Jewelle Gomez [Transcript]


WG: [00:00:18] Welcome to Queer Words. This is Wayne Goodman, and on this episode, I have the delightful pleasure of conversing with Jewelle Gomez. Hi, Jewelle!

JG: [00:00:26] Hi, Wayne.

WG: [00:00:27] And we’re meeting in the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco because Jewelle is in the midst of a series of commissioned plays, but we’ll talk about that more later. First, I would just like you to introduce yourself to the listeners.

JG: [00:00:41] Okay. Hi out there. My name is Jewelle Gomez. I’m originally from Boston. I lived in New York for years, but I’ve been in the San Francisco Bay Area for about 25 years now. My spouse and I were involved in the right-to-marry movement, even though neither one of us believed in marriage. That’s where politics can take you. I’m mostly a writer. I worked in philanthropy for thirty years for the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Horizons Foundation, but, primarily, I’ve been a writer, and my most well-known publication is The Gilda Stories, which is–I think still–the first Black Lesbian Vampire novel ever published. It’s been in print for more than 25 years, and just had a new edition, which I traveled around with.

WG: [00:01:32] Great. And as this is Queer Words, I always ask our authors: What qualifies you as Queer?

JG: [00:01:38] Ha! I love that question because you don’t think about it, you just assume it a lot yourself. For someone who’s been a Lesbian most of my life–I’m not a Gold-Star Lesbian–but I knew I was a Lesbian…

WG: [00:01:53] Okay, okay, okay. For the non-cognoscenti who are listening: What is a Gold-Star Lesbian and how does that differentiate from other Lesbians?

JG: [00:02:02] A Gold-Star Lesbian is a Lesbian who has never had sex with a guy. And I have had sex in relationships with guys in my youth because it was hard to figure out who was a Lesbian and how you could have a relationship with them without being run out of town. Before I moved to New York–when I lived in Boston–I didn’t know any Lesbians at all. Once I moved to New York I was able to find the Lesbian community and find other women to have relationships with. So… I feel like I am Queer because I’m a Lesbian and have been most of my life but also because I identify with this idea that we all have a right to identify as we feel we are–whatever of the initials that might be–and I think it’s really important that we uphold that, that all the initials stand up for each other, and, to me, that’s what Queerness is about.

WG: [00:03:01] That’s wonderful. So when did you first accept being Queer?

JG: [00:03:05] As a Lesbian I felt like I was always part of a larger community, once I found that. As a Lesbian feminist, I was very active in the 80s and late 70s. Queer was not the word then, but I always felt part of a movement, and it wasn’t just about the sexuality; it was about the politics. For me, being Queer that’s always meant having a certain kind of progressive politics that was dedicated to social change. As a feminist, I feel that still holds true for me. Probably I was in my 40s before people started using the word “Queer” again, and not as a pejorative. Being under the Queer umbrella is a great thing. As a Lesbian I like to mention Lesbian because sometimes we get disappeared. Everybody thinks, “Oh, yeah, Lesbians, they’ve already had their time. Lesbian chic has passed.

WG: [00:04:00] They are the first letter of LGBTQIAA…

JG: [00:04:04] You don’t know how we had to fight to get that!

WG: [00:04:07] Who are some of your Queer hero figures?

JG: [00:04:10] Oh, gosh… Queer heroes… I would start, I think, with Joan Nestle, who wrote the first book about femme, the butch-femme identities and how that affected us culturally and the politics of that. I would say, well, Armistead Maupin. I feel like he’s lived an amazing life and continues to do so. Writing a memoir–I think–is a really wonderful thing for a writer of that stature and who’s helped so much define a Queer community in the Bay Area and create inspiration for people. He created my favorite term: the difference between “biological” family and “logical” family. I think it’s really important for us to understand we can create a logical family and they can be our support. I feel very, very close to Barbara Jordan, who was a Lesbian in politics in the 60s. Unfortunately, she died of cancer quite early. She was an amazing politician and stateswoman who did not brook any–and here’s where I won’t use the word I would say–but did not brook any mess. I mean, she just was standing up and tough. She was a Texan, too, an African-American Texan, and very big. I always admire her and think of her when I think of what I might do if I were as brave as her. This is such a weird sense to think about Queer heroes. I tend to think about people who are alive and then some people who are heroes who happen to be Queer, you know what I mean.

