anna marie’s 3 best sapphic books of 2021 so far, with honourable mentions

Here are some of the best sapphic books i’ve read so far this year, which i think everyone should read immediately considering how incredible, prescient, inspiring and sexy they are. 

  1. The gilda stories by jewelle gomez
The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

this is my favourite vampire story i’ve ever read and i’m sad it took me so long to get to it because it’s a delight. Jewelle Gomez writes so tenderly about Gilda, the main character, who becomes a vampire after escaping slavery in the south in the 1850s. We then track through time, in and out of different people’s lives and into the future, but always following Gilda’s path. The way this novel animates history, demonstrating it’s ongoing effect on the present/future as well as community, especially black queer community, through the figure of the vampire is wonderful and inspiring. The changes that are made to traditional vampire lore/representation (which is so heterosexual usually) allow the novel to explore a whole wealth of meanings and experiences normally forgotten or seen as unimportant. The way the vampires in this novel drink blood is one of my favourite things about it because it’s so reciprocal and caring, basically a form of mutual aid between vampires & non vampires and not just a transactional or sometimes violent relationship. the afterword in my edition is by alexis pauline gumbs which was also so beautiful and definitely worthwhile reading too if you have access to it! – about black feminist legacies and the implications of writing a queer black woman vampyre both in the 1990s & in 2016 or so when a new edition was published.

Life was indeed interminable. The inattention of her contemporaries to some mortal questions, like race, didn’t suit her. She didn’t believe a past could, or should, be so easily discarded. Her connection to the daylight world came from her blackness. The memories of her master’s lash as well as her mother’s face, legends of the Middle Passage, lynchings she had not been able to prevent, images of black women bent over scouring brushes – all fueled her ambition. She had been attacked more than once by men determined that she die, but of course she had not. She felt their hatred as personally as any mortal. The energy of the struggles of those times sustained her, somehow.

  1. Lucy by jamaica kincaid  
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

I think some might find the inclusion of this book on a sapphic book list a surprise but i wanted to include it because the eponymous character, in my opinion, has a sexuality that is queer (or at least not heterosexual), because it includes making out with her best friend, peggy. Much like the novel this short novel is based on (Villette by charlotte bronte), Lucy is a judgemental and, to some, unlikeable character but i love her! I found being ensconced in her life and hearing directly from her was so fascinating; sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes curious.

Kincaid’s novel is mostly a coming of age story about what happens to lucy when she moves from the west indies to north america to work as a nanny for Mariah and Lewis’ children. She develops a complicated and interesting relationship with Mariah along the way and thinks about her own mother back at home. All the relationships in this novel are extremely vivid and extremely fraught with differing emotions and differing levels of power which makes for a really variegated glimpse into lucy’s mind and life. I don’t think i’ll forget lucy as a character or her experiences for a really long time!!

  1. Plain bad heroines by emily m danforth
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

I’m pretty sure this 600+ page novel was made for me to enjoy – as someone who identifies in a lot of ways as a plain bad heroine (sometimes known as a dyke), i felt like i had to read this this year and i’m so glad i did. It’s a campy horror film pastiche with sapphism at it’s centre. Part fin-de-siecle horror book, part love letter to horror films and literary gossip novels, it combines the best of all these into an ambitious and at points genuinely terrifying (at least for me) novel that includes two main storylines, one at a rhode island boarding school in 1902 and a contemporary one which follows three plain bad heroines as they attempt to make a horror film about what happened.

It’s at times uncomfortable, at times sexy, at times gruesome and sweet, and whilst i did have a preferred storyline (the 1902 one which starts off with the tragic deaths of flo and clara by yellowjackets as they run away from family obligation and heterosexuality), i thought they ultimately melded together so well. A delicious, lesboerotic romp with a fun and distinctive writing style which included footnotes!! My favourite!!! Absolutely would recommend this to anyone who can read. 

