Jewelle Gomez, Lesbian Trailblazer: The Autostraddle Interview

You can’t love lesbian herstory without loving Jewelle Gomez.

Gomez is a living, breathing timeline. She has been at the forefront of LGBTQ activism since the early 1980s and has held positions at damned near every human rights organization of merit, including the inaugural board of the GLAAD, the Astraea Lesbian Foundation, Cornell’s Human Sexuality Archives and the Open Meadows foundation. She has witnessed it all, from the Stonewall riots to the ever-present fight for marriage equality. She’s recently been in California courtrooms with her partner, Dr. Diane Sabin, suing for that very right.

Gomez as done all of this while penning seven novels, hundreds of poems and works of short fiction, most notably The Gilda Stories and Forty-Three Septembers. Her work has recently appeared alongside that of Thea Hillman and Ivan E. Coyote in the anthology Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme.

I did not sit down and interview Gomez (we were both standing in an outdoor elevator entrance in Los Angeles at dusk), though I felt as though I should have been bowing to historical lesbian royalty.

I had the opportunity to talk to her about Gore Vidal’s death the day prior, Baldwin, and her thoughts on snot-nosed Millennials like ourselves.

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I wanted to talk to you about Gore Vidal first. I’m thinking a lot about what his work did in terms of instability in the community and retaliation. And even before Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt he was completely out there doing that. And I’m curious to know how you felt about him, were you inspired by that at that time?

Gore Vidal was such a character that you could not help but be amazed by him. In my younger years, hearing him speak – because it was always on the talk shows – I wasn’t really aware of who he was historically at that time. In the 60′s and 70′s he would always be on The Cavett Show and things like that. I just knew he was this eloquent literary person. It wasn’t until later, probably in the 70′s or 80′s when I started doing much more reading, that I read back and read about his work and read about being basically blackballed for writing his gay novel. And I was recently doing my own play about James Baldwin and his anxiety about writing a gay novel, and what happened with Gore Vidal 15 or 20 years earlier was one of the things I went back to think about. Gore Vidal’s experience reconfirmed for me that anxiety about putting something out in the world that was gay-focused in 1957 was not an easy task. James Baldwin knew, I’m sure, very explicitly what had happened to Gore Vidal, that Gore Vidal had to make another career for himself under other names.

James Baldwin

Mystery novels.

Right, mystery novels and script doctoring and things like that. It really was an important confirmation for me of how much he brought to the world as an artist refusing to skulk away, and how much he must have been a beacon for some other writers who were trying to figure out what to do. It really justifies, to me, my idea about writing about James Baldwin as he figures out what to do about Giovanni’s Room.

He did that long before lesbian pulp fiction was marketable, even before Patricia Highsmith. She was so haunted by anxiety throughout her career, even though she published under a pseudonym. Going back through his history, I was not that familiar with him initially, and then it was like, wow, there is a lot of stuff there. He really was at the forefront. I’m curious: Where do you think that plays in today? Because one still reads the headlines about queer people not receiving literary accolades for otherwise phenomenal books, publishers being unwilling to publish LGBTQ works…

I believe that the mainstream publishing industry really feels like it’s doing the best it can and that it’s really representing what’s out in the world. But I think that lesbians, and lesbians of color specifically, are completely underrepresented when you look what’s out in print. It’s unfortunate that most of the feminist presses have suffered great losses, and most of them have had to close down. There was a great heyday in the 80′s in which I felt like you could publish anything, you could say anything – any of the initials, L, G, B, or T. That really passed pretty quickly. And while gay men’s work has always been published, it’s usually been that they weren’t writing about gay things. So once the gay writers became more noticed and noticeable and made a showing out as gay writers, then the publishing indutry became, I think, a bit cautious. They are all about the money and the feeling in the industry is that if you can’t write something that’s going to sell 50,000 minimum copies, they really don’t want to spend the money. Most editors don’t believe that anybody reads lesbians except lesbians, although they believe that lots of people want to read gay men, particularly gay white men. They certainly don’t believe that people want to read people of color. So there are all these personal biases, and their inability to be imaginitive with marketing, with developing audiences, keeps the market pretty small.

Gomez and her grandmother

I mean, when I was looking for a publisher originally for my novel The Gilda Stories in the early 90′s, I had a very reputable literary agent who sent my novel around to all the big houses, and it was rejected by everyone. And my agent said, “Do you really want to see anything?” and I said, “You can tell me the highlights of what they had to say.” One of the letters was “well, we published our black woman this year” and another one was “well your main character is black, she’s a lesbian, she’s a vampire, that’s too complicated.” And all I can say is, 20 years later she’s still in print because a feminist press took a chance on publishing it. I feel like the very limited intellectual and imaginative capabilities of the mainstream often leave writers like me out in the cold.

I’ve been feeling that way about myself too, especially being Latina, definitely. You’re sometimes so unconscious of those boundaries until you run into them, face-first.

Right, right.

I did want to ask you about online publishing, self-publishing and things of that nature. Do you think the increasing amount of online feminist presses are an aggravated answer to stubborn publishing houses? 

