life. This motion is meant to mimic the mothering practice of breastfeeding an infant, but it also features a reciprocation and exchange of blood that nourishes Gilda and marks her as a member of Bird’s family (Gomez 48-49). Bird “raises” Gilda as she grows and develops into the vampire life, and she tutors her in reading and writing as well as in the expectations and obligations of ethical vampirism. Later, after decades of separation, Bird joins Gilda in Boston. Bird’s role shifts to that of a lover, saying, “We should lie together now,” but she still mimics the motions that brought Gilda into her new life, repeating the action of pressing Gilda’s mouth against a slit in the tissue below her breast and “breastfeeding” her (Gomez 138-140). Gilda begins to see Bird as a sexual object instead of a mother, as Gomez writes, “she wanted to know this body that gave her life” (140). This shift to a lover role highlights the queerness of this vampiric family unit. Time does not feel the same for those who do not need to anticipate the end of their lives, and therefore the queerness of Bird’s and Gilda’s relationship extends beyond the boundaries of more traditional “normative” boundaries.
Gilda encounters this queer boundary crossing again after moving to New York, where she creates her first vampiric “child,” Julius. As friends working in the theatre world, the relationship between Gilda and Julius is complicated – both individuals struggle with the lonesomeness that follows the lack of a family, and while they connect platonically on this basis. Julius, though, expresses a sexual and romantic desire for Gilda that she does not reciprocate, which further complicates their relationship. I discuss their sexual encounter later in this paper, but it is worth noting here that Gilda acts similarly with Julius as Bird does with her – deciding that sexual activity is appropriate and warranted for their relationship without much regard for consent. In the reverse order as Bird, though, Gilda turns Julius into a vampire after their sexual encounter, going from lover to mother instead of from mother to lover. This is another example of the complex, queer relationships upon which these chosen families are created in order to build a stronger, more united vampiric community.
Consent Issues and Victimhood in Ethical Vampirism
In an interview with Ms. magazine in 1991, the year of Gilda’s publication, Gomez discussed her feminist message for the novel, saying that because the horror and vampire genre is traditionally exploitative and patriarchal, she, “had to re-create the mythology and strip away all the victimization.” She explains that her goal was to create vampires that “didn’t need victims in order to survive,” and that this furthers her feminist goal. While Gilda’s feedings are designed and intended to avoid killing any human whose blood she takes, and while it is important to note that she does accidentally kill one human by taking too much blood, it is nevertheless surprising that the novel puts such little emphasis on gender-based violence and consent. Interestingly, this reversal of the sexual assault narrative is depicted as inconsequential, and it is fine as long as Gilda offers pleasant dreams to the person in return. Gomez also addresses issues of consent through the character of Eleanor, both in her past and during the course of the novel. Sorel and Anthony reveal that Eleanor has toyed with people and been responsible for their downfall, and she refuses to take responsibility for her kills, forgetting their faces instead of internalizing and keeping responsibility for her actions as the novel’s philosophy of vampirism requires. She represents one firm example of a character who resists Gomez’s goal to create vampires that do not leave victims. On a smaller scale, too, Gilda experiences a consent issue with Eleanor that she overcomes by asserting the values of consent she learned from Bird. Gilda asks Eleanor not to listen to her thoughts, and Eleanor is surprised that she has been called out. “I just feel uncomfortable when you answer my questions before I’ve been allowed to decide whether or not to ask them,” Gilda asserts, explaining that she prefers to keep her thoughts private when possible (Gomez 88-89). Eleanor’s actions mirror the colonizing acts that Miss Gilda assumes earlier in the novel, making assumptions and taking liberties with Gilda before she has given consent. Having grown into her vampiric life a bit, Gilda stands up for herself and asks for what she needs, shifting the power imbalance of which Eleanor takes advantage. This small subversion of assumed power through championing the virtues of ethical vampirism is a small but significant act of defiance, empowering Gilda by putting her in control.