Honourable mentions go to children’s murder mystery novel jolly foul play by robin stevens, which is set in a 1930s boarding school, and the mercies by kiran millwood hargrave, an ambient and beautifully written historical fiction novel set in the late 1610s in norway.

Mo Springer reviews The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

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Trigger Warning: This book has scenes of sexual assault.

Gilda starts out her journey as Girl, running from a plantation in which she was a slave and her mother died. She is taken in by a vampire, who gives her her name and gives her longevity, a life without end. Her journey takes her from her birth as a vampire in the 1850s, to 1870s, 1920s, 1950s, 1970s, 1980s, 2020, and finally to 2050. Gilda learns what it means to be a vampire, part of a vampire family, the importance of mortals but also of herself, but most importantly what it means to truly love.

This was an enjoyable, episodic story that did not have a central villain or character arc, but through the different eras Gilda lives we experience different conflicts, characters, and mini-arcs that make up her whole journey. There were some recurring characters and plot threads that helped give the story cohesion and narrative flow. The different time periods were interesting to learn about from the point of view of the same person, learning and changing with society.

Gilda’s arc feels very much like it is based around the idea of found family. She runs away from the plantation when her mother dies and finds the original Gilda who turns her, and Bird, the vampire who will teach her and then leave on her own journey of self-discovery. Gilda then finds family in other vampires, Sorel and Anthony, then later in one who she turns, and in another, more ancient vampire that I won’t spoil the name of. At the beginning of her story she is alone and in danger, but through the many decades she learns to find ways to connect to the world around her.

I almost wanted to have chapters from the other vampires’ points of view. There is Bird, a Lakota woman who spends her immortal life working to help and reclaim land for indigenous and native peoples. Sorel and Anthony, a couple who spend their lives together, but one of which is scarred by a decision to turn the wrong person and the destruction they wreak. There are many more characters whose stories we are given glimpses of through Gilda, but I would have rather have seen them myself than be told about them.

I really enjoyed the first half of the book, but once we reached the 1970s and on I felt the story was missing opportunities to explore more of the time period. I would have really liked to have seen a discussion about how vampires would have approached the AIDs epidemic. There is a lot that goes into how and why to turn someone, and we are shown what happens when the wrong person gets turned. Gilda herself struggles with the decision of who to take into immortality.

Gilda mainly enjoys and has relationships with women. She takes on several lovers during her long life, and we do get to engage with those storylines, this book is not a romance. It feels realistic in how it approaches romance, how most people love more than once, if not several times, and for vampires with immortality this would be true as well.

I do want to note that Gilda is described as a lesbian by the blurb, and I won’t gatekeep labels. However, I do feel it would be negligent not to mention that Gilda does have some erotic involvement with a man during one time period. This relationship is not described as romantic, and Gilda makes it clear she is not romantically involved with this man after they share a bed. This falls into an interesting part of the vampire lore of this book, in which vampires are described as having familial connections to one another but there are also these erotic scenes between them.

Overall, I will be honest that I am conflicted on this book. There were parts that left me feeling confused about the choices that were made in the narrative and description of relationships. Having said that, I did enjoy reading it and would recommend it to anyone interested in a story about a black, queer vampire as she explores her long life and the people she meets.

Stephanie reviews Don't Explain by Jewelle Gomez

 

dontexplain

Don’t Explain is a collection of short stories by Black lesbian author, activist, and philanthropist Jewelle Gomez. Most widely known for her Black lesbian vampire novel The Gilda Stories, Gomez’s Don’t Explain is a collection of nine stories that employ rich, sensual, language to introduce readers to several carefully constructed characters whose stories set our minds and bodies afire. Although the collection was written in 1998, the stories are as poignant and relatable as they were when the book was published nearly twenty years ago.

