Jewelle Gomez on Writing, Resistance, and Waiting for Giovanni (Interview)

Jewelle Gomez is an organizer, activist, author, poet, and playwright. For the last forty years, she has been at the heart of lesbian feminism. Her most recent work is Waiting for Giovanni, a play about the personal and political life of James Baldwin. As a lesbian of color, it was my privilege to interview her.

AfterEllen.Com: You’ve written poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and plays – a writer talented in multiple directions. Which genre of writing do you find the greatest joy expressing yourself in?

Jewelle Gomez: When I’m writing, whatever the genre is, I’m totally in love with it. Right now I’m working on a play – I love the editing, I love the rehearsal process, I love creating the idea of a dialogue. At the same time, when I’m thinking about going back to fiction, working on fiction, when I get in the groove of it, it’s thrilling to me. I’m one of those writers who loves the act of writing. It’s not hard or painful for me. Even if I’m dealing with a subject that’s difficult, the act of writing is always joyous to me. I feel lucky to have that relationship to writing. For some writers, it’s really, really agonizing, but I feel fortunate.

AE: James Baldwin was such an incredible thinker and man, Black and openly gay before pretty much any other writer. What was it about this extraordinary figure that inspired you to write Waiting for Giovanni?

JG: I read James Baldwin when I was quite young – probably fourteen – and I didn’t understand all of it. But what impressed me at the time was his amazing use of language. He had such a love of language, you could feel the way the words draped themselves over the page. His love of language was amazing. It really moved me. As I grew older and read more, Baldwin’s intellect, his passion for justice, his passion for life – those were things that moved me as a writer and as a person. And then my friend Harry Waters Jr. – someone I’ve known for years and worked with in theatre when we were both quite a bit younger – asked me to write something about James Baldwin. Harry is an actor as well, so I thought he wanted me to write him a monologue. So I did. And he said “You know, this is great, but where’s the rest of the play?” And I just kind of laughed, and went “You want me to sit down and write you a play?!” So, five years later, I’ve got a play.

I didn’t just want to write a biographical play, I wanted to touch Baldwin as an artist and as a Black gay man – I wanted to see inside of that life. And what sparked this specific idea was meeting someone who had edited Baldwin when he was young. It was a casual conversation, so I hadn’t expected to be inspired by it. But he said two things. One was that he didn’t know how Baldwin could write. The man spent so much time socializing, going to parties, and hanging out with friends. And the other was that Baldwin felt hurt by people who were concerned that he wrote about homosexuality. He had gotten negative feedback from people close to him about publishing Giovanni’s Room. And once I had that conversation, I realized: oh my goodness, this is a person I’m writing about who had to face a lot of things that other writers have to face.

It felt very familiar to me, because I wrote the Gilda Stories which was – and still is, I think – the only Black lesbian vampire novel. And when I wrote it, some people were very upset. A lot of people were very happy. But some people felt like I shouldn’t write about something negative that was going to relate to Black people, something negative that would relate to lesbians – they felt a vampire story was far too negative and didn’t really trust my feminist vision. I thought about this a lot. It was a very similar thing – certainly not as grand as James Baldwin. But I thought about that sense of how to be true to your own vision if you have a political sensibility and you really want to follow your vision and further those politics. That question is what set me going with Waiting for Giovanni.

AE: With the Gilda Stories, you were a real pioneer of Afrofuturism. And while the genre’s popular, we don’t see that many Black lesbians in Afrofuturistic books, or even vampire books. Why do you think there has been a dearth in representation?

JG: For a long time it really was difficult for people of color as we live to get a sense about why anyone would write any kind of speculative fiction. People said to me “Life is really hard enough for people of color – why would you waste time on writing about vampires?” And people didn’t really understand that everything is a metaphor, and we’re all writing about the human condition, whether we’re writing about poverty in a tenement in an urban setting today or we’re writing about how we break through oppression in the twenty-third century.

I think it took a long time for African-American writers to feel confident that they could create a whole world – a new world – that was a strong enough metaphor for that message. But over time writers have started to evolve. I find it quite wonderful to see other lesbians coming along, having a strong voice, political consciousness, and the ability to put their work out in the world in a personable way.

Sometimes you need a critical mass. For a long time there was only Samuel R. Delaney and Octavia Butler – and then, little by little, individual writers world pop up and have a bit of success with these genres, so we could tell that people liked it. By the time we get to Nnedi Okorafor, we have a critical mass of writers who see each other as co-conspirators, who really believe in speculative fiction, who really like writing in genres, and bond together to be more visible. The next generation of readers really picks up on that.

Another thing I think has really been helpful is the resurgence of comics as a medium. Writers of color can explore their subjects in the comic format, using visual artists to aid them in telling a story, and with that, you create a broader audience – that’s the other part that has made it possible for there to be an explosion of Afrofuturism.

AE: With work like Over the Rainbow, you’ve documented gay and lesbian history in America. Why do you think recording this matters?

JG: I was raised by my great grandmother, who was Native American. I was so lucky – she was someone who lived an interesting yet ordinary life, yet she had longevity. In some cases, living long enough and being witness to what’s going on in the world and passing that knowledge on can be an amazing thing. James Baldwin talked about this: being a witness. My grandmother was full of this living history, and I lived with her until I was 22 years old, and she tried to convey to me the significance of her history.

We were living in an African-American community, and there were no other Native Americans there. She was kind of isolated in a way that made it important for her to share her history. It meant a lot to me to have her perspective on things that were going on around, so that I didn’t see incidents as isolated. The discrimination happening to African Americans was also happening to Puerto Ricans, it was happening to Native Americans, it was happening to poor people, and to be able to connect all these together was valuable.

In order to change the future, we need to know our history, and I learned that from my great grandmother. One of the reasons I like writing speculative fiction is that I can write about people in general – lesbians, and lesbians of color specifically – in other periods of history. We get to understand that the history has shaped us and is still shaping us.

As we come along, each generation has its own relationship to the social position that we’re in, to how the culture doesn’t work, and we’re all going to create new approaches to social change. Each generation has its own approaches, but it’s vital to know what has gone before so you can refine your method and be more effective as you look at the culture and see what it is you want to change in order to make a better place for us all to be living.

AE: Depending on where you live, finding other lesbians of color for guidance, community, or mentorship isn’t always the easiest thing unless you consciously go looking for them. Which women that you’ve found have inspired you as a writer or person?

JG: Some of the people you think about ‘growing up with’ as writers really shape you. I live in San Francisco now, but I lived in New York for 22 years. There, Audre Lorde was a wonderful mentor to me. She really helped guide the Gilda Stories. And Cheryl Clarke, who is an amazing Black lesbian poet I’ve known since the mid-eighties. She was a great influence on my work as a poet and as a political thinker. We’re still good friends, so we get to talk about writing. She’s still a big influence.

AE: On both sides of the Atlantic, we’re seeing a freshly hostile political climate. What advice do you have in particular for young lesbians of color trying to weather the storm?

JG: This is a question I think about a lot: what can you do to face down the madness? Keep in mind that it goes in cycles. This may be of the more egregious or obvious examples of insanity in our culture, but certainly, we’ve seen worse if you look back on various despots around the world and the horrible things they have done, and people have managed to survive them. If we can keep our hope alive, it’s up to us to stop the madness. We can’t just bemoan it – we’ve got to act. And action always makes you feel better.