Gilda, herself, is not innocent of violating others’ consent, though. Before deciding to bring Julius into her vampiric family, Gilda has a strange sexual encounter with him while sneaking into his apartment while he sleeps. Gilda violates Julius’s consent by coming into his space without permission, and I interpret the actions she performs with him while he sleeps as sexual assault. Gilda examines Julius’s living space and sees him sleeping, and upon entering his thoughts, she realizes he is having a sexual dream about her. This mind probing is a consent violation on its own, but she goes on to engage with him sexually. Gomez writes:
“The dream doesn’t have to end,” she said softly, then lay down beside him, touching her fingers to his skin as lightly…She ran her hands across his body making his flesh tingle. His body responded as a man’s, and she lay across his lean thighs and chest providing a comforting sensation…As the moment approached when his mind provided the gratification his body hungered for, she sliced across the flesh of his neck with her fingernail and watched the blood ease slowly to the surface. (Gomez 178)
In this scene, Gilda engages in a sex act with the half-asleep Julius. Though the fantasy in his head at the time features Gilda, her engagement with his physical body is a violation of his consent, but not of the rules of ethical vampirism. It appears that the novel defines “victims” in the physical sense, referring specifically to the taking of a life.
Despite the creation of family serving as a supportive, positive element in the novel, the issue of consent comes up again in the process of adding members to the family. By its nature, vampirism is a tradition that requires nonconsent, starting from the moment that the change begins. As Miss Gilda asks the Girl if she would like to join her in her lifestyle, she cryptically explains some of the aspects of the new vampiric life, but she does not give the Girl any specifics. She says, “we who live by sharing the life blood of others have no need to kill. It is through our connection with life, not death, that we live…There is a joy to the exchange we make” (Gomez 45). Her explanation highlights the philosophy of ethical vampirism that creates the subversive element in the text, but there is still a deceit in failing to acknowledge the details of the life she offers to the Girl. Gilda does the same as she proposes vampiric life to Julius, artfully crafting her words in a way that indicates something supernatural is available to him, but she mirrors Miss Gilda’s language in a way that deprives Julius of complete and informed consent. Again, to a certain degree, this is a necessity. It would be dangerous for vampires to reveal themselves to humans if there is a risk of being discovered, as is the case at the end of the novel. Still, though it is not the most damning consent issue in the novel, it is important to consider within the larger context of the book.
Additionally, one element of vampirism that may affect the transformation process is the influential manipulation in the vampiric gaze. It is not clear whether Gomez’s vampires have the ability to influence people’s actions by looking into their eyes, but the narrator pays special attention to the vampires’ eyes – especially Miss Gilda’s – as an indicator of who is a vampire and who is not. As Miss Gilda explains the terms of the “life” before bringing the Girl into the vampiric family, the Girl can see “the pulsing blood and the swirling colors in [Miss] Gilda’s eyes” (Gomez 45). Soon after, Miss Gilda “closed her eyes and drew back a little, freeing the girl from her hypnotic gaze” (45). Though it is not explicitly stated that this hypnosis is meant to draw the Girl into the “life” so that Miss Gilda can pass on her legacy and take the true death, it is not out of the question. This happens again when Gilda violates Julius’s consent in his dream, keeping him locked in a gaze that he could not break (Gomez 178). While the element of psychic manipulation is important to this point, it is another aspect of the transformation into a vampire that represents a potential violation of consent.
Still, the Girl ultimately verbally consents to the transformation (Gomez 46). Her consent is verbal, but not entirely informed. It is true that it would be impossible to reveal the details of vampirism to someone before they experience them, both for the safety and secrecy of the family’s identity and for practical reasons. The process of transformation is necessarily non-consensual, which complicates the attainability of Gomez’s goal to create vampires that leave no victims. Despite their best efforts to refrain from killing those whose blood they take, and despite the strong chosen families they have developed to keep the community together, vampirism necessitates the violation of consent, even with the ethical exchange that Gilda and her peers value so heavily. In this way, there are victims littered throughout the novel – in every human whose blood the vampires took, and in every vampire character, turned without complete, informed consent.