You know, I self-published my first two books of poetry. I’m very proud of that. They recouped their cost plus and made a career for me. But there was a time when there were independent bookstores, so I could sell the books in the independent bookstores and do readings, so that was easy. I still believe it’s important to have a physical something, because when people go to a reading it’s much more satisfying to give them something, sell them something, give them Broadsides which I love. And I think publishing online and blogging and online magazines is one of the great things of the 21st century because writers can find community with their readership without waiting for a mainstream publisher. They can develop their style, their ideas, their creativity online as they learn to write. The biggest issue is that the missing element online is the same missing element in most mainstream publishers – there are very few editors. That’s a problem because if you don’t get to work with an editor, you often don’t know – particularly if you’re doing fiction and essays – you don’t get to advance your writing type and learn how to do things better. So that to me would be a very big deal, if online publications could manage to figure out ways to edit work so that writers benefit. One of the ways I learned how to write criticism was by people editing me in the Village Voice. I got my Master’s degree in Journalism, I majored in Critical Writing, and the criticism that I submitted in graduate school got really good attention. But the criticism I got when I was writing film and book reviews for the Village Voice? Couldn’t beat it. I learned everything about critical writing for publication.

They’re different spheres, completely different.

Yeah. I think learning to work with an editor is one of the best things a writer can do.

I’m not-so-secretly holding out with my fingers crossed hoping our own community’s support systems can link through that. I think it’s about giving back. I feel that with the folks I’m working for at Autostraddle. We actually did a spotlight on your poetry, by the way! We love your poetry. 

You’ve got to send me a link so I can look it through!

Will do! What are you working on at the moment?

Right now my play about James Baldwin – it’s called Waiting for Giovanni – premiered in San Francisco a year ago, 2011. I’m doing rewrites now and I’m ging to be doing a reading of the new work. I’ve done one reading in New York, I’m going to do another in the fall. I’m trying to get it to a shape so some other producer will pick it up and will want to put it up there on the stage. That’s my focus. I was very lucky – New Conservatory Theater Center, it’s in San Francisco, it’s a gay theater, it’s been around for about 30 years – they took a chance. The executive director kind of knew me and he heard me read from it actually, and I was reading James Baldwin. And he thought, “Oh, this is going to be good” so he produced it. I had a really great experience. And I only had one other play produced, that was 20 years before. I felt really fortunate and it made me realize I wanted to write more theater. I try to work on a cycle of plays about people of color in the early part of the 20th century who were in the arts. Music, literature, whatever. So we’ll see how far into the future that takes me.

Waiting for Giovanni

I’m already visualizing certain artists who I would love to see in that.

Well, I’m already working on Alberta Hunter, who was a lesbian singer. So we’re excited about that. I’m also doing another Gilda novel. GildSera: The Alternate Decades.

I think some of our readers are going to be excited, because when we were talking about your poetry they were all, “What about her novels? What about her novels?”

So yeah, Gilda, I’m working on her. I’ve started. I’d say I’ve probably got about half the book done. I don’t know how long that’ll take me, but hopefully soon.

What role did Baldwin play in your cultivation as a writer?

Baldwin was the first writer that I read who was gay. I was probably 14 at the time, and that he was black and gay was such a revelatory thing for me because I knew I was a lesbian. I felt like I learned to love words reading Baldwin. His love for words and mastery of the English language so fascinated me when I read his books. When I was 14 I probably didn’t understand most of it. You go back and you just realize his words have stuck with me all this time. When I went to work on the play I had to reread a lot of things and read some biographical material, and I feel like his voice is so in my head. When writing the play people would ask me, “Well, what kind of permissions did you have to get to put his words into the play?” I said, “Oh, no, I don’t use any of his words, it’s all me.” And that’s the greatest compliment I could have.

Yes, it means the work…works.

He changed my life when I was a kid and now, so I feel really lucky.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors of the Millennial generation? Or even activists from the same generation who might be of color and trying to elbow their way through?

I think as long as writers and activists know that it is all intertwined: art cannot be separated from real life. Activism needs art as much as it needs anything else. And if you can understand where you are within the context of social change, your writing will be strong. Whether you are writing directly about social change or not, you will present a face of change that will be valuable, and inspiring. And mostly just to keep writing. You know, make appointments with yourself to write, like you would make a business appointment with a business associate.

Or even a romantic date.

Exactly, make a date and keep the date. Duke Ellington said he didn’t need inspiration, he needed a deadline. So, if we don’t give ourselves that, if we wait for some inspiration, if we wait for some magazine, we just won’t get the work done. And you want to be ready, when they call you, you want to have a stack of work that is three feet tall that you’ve been working on.

And believe that they will call.

