By Cherie Ann Turpin
Octavia Butler and Jewel Gomez’s novels explore and complicate definitions of “blood ties,” as well as notions of racial and gender identity. In both novels, blood represents a fluidity of those ties that we associate with family, group identity, and community. Such fluidity also represents an expansion of how one could express erotic love, such as with Gomez’s vampire who seeks erotic relationships with women, as well as with Butler’s vampire who builds her family of willing subjects who are bound to her by the pleasure of her touch. Both novels represent a significant expansion of the vampire genre beyond notions of the vampire as the “undead.” For both Gomez and Butler, the vampire myth represents the possibility of racial hybridity, as well as a complication of how one associates bodily appearance with power.
Butler and Gomez rework vampiric tropes into stories about racial hybridity through erotic and familial connections. Both authors have a vested interest in politicizing the vampire trope by transforming a horror fiction tradition into narratives that speculate on a future that does not depend wholly on a singularity in identity or racial composition. Within such fictional universes, even preternatural persons are subject to the aches and pains, the discomfort and danger associated with racial difference, and significantly, the unease of being more than one thing, belonging to more than one community at once.
The fictional works of Octavia Butler have pushed at the boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality, while pushing at the limits of what we would consider to be human characteristics. Her Xenogenesis series, Patternmaster series, and Parable novels all carry similar themes of racial and gender ambiguities, with an emphasis on Black female protagonists who somehow hold keys to the advancement of humanity through their capacity to push beyond the limits of the human body. Such advancement would usually occur through the birth of children who exhibited extra capacities associated with alien entities, or though experimentation with human characteristics through drugs or through genetic modification. The Fledgling’s half-human Black vampire girl-child is no different in such a tradition.
Butler and Gomez’s novels center on the idea of belonging to more than one race, as well as with the issue of dealing with racism within the preternatural world, where being a vampire entails being human enough to be afflicted with racist notions of white supremacy, as well as notions of vampiric supremacy. In The Gilda Stories and The Fledgling, the best of humanity and vampire values quality of life, and quality of life places premium on the protection of dignity and respect on all sentient beings, whether vampire or human, regardless of skin color or cultural origins.
Butler’s and Gomez’s vampire novels fall within the scope of what Gomez herself refers to as “speculative fiction,” where new landscapes and life experience are imagined beyond the limits of the so-called real: “[s]peculative fiction is a way of expanding our ideas of what human nature really is, allowing us to consider all aspects of ourselves; it is important that a diverse range of writers, Black lesbian writers included, participate in this expansion” (954). Butler and Gomez seek to “speculate” on the opening out of ideas of being beyond the boundaries of identity as set by our current understanding of race, gender, and sexuality. Further, as speculative fiction that addresses the impact of blood ties and a re-fashioning of family, their writing may also help us to imagine so-called blood relationships as liminal, rather than as closed circles, thereby opening possibilities of how one could define nation, especially within the context of the African Diaspora. Such possibilities have already been theorized by critics like Kodwo Eshun, who refers to such speculation as “Afrofuturism,” a theory that contends “that Afrofuturism may be characterized as a program for recovering the histories of counter-futures created in a century hostile to Afrodiasporic projection and as a space within which the critical work of manufacturing tools capable of intervention within the current political dispensation may be undertaken” (302).
Moreover, according to Herman Gray, writers like Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, and others inspire this movement in such a way that encourages an imagined existence in the African Diaspora beyond colonized borders and the legacy and terror of slavery and its aftermath. Gray asserts that “Afrofuturists claim that blacks scattered across the Atlantic world are aliens in an alien land, ever on the lookout for clues and resources that point the way out of alien nations and conditions of bondage” (166).
Linking Afrofuturist fiction to Afrofuturist music as similar movements away from these limits, Gray contends this movement as a significant step towards liberation, where the liminal could produce innovative modes of fashioning the African diasporic self: “It is possible to rebuild old and make anew different diasporic connections, as well as to imagine possibilities for inhabiting the spaces and identities about which Sun Ra wrote” (166). Vampire stories may further alter or further these theories, depending on the manner in which they present ideas and notions of Black bodies and their inclusion in or exclusion from humanity. Butler’s final novel, Fledgling, is particularly notable in this regard because of her substantial body of work that clearly spawned a speculative/Afrofuturist fiction explosion by the end of the 1990s. As Gregory E. Rutledge notes, the significance of Butler’s work cannot be overstressed, especially given her commitment to bringing visibility to women of the African Diaspora in her fiction:
Her protagonists are often strong-willed women caught between historical forces, which are strongly patriarchal. Although these forces present the most redoubtable challenges, some of which leave permanent physiological and psychological scars, these women nevertheless emerge triumphant…Butler’s novels foreground race and gender issues by combining speculative fiction with insightful perspectives on gender and ethnicity (244).
