Friday, September 14, 2018

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

The Gilda Stories
Jewelle Gomez
1991, I read 25th Anniversary edition, 2016
259 pages, speculative, LGBTQIA+
Found at Borderlands Books in San Francisco

Trigger warnings: rape, street harassment, blood, sex

I picked up this book on sale while visiting Borderlands Books in San Francisco this past winter. After spending so much time in India, where speculative fiction is not big and it can be hard to find anything beyond JRR Tolkein and Game of Thrones, Borderlands felt like paradise. I asked the staffperson to recommend some diverse books, since I did not usually have access to such a collection - and this is one of his recommendations. Thanks to Borderlands Books for recommending this book.

In this episodic novel, an escaped slave is rescued by two vampires who run a brothel together near New Orleans in 1850. When she chooses, they change her into a vampire as well. What follows is 200 years of exploration of herself, her found family, and what makes her human - or not. As a black woman living on the margins of society, how does she experience social changes over time? Where (or who) is home?

The best part of this book, for me, was the emphasis on creating a family. This is not just a romantic proposition, of finding one or more partners to live with over time; this group of vampires literally creates a family based on whether individuals want to join them and have the aptitude for living in a moral way. While some of these new family members might be brought in as lovers (i.e., the longest-running couple in the book, Sorel and Anthony), others are brothers, sisters, or friends. Lovers do not always stay together for long periods of time; according to their own wishes and interests, they go their separate ways, always knowing that they are part of a family that they can return to at any time. This vision of a found family is empowering: while they miss each other acutely, each individual's wishes and interests are respected, with the knowledge that they always have somewhere to come home.

Gilda's search for a family is also wrapped up in her search for a place. She constantly tries to create her own place of comfort and familiarity, even though she always knows that she will have to move again. Unlike other members of her family, she does not enjoy traveling - partially because of traumatic experiences in the past, and partially because she wants to enjoy staying in one place as long as possible. This is why she carries a collection of personal items with her through the years: she feels she can make a home for herself with her quilt, her desk, and some mementos of long-dead mortal friends and family. It is this vision of creating a home and a found family on the outermost margins of society that most appealed to me.

The fantastic aspects of this book were interesting. The vampires can move around - and even walk through daylight to some extent - if they just keep some of their native soil on their person at all times. They have creative ways of doing this: embedding some dirt into the soles of their shoes or in the hem of their clothes, for example. While they don't eat food, they do drink a lot of tea and alcohol, which seem to create them same effect as on humans. The most empowering is the idea of an exchange: for the blood they take, the vampires provide a solution to a problem that the human is worried about, or a happy thought, or something else that is good and useful for their mental lives. All in all, this is a unique take on vampires that brings this book beyond the somewhat standardized version we are familiar with from the last few decades.

I want to finish this review with a few words about my preconceptions about this book. In the cover blurb of the version I read, it states that, besides being a classic of lesbian literature, "The Gilda Stories has endured as an auspiciously prescient book in its explorations of blackness, radical ecology, re-definitions of family, and the erotic potential of the vampire story." If you read that last point and expect this novel to be full of erotica, you will be disappointed. While sexual activities (between women and one with a man) are poetically implied at numerous points, there are no explicit sex scenes in this book. [Trigger warning] There are a few mentions of rape or the threat of rape, as well as a number of scenes involving street harassment of various kinds. Similarly, there is not much explicit discussion of radical ecology: the environment mostly plays the role of a distant backdrop for the action, even when environmental collapse causes the breakdown of human society in the future chapters. This is mostly because of Gilda's lack of interest: she is happy with her own little sphere, and doesn't often bother with things outside of it. This is not true for the other vampires; Bird, for example, is constantly working as an environmental activist in various parts of the world. While I greatly enjoyed this book, I feel that it would have been better to not have these expectations going in.

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Ruins by Achy Obejas

Achy Obejas
205 pages, drama, character study
Found: A signed first edition (!) at a secondhand bookstore somewhere in India

Usnavy, a proud veteran of the Cuban revolution, is as much of a straight-shooter as it is possible to be. Despite the deprivations that have made life miserable for him and his family, he refuses to do anything illegal. The other employees at the bodega (government ration supply store) may sell products out of the back before they can be parceled out, but Usnavy refuses. He is happy to do the most miserable of government jobs - and be the one who gets abused about the lack of supplies or the need to collect funds for public projects - because he truly believes in his country and the purpose of the Revolution.

Where everyone else has given up, Usnavy continues to go on, an idealist till the end.

And then one of his best friends leaves the country by boat, and recruits Usnavy's help. And Usnavy is suddenly compromised for the first time. And suddenly Usnavy becomes truly aware of the deprivations and the ways he could make money to better himself and his family's position.

Hunger and food shortages

This book is best at getting you into the head of someone dealing with great deprivations, especially those caused by food shortages. There is no way that the government can provide enough food for people, so they are left to scrounge around for whatever they can find (or buy, or steal, or sell). Usnavy's constantly empty, rumbling stomach is an unceasing companion. The author conveys this all-consuming hunger so viscerally that I could feel my own stomach twisting as I read it:

Usnavy watched as [his wife] Lidia served up a sandwich for [their daughter] Nena that he recognized as having what looked like a reddish-brown meat. His immediate fear was that it was cat flesh. As a delighted Nena ate - complimenting Lidia, savoring the little bits of what looked like onions - Lidia kept busy, avoiding Usnavy's eye.... Of all people, of course, he knew that the only ingredient she'd gotten legally for that sandwich was the bread. (35)
But no sooner had Usnavy pulled up the bread and seen the flat layer of pith covered in seasoning, than he recognized its true provenance: These were pieces of a blanket normally used for mopping floors which [their neighbor] Rosita had beaten and marinated in spices and a little beef broth.... At least it wasn't cat meat, he thought. 
Then he bowed his head in dismay and disbelief. (37-8) 
What happens when basic necessities are only available on the black market, and you have to do illegal (and sometimes immoral) things to get the cash to pay for them? Especially if you believe so strongly in the rightness of the government and the society that you are a part of?