And believe that they will call. If they don’t call, you’ll figure out how to get it out there on your own, because it’s meant to be out there in the world. It’s like me deciding to publish my own stuff. I was kind of writing, writing, writing, and thinking ‘oh, somebody is going to call me.’ I don’t know how I thought that was going to happen. And I so happened to live in the same building as a poet, and I didn’t know who she was, and one day we saw each other in the elevator and she said, “What’re you doing?” and I said, “I’m a poet,” and she said, “Have I read any of your stuff?” and I said, “No, I’m waiting for a publisher,” and she said “Oh, don’t wait for a publisher, do it yourself! It’s pretty cheap, do it yourself!”

Well, it turned out she was Grace Paley, and I asked my roommate, “Who’s that old lady that lives right there?” and she said “Oh, that’s Grace Paley,” and I said, “You are kidding me!” And that is how I published my first book. If the great Grace Paley tells you to do it, you do it! I have never waited for a phone since that moment when she said “Do it,” and I knew “Okay, I’ll do it.” I did my second book that way, too. So, we will find ways to get the work out, as long as you believe in the work.

What were you doing at 23?

At 23 I’d just gotten out of grad school; Columbia. I was teaching theater, and documentary filmmaking to high school students at an after-school program in Westchester, NY called The Loft. I was learning about feminism from the other women who taught there, and trying to figure out when I was actually going to start writing. I mean, I had this degree in Journalism, but I really didn’t want to work in journalism, so I hadn’t quite figured it out. It took me another 10 years before I just started writing, writing, writing. I did a bunch of different things, mostly in New York. I was a stage manager, I worked at a music company, I mean did a bunch of different things, I went to Hunter College – that’s how I met Audre Lorde. So, I just did a lot of things that now I think of as valuable information for my writing.

So that’s where you met Audre Lorde.

Yeah, I’m working on an essay about her now. She was a wonderful mentor for me. Audre is the one who told me that The Gilda Stories was a novel, not a collection of short stories.

That’s amazing; she was amazing.

Yeah, I asked her to read it. She said, “I don’t like short stories, and I really don’t like vampires, but okay.” Then she came back and said “Oh! This is a novel!” So I spent the next year turning it into a novel, and she was always a wonderful mentor because she was demanding and insistent, and a good example of someone who did not, who would not quit. Even when she was told she was dying, she would not quit. I mean, I visited her once in the hospital, it was probably the last several months of her life, I think the last year, because we were doing a poetry contest together. She was in her bed, she said “Oh, yeah, come on, come on down!” and I said “Okay, but I don’t want to tire you” and she said “No.” We had a conversation like she was healthy as you or me. Her energy, her spirit, her intellect, it was all there, and because that’s what she loved, so. She’s a powerful example of not quitting.

 

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Sarah Fonseca is from tiny Georgia towns yet always finds herself in big cities. An essayist and journal-keeper by heart, her work has been featured in Lambda Review, Lavender Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, and Thought Catalog. Her ultimate goal in life is to get back to that seven year-old place where everything was backwards ballcaps, long hair, and red rover.

fonseca has written 47 articles for us.

10 Comments

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    Wow. Another one for my must read list.

    I have an anecdote about lesbian fiction which I feel that I need to share. I work at a bookstore at uni, and the other day I was chatting to a customer about her course. I said that the book she was buying looked interesting and asked what other books were studied. She immediately replied that she hadn’t read the book for last week, because she looked it up on Wikipedia and it looked controversial and she didn’t read controversial books. The book was Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

    Leaving aside how weird it is to not read controversial books, I was so surprised that someone could call Fun Home controversial in that sense. I really enjoyed reading it, but while it’s a gay book I would never have called it a political gay book. I feel that all it says is that her dad was gay and trying to live as a straight man ruined his mental health and in any case was impossible to really maintain.

    It sort of felt like culture shock, stepping out of my queer liberal bubble, but I suppose this must be what publishers are afraid of for gay books.

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    Can I be totally honest and say that I’ve never heard of Jewelle Gomez until you brought her up, Sarah? There, I said it. But now I’m excited to look through her stuff with this kind of picture in my mind of who she is as a person. Lovely interview.

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    Jewelle Gomez is so amazing! A living legend, for sure! Great interview; she is so articulate!

    Can I say it would be cool to link Persistence to Arsenal Pulp Press (who published it), instead of Amazon? They do fantastic work publishing LGBTQ writers, and it would be great to support them (they’re a fairly small indepdendent company). You can order books from APP’s website directly.

    Again, so rad to see Jewelle Gomez featured on autostraddle!!

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    Thanks so much for grabbing the time to do that interview with me. It was really delightful to meet you and get to think out loud about the things I’m grateful for and to make contact w/some young women who may not know much about our past. People can follow the Baldwin play at the Waiting4Giovanni blogspot and keep up w/Gilda on The Gilda Stories Face Book page!

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    I had never heard of Jewelle Gomez, however after reading this wonderful interview I ordered one of her books straight away. Some of the things she said about being a writer hit a spot with me, especially about making yourself write rather than waiting for inspiration. Sometimes it is easy to put yourself off writing because you think you don’t have anything worthy enough to put on paper, but in the end that just means you never get to improve your craft. Looking forward to getting the Gilda Stories in the post!

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