WG: [00:05:55] Let’s talk about your literary influences.

JG: [00:05:57] Okay. Yeah, well, James Baldwin is definitely a literary influence. He’s one of the first African-American writers I ever read. When I was a teenager I read his work. I didn’t understand it; it was just so dense. At 15, I couldn’t quite get everything, but I knew he was a genius.

WG: [00:06:21] Is this Giovanni’s Room?

JG: [00:06:22] I first read Another Country, and then I read Giovanni’s Room. I remember both of them just made me cry, and I knew he was a genius and I could tell how much he loved the language and how brilliantly he used language. That really made me want to be a writer. It wasn’t until I read him later that I got the real depth of his work. Octavia Butler is another writer who really openend up a path for me. She, again, died too soon, but she was the first African-American writer who wrote speculative fiction and made me feel like, “Oh, yes, I can do what I want to do,” which is I don’t write just kind of regular narrative stories. I want to write, not space stories, but things that were different. Octavia Butler is one of my heroes. The other one is Joanna Russ. Joanna Russ was a Lesbian feminist who wrote some amazing books like The Female Man in the 80s, and she was a brilliant writer. She wrote a wonderful book about how men suppress women’s writing–in fact, that might be the title of it–which talks about all the different ways the system systematically disappears women writers. Her quirky, funny stories about the impossible just really inspired me, and she actually liked my vampire stories and wrote me a postcard once. I was so thrilled! I thought, “Oh, okay, I can do this. I can do this.” And, of course Audre Lorde. Audre Lorde was a wonderful mentor for me. She read the Gilda stories and she’s the one who encouraged me to rewrite it and turn it into a novel, even though she said, “I don’t like short stories, and I’m not sure how I feel about vampires.” But she read it, and she was spot on with her critique.

WG: [00:08:31] Another person who passed on too soon.

JG: [00:08:34] Too soon. It’s weird to feel that I’m older now than most of the people I point to as my heroes.

WG: [00:08:49] What inspired you to begin writing?

JG: [00:08:51] I was inspired to write–I think–originally by my family. My grandmother, who had danced on the stage, used to tell great stories. My great-grandmother, who was Native American, she tried to remember stories from her youth to pass on to me. My father, who I visited on weekends, was a bartender, so he was a fabulous storyteller. I really listened to them with big ears, as they say, and I found them entrancing, the way they could pass on a culture that was kind of gone, really, at that time, when I was a kid. I felt like I learned so much about their lives because of the stories they told, and I wanted to be able to do that. Of course, that made me troublesome in school because I always wanted to tell stories, and make people laugh, which is not the teacher’s favorite thing. As I got older, I realized I could write those stories down. When I read Baldwin, when I was in my teens, I wanted to write like that. I wanted to take words and feel them in my mouth and get them on the page in that delicious way that Baldwin does. I didn’t consciously focus on writing like him–fortunately–but that impulse to use rich language, I think, came from him. I wanted to start writing when I was a kid, but I didn’t know what to write about. There wasn’t anything out there when I was 15 or 16 that I could say reflected me. It took a while for me to do my first actual creative writing.

WG: [00:10:30] How does queerness impact your writing?

JG: [00:10:34] Queerness has a major impact on my writing because it was the Queer community that supported my work in the beginning. Once I understood I could write about the women in my life–I saw Ntozake Shange’s play For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf–I saw that play probably five times, and it pressed upon me the fact that I could write about myself, I could write about women in my community and my neighborhood. I could write about Lesbians! That opened up a new path. So, that sense of queerness was what made me be able to grow into myself as a writer. The Women in Print movement that was alive and kicking in the 80s, Lesbian literary magazines that were numerous in the 80s, they were the places that I went to to publish. So, that was the possibility that I had to be a writer was because of the Lesbian community, and I feel very fortunate I came of age as a writer when the Lambda Literary Awards were just starting, and The Advocate was geared up, and Queer newspapers were abounding. I had many outlets for my writing because of the Queer community.