In her article, Virginia Fusco dances around the subject of ethical vampirism in her study of ethical sexuality in Gilda. For Fusco, the lesson in the exchange, in which Gomez’s entire vampiric philosophy is rooted, comes from a place of sexuality, specifically honoring and accepting black sexuality. She asserts that sexuality in the novel is meant to symbolize a subversion of the black female body as an agent rather than a conquered body. This subversion is part of the act of resistance at the heart of this paper. I assert that the sexual ethics and issues of consent in the novel are somewhat more complicated and fraught. Instead of black sexuality, the ethics that Gilda brings to the vampiric population are based in ethical vampirism, extending not only to those upon which she feeds, but into the population of humans with which she incorporates herself. Where Fusco offers Gilda’s formerly enslaved status as a paragon of her argument, I suggest that this ethic of care extends beyond sexuality and into the philosophy of Gilda’s vampiric life as a whole. The element of choice features prominently throughout the novel, which speaks to its value to the narrative. Despite being, by nature, created through a system of non-consent, vampirism grants free choice to those afflicted with it. For people like Gilda, who are experiencing this amount of agency for the first time, freedom of choice makes all the difference. This element of choice comes with the burden of responsibility, though, and it is this that makes Gilda’s ethical vampirism a valuable example after which readers are meant to model their own philosophies: care toward those unlike themselves.
In his article, Jenkins discusses the novel’s structuring of the vampiric family unit as a chosen family. He compares Gilda’s choice to keep the name of her vampiric mother, Miss Gilda, to William Crain’s character Blacula receiving his unfortunate name from his vampiric father (Jenkins 318). He argues that the entire notion of a vampiric family is dependent on chosen family members in order to further the “race.” Grouping the vampiric family together aligns with Gomez’s advocacy for a united black population throughout her life of activism, and Jenkins suggests that she “contends that the concept of family is useful for moving toward a ‘full vision’ of black freedom” (Jenkins 316). What Jenkins does not discuss, though, is the most subversive part of the narrative: the humans in Gilda’s chosen family. While traveling and experiencing the changes in the country over time, Gilda cannot help but attach herself to individuals and communities along the way. It would not be difficult for her to stay isolated or in a closed vampiric community, which Bird and Sorel do quite effectively. Instead, Gilda’s underlying humanity draws her to find community with humans, and her bonds with those humans are often extremely close. After leaving Sorel in San Francisco, Gilda meets Aurelia, a widow in Missouri. By disguising herself as a widow as well, Gilda is able to gain control of her own land and to be Aurelia’s companion, forming a close, loving relationship with her. Her widowhood becomes a guise under which her homosexuality can hide, and though she is not attached to any man, the idea that Gilda was or could be attached to a man gives her the subversive authority she needs to move freely throughout the community. Gomez writes that, “Gilda took much pleasure in the occasional encounters she had with the townspeople…the complexity of their social interactions were life energy for her” (Gomez 106). While humans are a source of sustenance for her physical body, an equally important part of her well being is her social relationship with them. Decades after she leaves Missouri Gilda becomes close with a group of Boston women she meets while working as a hairstylist, incorporating them into her close circle and embracing them as family members. She protects these women and those close to them to the point that she risks her life by killing an incredibly strong and powerful vampire working as a pimp in the area. Once again, she explains, “I’ve grown to understand the rhythm of their lives, their desires” (Gomez 157). Her devotion to this little family is so strong, that when it comes time to take advantage of the power her condition affords her, Bird has to remind her, “Our world is separate from theirs. To ignore our possibilities is to nurture only disappointment” (157). These humans are so important to Gilda that she seems to temporarily forget their difference to her, and she finds herself willing to put everything she values on the line to help them. In a small sense, then, the humans in her chosen family upset the balance of the expected vampire family.