These are all moral questions that Usnavy struggles with in this book, and the constant hunger lends a sense of urgency and desperation to everything. What won't someone do when faced with such a situation?

Fear of flight

Usnavy spends much of the book trying to prevent his daughter from running away - from fleeing to the US, which beckons more and more with every day of starvation. It seems so close, and yet it is so far from everything that Usnavy ever wanted for her, or for them.

Usnavy has always been made fun of for being light-skinned, having red hair, and being so naive as to truly believe in the revolution. But he has also been fighting for the revolutionary values because he does not want things to change. He wants his struggle in the war to be worth something; he wants his country that he fought for to be worth something. And somewhere in his mind he worries that it is maybe not worth anything after all. What is the use of a country that can't even provide its own people with food to prevent starvation?

So he vehemently opposes the flood of people leaving the island for brighter shores, but also wonders when he will have to follow them. When he will himself turn traitor to the cause that he spent his life serving.

And of course that terrifies him.

Gender issues

I cannot write a review without examining the very delicate but incisive discussion of gender issues in this book. 

First, Usnavy's wife and daughter seem like women who have been forced to give up their desires for the sake of the man in their life (i.e., Usnavy). Lidia, Usnavy's wife, used to be a driver for a hospital, and, as Usnavy mentions, was "one of the first women to really excel at the job." However, due to budget cuts she was laid off and not provided with an alternative job that would pay appropriately. So now she is stuck in their tiny apartment, trying to eke out meals from the tiny amount of supplies that her husband brings home. 

Their daughter, Nena, is in a similarly stuck position. Not only will Usnavy not allow her to break any of the oppressive government rules, but she is stuck between school and home because he will not allow her to access his bicycle - not even as a loan! 

While Usnavy does give some thought to his family's position (especially in terms of hunger), his thoughts are mostly on himself. He never asks whether Lidia and Nena are ok with giving up opportunities to follow his principles. Usnavy spends most of his time outside of the house, whether at the bodega or playing dominoes with his friends; when he is not at home, he still takes up most of the space with his large stained-glass lamp (more on this below). It is a very claustrophobic situation for the two women, and there seems to be little thought on Usnavy's part about whether they really want a life like this.

Second, the novel masterfully details how relatively uneducated, ordinary people deal with trans issues. The "son" of one of Usnavy's friends is in the US, where "he" is reportedly doing well. When "he" comes to visit, however, it turns out that she has transitioned. While her father knew (and seems accepting), he had been ashamed to admit that his son was now a daughter. And his fear appears to be justified when another friend reacts violently to the news. But Usnavy does not seem to have a problem with the situation; sure, it is a bit unusual, but then as a kid she was always different. I would be very interested to hear the thoughts of a trans individual on this aspect of the book, particularly how they read Usnavy's reaction to her transition. 

A jeweled mystery

Usnavy's life is consumed by a large piece of his family heritage: a beautiful glass lamp that not only provides some comfort and beauty to his otherwise bare, meager life, but also inspires him to make changes to that life later in the novel.

To relieve the gloom, the family's room - a breadbox, a shoebox - was illuminated by a most extraordinary lamp. Were it not for the sheer size of it, Usnavy could have built a second floor - a barbacoa - like many of his neighbors. Made of multicolored stained glass and shaped like an oversized dome, the lamp was wild. Almost two meters across, the cupola dropped down with a mild green vine-and-leaf motif that flowered into luscious yellow and red blossoms, then became a crimson jungle with huge feline eyes. (In truth, they were peacock feathers, but Usnavy had never seen or dreamt of peacocks, so he imagined them as lions or, at least, cats.) The armature consisted of branches at the top, black and fat to resemble the density of tree bark. They narrowed as they neared the edge, until they were pencil thin and delicate. The borders were shaped with the unevenness of leaves and eyelids, petals and orbs, in a riotous yet precise design. (17)

This glorious lamp is the source of Usnavy's greatest joy. He knows it has something to do with his family's past; it was a feature at his mother's house in his childhood, but she had never explained its provenance or how it had come into their family's possession. He spends hours just looking at the lamp, polishing it, making sure it glows with all possible intensity. This obsession seems to take precedent over everything else in his life, including his family members.

It is only when a chance encounter shows him that there are other lamps like his (although smaller, less elaborate, not as beautiful) that he realizes he is sitting on a goldmine. He begins to use his knowledge of the lamp and its brothers to make some money, to improve the family's state of living. He sells the other lamps and the glass from the other lamps, but he is reluctant to touch his own unless absolutely desperate. And so he begins to walk a fine line: neglecting his official work in favor of an alternative industry of selling glass, while also refusing to allow anyone to see his own lamp. Eventually all of this has to catch up with him, somehow.

I absolutely loved this novel, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is both a good literary investigation of life in Cuba during the early years of the Special Period and a brilliantly written and paced novel.

Further Reading

"Was the 'Special Period' a Cuban Invention?" by Dmitri Prieto (Havana Times) 
"Cuba’s 'Special Period' Remembered" by Irina Pino (Havana Times) 
"The Maleconazo, Cuba’s First Popular Revolt, Happened 23 Years Ago" by Ivan Garcia (Translating Cuba)

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