Thus, the speculative theory and the Afrofuturist theory both hold important keys to understanding the method towards which both Butler and Gomez have opted in order to convey sentient beings as being hybrid, and not singular, racially, sexually, or gender-wise.
Such thinking about vampires within a racial context has a theoretical precedence, as noted by Teresa Goddu. Goddu’s article “Vampiric Gothic” notes a significant link between the bigotry imbedded in nineteenth century gothic literary traditions that produced such classics as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Edgar Allan Poe’s short fiction, as well as tracing gothic elements to racist works such as the Klansman by Thomas Dixon—and contends that anti-Semitism and White supremacy fueled some of the horrific elements of these works. She also notes, however, that African-American writers who have ventured into the genre have engaged in a counter-text or counter-theoretical mode of writing, where the “horror” of the slave institution, Jim Crow, and the aftermath provide rich, fertile ground upon which to imagine supernatural or preternatural figures who exist in a world already rife with evils of racism, subjugation, and dehumanization. She asserts that “[f]rom Morrison’s vampiric Beloved, who sucks the past out of Sethe, to Eddie Murphy’s Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), which replays Dracula’s landing in England as the entrance into New York harbor of a crumbling Caribbean slave ship populated with corpses, the African-American vampire reminds us that the American gothic travels from elsewhere and is burdened by the horror of racial history” (138-139). In Butler and Gomez’s fiction, there are significant differences between those who are human, and those who are vampires—but the monstrosity of vampire existence is presented as a necessity to combat the larger monstrosity of racial and gendered subjugation and degradation.
Both Gomez and Butler shape their fiction to reflect upon the sensuality of blood, where the presence of sexual arousal is as compelling as the need to feed. Like Gomez’s novel, Butler’s novel Fledgling centers on a Black female protagonist who is a vampire, but with some notable differences. Butler’s protagonist Shori is a vampire, or Ina, who, as a result of genetic modification to help her future generations to survive in the sun, has been given the gift of melanin, dark skin and African features, and whose family has been murdered by White supremacist Ina who see her existence as an abomination because of her human mother and her skin color. She gathers humans of varying genders and races as her source for sustenance and companionship, some of which is clearly erotic. Bill Hayes seminal work Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood contends with the cultural symbolism and the biological role of blood in our everyday functions, including sexuality and our dreams. The fantasy of the vampire as lover demonstrates our fascination with and association of blood with eros and its wetness:
The desire of the undead to suck and swallow mouthfuls of liquid life has more to do with hunger than with thirst. The blood drive is the sex drive in the world of vampires. In ours, conversely, sex is driven by and dependent upon the blood, which works its own dramatic transformation on us humans. The change begins well before the clothes come off (240).
Additionally, blood becomes symbolic for family connections in both novels; as a result, both novels blur the lines between “family” and “companions.” Leonard Wolf, notes how “the blood exchange represents every variety of sexual union: men with women, men with men, fathers with daughters, mothers with sons, women with women” (3). Jewelle Gomez creates a protagonist and family structure that is not based so much on traditional hereditary lines, but through “blood” lines that are based on the passing of vampiric powers from one to those who are deemed to be worthy of becoming part of the “family”.
Gilda, who begins as “Girl,” a young Black girl escaping from slavery in 1850, is taken in and adopted by the first Gilda, a mysterious white woman who owns a brothel in New Orleans, and by Bird, a Lakota woman who is the first Gilda’s companion. The Girl, who becomes the second Gilda, is not only a vampire, but a lesbian who spends much of her long life-span seeking out companionship and family among others who are like herself, vampire and queer. With blood as the lubrication ecstasy, the vampire’s touch is a source of pleasure and desire, albeit a forbidden one, and possibly one that resembles the taboo of menstrual blood. Such transgressions are welcomed in Gomez’s version of vampire contact, where Gilda’s interactions with her “victims” are an exchange of sustenance and pleasure. “For the vampire’s victim, rather than ending up dead and drained, is infused with life, is made holy, set apart from the mediocrity of the so-called living, who are really the dead” (Frueh 305).
For Butler and Gomez, a distinction is made between the consuming people to create dependency and terror, and sharing and exchanging energy and one’s life with those who are human, thereby transforming the vampire myth into something far more profound than that seen in traditional horror novels. For both writers, vampire existence is about communion with humans, and honoring those who are not of the same species as vampires.
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