The case is not the same, though, with Gilda’s vampire family. Before she goes off to pursue community with humans, she struggles in Yerba Buena, especially in her confusing relationship with Eleanor. Gomez reveals that Eleanor does not feel the circumstances of her “birth” into her eternal life were worth the consequences of her actions and, therefore, she chooses to take advantage of her privilege and live an unethical life as a vampire until she chooses to end her immortal life. Anthony explains, “She took no responsibility for her life…[and she] came to see what a waste that was” (Gomez 176). This lack of responsibility and care for her actions leads to an outright unethical philosophy of vampirism that damages Eleanor’s relationship with Sorel and other vampires in her family, and also alienates her from those she loves, like Gilda. Eleanor’s philosophy on life is one that violates the rules that ethical vampires value, and the same philosophy that Gomez quotes in her preface to the 25th anniversary edition of the novel: “We take blood, not life, and leave something in exchange” (Gomez XIII). Eleanor is the first of the vampires revealed as a violator of the “rules” necessary for continuing the vampire lifestyle. Rather than leaving something in exchange for the blood she takes, Eleanor takes blood recklessly and, Sorel explains, “only takes – never gives” (Gomez 85).
While talking with Eleanor, Gilda explains that, in this world, her thoughts are the only things that belong to her: the only place she is safe (Gomez 18). They have been her only lasting possessions since she was enslaved at the plantation. These thoughts are so valuable that, throughout her supernaturally long life, Gilda continues to record them in a series of journals. It is only fitting, then, that in exchange for the blood she takes from mortals in order to sustain her body, she plants hopeful thoughts – the most valuable currency in Gilda’s purse. It is natural for her to thank those whose blood she takes by offering them pleasant feelings or ambitions. For most, these notions result in renewed interest or increased drive to succeed, but for some the result is life saving. At the novel’s conclusion, Gilda comes across Ermis as she lies in the final moments of her life after poisoning herself nearly to death. Gilda makes an impulsive decision to bring Ermis into her vampire family, in order to give her a chance to live. Gilda also offers her poison that will let her continue to die, properly utilizing consent to give Ermis the power to end her life if she still wants to do so. Ermis reveals that she wanted to know that someone was alive who wanted her to live. For Ermis, this life is a gift greater than the positive ideas or beliefs with which Gilda usually pays for blood.
Fox, the Boston pimp, holds the same unethical point of view as Eleanor, killing for pleasure and sport while becoming notorious for his cruelty. Bird explains, “He is not among the living. We are. He seeks only to drag others into death and thrives on watching their descent” (Gomez 157). By perpetuating the damaging proclivities in society, Fox upholds the status quo against which Gilda is fighting. Further, and more heinously, both Eleanor and Fox are guilty of forgetting those they have killed. Gilda, conversely, memorizes faces in excruciating detail when she kills someone. She is horrified by the fact that Eleanor “is one of those who does not bother to remember the faces” (Gomez 82), and it is this abandoning of personal responsibility that makes her vampirism particularly unethical.
For contrast, the novel also illustrates instances that Gilda takes human lives, both intentionally and accidentally. In Missouri, Gilda encounters two men with their horses walking along the road at night. She notices the coiled whips at their belts and their threatening approach as they make their intentions clear, saying, “Maybe we teach one more niggah a lesson tonight” (Gomez 113). One of the men grabs Gilda by the hair, and she responds by using her enhanced vampire strength to break his wrist, followed by his neck. She cracks the other man across the back with his own whip, reversing the master-slave relationship that both she and the man knew well, and Gilda ultimately knocks him nearly unconscious. Her reaction to this act of violence is extremely different from Eleanor’s, and she finds herself faced with a dilemma about how to responsibly handle this man’s injured body. Gomez writes:
She watched the blood pulse from his neck, searching for what he felt when he lay open the flesh of men. Her chest swelled with anticipation as she understood the terrible joy he experienced at demanding terror and death…She could feel the life ebbing from him and was shocked at the excitement it aroused. One death was enough. She knelt beside him, holding her hands to the wounds on his neck and cheek until the bleeding stopped. (Gomez 114)
Instead of killing the second man, after killing the first in self defense, Gilda remembers what Bird taught her and decides not to kill him. She feels “sickened by her anger and the thrill the confrontation had given her,” and connects it to the terrifying thrill she sees in Eleanor’s eyes in the confrontation with Samuel. She gives the second man the memory of falling off of his horse – a much gentler and safer memory than the truth, but also not the usual gift of a hopeful dream or positive desire to improve himself – and memorizes the face of the man she killed. Also in sharp contrast to Eleanor, Gilda takes special care to absorb as much of the man as possible, “[taking] in his features as she’d been taught and tr[ying] to absorb some sense of his true spirit” (Gomez 114). This scene demonstrates the ethical vampire culture and attitude that Gomez strives to create in the novel, emphasizing self control and making special note of Gilda’s horror when she realizes how good this violence makes her feel.