For example, my favorite story in the collection, “Water With the Wine” is a new take on an old trope, the May-December romance. Gomez carefully deconstructs the most commonly held notions about romance between older and younger lesbians, and posits another reality for the women in her story. Alberta and Emma meet and become involved at an academic conference; however, differences in age, class and race threaten to destroy their budding relationship. Gomez deals sensitively and honestly with these issues and deepens our understanding of what it means to fall in love after the blossom of youth.

“White Flower” is a chronicle of desire, not quite erotica, but pretty close. Luisa and Naomi “can’t have a relationship, it’s too consuming too everything,” so their meetings are infrequent but filled with all of the lust and passion that two women can share. This story will leave you panting, it will also leave you wondering at what point the unbridled desire turns to obsession and manipulation.

In “Lynx and Strand,” the longest story in the collection, Gomez forays into the genre where I believe she does her best writing, speculative fiction. To put it simply, speculative fiction is not quite science fiction, not quite fantasy, but an imaginative blend of the two genres, and in this story, explores what it means to live in a future where same-sex relationships are still policed by the state. Here, Gomez tackles issues of futuristic state governments, homophobia, body art, and what it means to truly become one with your partner.  The story is timely, some might say prophetic, because even though it was written nearly two decades ago, LGBTQ persons’ right to bodily autonomy is still being challenged, even threatened, in 2016.

For those familiar with Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, “Houston” offers a new chapter into the life of her Black lesbian vampire and offers a provocative look at what it means to be humane when you actually aren’t human at all.

All of the stories in this collection are sensitive, sensual, and offer a pleasant alternative to “mainstream” lesbian fiction.  The collection also focuses on Black women’s experiences, and this is what truly sets it apart from most of the lesbian fiction on the market today. The collection is short, only 168 pages long, but each of the stories offers entrée into the life of Black women, mostly lesbian, that illuminates the complexity of our lives and the power of our loving. If you have not had an opportunity to read any of Jewelle Gomez’s work, start with this collection and I am certain that you will want to read more!

Danika reviews The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

gildastories

 

This October I decided that I wanted to devote some time to Halloween reads. My top pick was a lesbian vampire classic (no, not that one), The Gilda Stories. It’s not the first lesbian vampire book I’ve read, but this one stands out for being neither horror nor erotica. It follows a vampire from just before her change, when she is escaping from slavery, to two centuries afterwards (yes, to 2050). It is almost like a collection of short stories, each set a decade or two after the previous one. I found this a fascinating structure, because for one thing, it really imagines the scope of being immortal. You get an idea of how many different cities and time periods she’s lived in and adapted to, in a way that a one-off sentence about being centuries old just can’t encapsulate. It also is just as much a history of racism and slavery in the United States, with Gilda noting the patterns that emerge through time, and her attempts to be involved in progressive change.

Another thing I appreciated about The Gilda Stories was the vampire mythology. As I said, this isn’t a horror book. Vampires in this novel need to feed on human blood, but it’s ideally not a violent act. Gilda and her family have a strict moral code, involving giving something to everyone they feed on. Vampires are able to manipulate people’s thoughts, and Gilda and her ilk read what a person needs (comfort, decisiveness, hope, etc), and leave that with them. They also heal the wounds they cause, making it, in their opinion, an even exchange. In addition to being able to influence thoughts, these vampires also have super strength and, obviously, are immortal. In the “noble” vampire sense, they remind me of more current-day vampire mythology, who aside from brooding and not dying, don’t differ much from humans. On the other hand, they have to carry around earth from their birthplace, a tradition most modern vampire stories drop. (They weave it into hems of clothing and into their shoes, and sleep on a pallet of it.) This helps protect against indirect sunlight and being around bodies of water, though both can still weaken them. And yes, they sleep in the day.

I really loved this book. The writing is great, the characters are so interesting, and I loved this queer, black take on the vampire story. It’s definitely neither horror nor erotica, and Gilda’s lesbianism is basically a non-issue, but also not brushed over. If you’re looking for a different take on the vampire, definitely pick up The Gilda Stories, even if you’re not usually the “scary story” type!