WG: [00:11:57] Wonderful. Now, can you tell us a little bit about your personal writing approach. Are you well-organized? Are you less organized? Are you dis-organized? Everybody has a different way of coming at this.

JG: [00:12:11] My writing approach depends on the medium, I think. I keep folders for everything, including random thoughts because I’m afraid I’ll forget them if I don’t put them on the computer or in a notebook. I tend to work on one project at a time. Right now I’m writing plays, but I’m trying to write a second Gilda novel. Sometimes you never know when an idea about a Gilda story will come to me, and so I have the chapters lined out, and then I’ll throw things in there to remember so that when I finish this play I can go back and do it, but bubbling in the back of my head is the third play in the trilogy. It has come to this: whenever I go to acupuncture, as soon as she finishes putting the needles in and I lay down, my characters from this third play start talking. It’s very funny.

WG: [00:13:06] Sometimes when we’re most relaxed, that’s when our creativity and our motivation just erupts.

JG: [00:13:11] Yeah! Absolutely. I feel like sometimes I could just go to sleep. Now, the characters start talking and then as soon as I’m up I have to write down what they said because I won’t remember what they said or the ideas that popped in. That has been a great impetus, and this is the time when I have to go back to that script.

WG: [00:13:46] What is your involvement in the Queer communities?

JG: [00:13:50] Mmmmm, gosh. Well, I have a lot of involvement–it was really lovely when I was at Horizons Foundation, which is the LGBT foundation. That allowed me the opportunity to work with a lot of LGBT artists and non-profit leaders, working on leadership programs with them and helping guide that to grant-making success. I really felt very proud about the work that Horizons Foundation does. It’s very hard to get Queer people to donate to their own community. We will donate to our alma mater, as if Columbia University needs more money. We’ll donate to the ASPCA because we all love our animals. But for us to decide, “I am going to give a monthly stipend to… Open House, the LGBT service center and home, is really hard for us. That’s the next-to-the-last thing we will donate to, and I think Horizons has tried to help Queer people understand: We have to support ourselves because other people are not going to do it. So, that was really great for me. My spouse Diane and I have been great supporters of a number of different organizations. One of them is Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project, which teaches women of color how to do filmmaking, well, I guess it’s videomaking. They do an annual festival every year that’s free–open to the public–and it’s one of the most diverse places I ever go to all year. We try to be regular, ongoing supporters of that organization. There’s a couple of organizations, at this point, we donate to regularly, like National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center, things like that. Most of our support now comes financially and sometimes we try to do some mentorship, individual mentors because I find there are so few institutions that have time for that. Organizations are really just struggling on a day-to-day basis. It’s really hard if you’re a Queer artist or a Queer activist, how do you get the understanding about the principles, the philosophy of a movement, the strategies, the connections. Diane and I–she’s really, really good at that, she’s a great mentor–we feel like, as we get older, that’s our role. I turned 70 this year, and my biggest effort now is to try to stay awake so I can do my writing. [Laughter] But I love being able to connect people one to the other now.

WG: [00:16:36] Do you use social media to promote your work?

JG: [00:16:38] I do use social media to promote your work! Let me tell you, when we were doing the play in New York–we were doing the Baldwin play in New York, Waiting for Giovanni–I was on that social media. Someone said you have to post in the morning and in the evening. I said, “Okay.” Every morning, the first thing I did when I got up, I posted something and then in the evening. Social media is a great way to keep our history alive. Unfortunately, women and gender studies has become more of a place for professional Queers to advance their careers. It’s not a place where you learn how to foment revolution or social change. But I find if you can post information about those who have gone before, people are really curious, they look them up, they have discussions, and that has been one of our fantasies–me and Diane–that some day we’ll get a group of people together that will meet like maybe once a month to talk about who went before us and how it connects to what’s happening today and how it can be useful. Learning social media has been very helpful for me because it keeps my brain agile; it’s a very different way of thinking. To post things on Instagram, has really given me a better visual sense. When I can see something that’s engaging, that I know other people will find engaging–I never really took a lot of pictures until I started on Instagram. [Laughter] I definitely do social media a lot for a woman of my years. [Laughter]

WG: [00:18:17] Tell us what you like to read.