I argue that this nightmarish joy at seeing a human bleed is a significant factor in Gilda’s pursuit of a mixed-blood, part-human family unit. An environment filled entirely with other vampires is not an ideal environment for Gilda, not only because of the exposure to unethical vampires like Fox and Eleanor, but because her time with Eleanor introduced her to Samuel, an antagonist who follows her for decades in pursuit of vengeance. This is not at all to say that her time with soral was a period of her life in which she felt unsafe or threatened. To the contrary: the home he built with Anthony becomes a safe haven, and she feels extremely connected to Sorel. Meeting Samuel represents the vulnerabilities inherent in a vampire family, and her connections between the other vampires prove to be both detrimental (as with Samuel) and supremely beneficial and heartening, such as with Sorel and Bird. On a hunt with Anthony one night, Gilda reaches out to Sorel in search of a response to demonstrate the power of the connection they share. Gomez writes, “She felt Sorel reach out to her, the warmth of his affection washing over her” (Gomez 70). This aspect of her connection with other vampires makes it worthwhile for her to incorporate them into her family. It is not enough, though, for Gilda’s family to be made up of only one sort of companion, either vampire or human – it must be both in order to find balance and to supplement the close bonds, especially while Sorel and Bird are away. Winnubst explains that, in Gomez’s novel, a diverse chosen family is essential to forming an identity in Gilda’s no-longer-human lifestyle. This element of heterogeneity, Winnubst later suggests, features heavily in the exchange of blood that sustains and creates vampires. This mixing of blood instils a fear in the reader that, she argues, is tied to the AIDS epidemic – especially in 1991, when Gomez publishes the first edition of this novel. Marty Fink also ties the epidemic in to the story, arguing that HIV/AIDS has changed the human narrative so authors use it to symbolize the concept of disease (Fink 416). For Gomez’s vampires, there is no concern about mixing blood or purity of blood, much as in Stoker’s original narrative of Dracula. Stoker depicts a group of men offering blood transfusions to a sick and dying Lucy, symbolizing both the sexual sharing of her body and the bonding that ties the men to each other and to Lucy by releasing their mixed, sero blood into her. “Freedom,” Winnubst suggests, “begins with disassociating race and family from skin color and blood” (Winnubst 316). In Gomez’s text, the notion of “mixed blood” is especially important while being told through the narrative of a formerly enslaved black woman. Blood purity and cleanliness was the key to safety and personhood, and having blood “tainted” with African heritage consigned a person to enslavement. The vampires’ foundation on mixed blood indicates their transcendence into a fully sero worldview.
Much of the critical discussion focuses on the manner in which Gomez breaks down racial boundaries is by granting Gilda agency and power over her own circumstances and the lives of other people that she would not have if she lived the life of enslavement into which she was born. I suggest, instead, that the fact that she keeps small, temporary, human families is much more significant to the story and to the value of the narrative, and her insistence on an ethical form of vampirism results in a relatively peaceful act of resistance against the established systems that force queer communities – like Gilda’s vampire and human family – into hiding. She offers positive, hopeful thoughts in return, but also welcomes them into her life as a temporary mortal family. The revolutionary crossing of borders happens along the vampire/human lines instead of the racial lines, and that makes Gilda different from the other ethical vampires in the novel: her sense of personal responsibility and her deliberate care for both her human and vampiric family illustrates a unique joining and harmonizing of traditionally separated worlds into one community. This community, the novel suggests, represents an act of rebellion, forcing the questioning of assumptions and established rules in order to make space for itself where there is otherwise none.
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Samantha Lepak (she/her/hers) is a third-year PhD student at Loyola University in Chicago. Her studies focus on Queer Modernism with special interest in trauma narratives and Greek classics. She earned her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from the University of Minnesota in Duluth.