Jewelle Gomez at the Bay Area Book Festival on Race, Power and Vampires

Jewelle Gomez just finished up a book tour, traveling from Atlanta to Portland, Maine, doing readings for the City Lights' 25th anniversary edition of her double Lambda Award-winning novel, The Gilda Stories. On the tour, she’s been encountering old fans — and new ones — of her book about of a girl from Louisiana who escapes slavery in the 1850s and becomes a vampire.

“I guess the thing I hear the most is people say, ‘Gosh, I read this when I was in college 20 years ago and I’m really excited to read it again,’ or they say, ‘I can’t believe I never read this book,'” said Gomez by phone from Madison, Wis., where she was finishing up her trip at WisCon, a feminist sci-fi convention. “So people either know it really well, or they never heard of it.”

When Gomez, who will take part in a panel on Subversive Speculative Fiction in the Bay Area Book Festival, wrote her book in the '90s, vampires weren’t the popular figures in fiction and pop culture we know and love today.

[jump] “Now you can’t swing a cat without finding a vampire,” Gomez said. “I understand it: A vampire is such a powerful figure. Someone who can cheat death.”

Several years ago, Gomez wrote a play, Waiting for Giovanni, about James Baldwin’s dilemma when he planned to write his second novel, Giovanni’s Room. There were plenty of people around him who were not thrilled about him coming out with a book about two gay men in France, and Gomez was familiar with this type of reaction, having gotten it when she wrote about black lesbian vampires. Although a lot of people didn’t like the idea, she did it anyway, seeing it as the best way to tell the story she wanted to tell — abut power and community and family and women of color in history.

“I was able to take a dramatic perspective of this country over time and with a single character,” Gomez said. “She could have been a time traveler I suppose, but this way you’re able to see an African American woman come from most powerless position there is — a slave — to having power over life and death.”

On the panel at the book festival on speculative fiction, Gomez and fellow writers Ayize Jama-Everett, Carter Scholz, Johanna Sinisalo, and Charlie Jane Anders, will talk about how science fiction and fantasy can challenge the status quo. Gomez says there genre writing has certain conventions, like looking for clues in detective stories, and vampires being “bad” although the readers are on their side. She upended this in Gilda, she says, with vampires who don’t kill.

“It’s really fun when a reader realize this moral code applies to me,” she said. “These vampires are able to help people and they try and find their way, and people think, ‘Well, this is what I’m trying to do.” That’s why this particular vampire methodology works. I tell people it’s a coming-of-age story although in this case coming-of-age takes 200 years.”

Gomez is glad she didn’t give up when others discouraged her from writing the book, and she says she gets people coming up to her and telling her how much Gilda means to them all the time.

She looks forward to the book festival with a bunch of avid readers — many who might not usually describe themselves as science fiction or fantasy fans — being open to something new.

“I’m going to come into contact with some people who probably have never heard of me,” she said. “I love that. I love to get to know people under different circumstances.”

Subversive Speculative Fiction, Saturday, June 4, 10 a.m., at BAMPFA Barbara Osher Theater, 2120 Oxford St., Reserved seat tickets are available for $5 (plus service charge). Those without reserved seat tickets are admitted — free of charge — on a first come basis.

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