JG: [00:18:19] Gosh. I’m very interested in historical fiction, in part because, I think, a lot of my writing is historical. Most of Gilda takes place in the back history. A lot of my plays take place in the early part of the 20th Century. Some of my other short stories take place in the 50s and 60s. So, I definitely have an affinity for earlier years. I like to read history or historical novels. Once I started doing vampire fiction, I had to stop reading all other vampire fiction. At the time I started the Gilda Stories there wasn’t that much to read, but I read all of it. I have a favorite writer who does this Count St. Germain vampire series, and she’s written–I don’t know–fifty novels about Count St. Germain, but I had to stop reading all the vampire stuff because I didn’t want it to slip into my writing. I tried to figure out what could I read after a night of writing vampire fiction that would take my mind off of vampires [Laughter] so I wasn’t laying in bed listening to creaking noises in the house. So, I started reading detective novels, and I had never read detective novels–well, that’s not true–I read little detective kids–Bobsey Twins or whatever–but I really, really thought, “Okay, this will be such a different genre it will totally take my mind off it.” So, I started reading detective novels, then I narrowed it down to Victorian detective novels, which is a genre all on its own, and it feeds both of my obsessions: history and detection. That’s what I read most. I really do like Elizabeth George; I really enjoy her work. She’s contemporary. She’s American, actually, but she writes British mysteries. Emma James, who writes historical British mysteries. I’ve seen all of every Sherlock Holmes ever made and I’ve read all of the oeuvre.

WG: [00:20:26] Including the Benedict Cumberbatch version?

JG: [00:20:29] Oh, I’m what they call a “Cumberbitch,” yes.

WG: [00:20:32] Do you have any words of wisdom to pass along to other Queer writers?

JG: [00:20:36] I always feel that when people start out writing they either think it’s going to be easier than it is, or they think it’s going to be so hard they’re afraid to start. And it’s somewhere in between. To be good writing is going to take more work. Your best friend is going to be an editor, not your roommate, not your cousin, but someone who really has experience as an editor. The best thing you can do as a writer is to learn how to take in a critique of your work and know what to use and use it well. I think it’s hard for beginning writers–certainly it was for me–to take in any kind of critique of the work, but that’s the only way the work gets better. I think it’s worthwhile, even though I only took maybe two writing workshops in my life–one of them was with Audre Lorde. I think it’s worthwhile to take writing workshops because they give you a deadline to bring in material. As Duke Ellington–the famous Duke Ellington–said, “I don’t need inspiration, I need a deadline.” [Laughter] It’s true! You can let things languish forever, but if you know by next Thursday I need to have five pages, you’ll have five pages.

WG: [00:21:51] Instant motivation.

JG: [00:21:52] Yeah, yeah. And I think people should expect to put it as work. As it says in my Baldwin play, “Oeuvre does mean work,” and you can’t expect to create something lasting and enduring without putting in the work. The other thing I would say is: We need to understand that everything that gets written or created on film, however, has a political perspective, whether it’s acknowledged or not. There is a perspective being portrayed and propagated, and we do better if we understand what our political perspective is so we can be sharper on it. As a feminist and a Lesbian, I want the Queer eye, I want that to be present when I’m writing so that when people read it, they understand I’m about social change. When they finish reading what I’m writing, the idea of social change is important to them as well. They recognize it as a valid viewpoint. If you do that, it will give your work a lot more depth. People think, well, if you’re writing and you’ve got an axe to grind then it makes the writing too preachy. Well, your role as a writer is to make it not be preachy, and that, again, is another skill you learn. Don’t let anybody stop you writing. Don’t let anybody say, “No, you can’t do it.” Maybe you’re not going to get the Nobel Prize for Literature, but you can write whatever you want.

WG: [00:23:18] Well, thank you Jewelle Gomez.

JG: [00:23:20] Oh, thank you, this is great fun!