On View: September 7
This Video Viewing Room features the film Ca(r)milla (2023) by Kearra Amaya Gopee, an anti-disciplinary visual artist from Trinidad and Tobago who is currently based in New York.
The presentation of the video is accompanied by a conversation between Gopee; writer and activist Jewelle Gomez; and Daniella Brito, The Kitchen's 2022–2023 L.A.B. Research Residency Fellow.
Kearra Amaya Gopee: Ca(r)milla is organized by Daniella Brito, The Kitchen's 2022–2023 L.A.B. Research Residency x Simons Foundation Fellow.
Kearra Amaya Gopee’s new docu-fictional short Ca(r)milla considers the revisionist potential that lies within folkloric myth. For Gopee, myth is a storytelling mechanism teeming with possibility––it’s an oratory approach that invites us to reimagine our histories and rewrite our lineages in the face of coloniality. In Ca(r)milla, Gopee annotates the parable of the soucouyant, a blood-craving, vampiric figure typically rendered as an undesirable older woman in Trinidadian legends. Below, Gopee discusses the power of the myth, monstrosity, and speculative world-building for Afro-Diasporic people with Daniella Brito, The Kitchen L.A.B. Research Residency x Simons Foundation Fellow, and Jewelle Gomez, author of the 1991 queer vampire novel, The Gilda Stories.
Daniella Brito (DB): In Trinidadian folklore, the soucouyant is described as a hag-like figure that sucks the blood of her prey to preserve her youth, assuming the skin of her victims in the process. It's in many ways an iteration of vampire mythology, which emerges from European folklore. I'm curious about the diffusion of folkloric myth here. How can we understand the embodied process of annotation that occurs through oral history, ritual, and tradition? In what ways has colonial violence had a corollary effect on mythology itself?
Kearra Amaya Gopee (KAG): The soucouyant itself roots back to Yoruba tradition with the Aje–a being who is regarded as a blood-sucking witch by many but as a divine being by others. In many ways, the myth of the soucouyant inscribes itself within the folkloric legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. It’s often tethered to the myth of the flying Africans–the figures across Afro-Diasporic folklore who escaped enslavement through magical passageways over the ocean. So much of how you dispel a soucouyant is coming from the adage that states that if you eat salt, you can't fly back to Africa. So, it is said that you should pepper and salt the skin of the soucouyant, such that she can't return to her skin or retain her youthful appearance. The canon you derive her from depends on what type of control you want to exact over her figure and in what ways she’s being used as a pedagogical tool.
DB: Can you say more about the soucouyant being a kind of pedagogical tool?
KAG: The soucouyant is the figure that you’re not meant to be. If you want to escape harassment, you should not be old. You will certainly not be a woman. If you are a woman, you’re expected to contribute to your village in a way that’s deemed suitable. Your entire being is hinged on reproduction. There's also a fear of aging at play that manifests as a fear of barrenness or an inability to produce. This in itself feels like a kind of capitalist conundrum because the soucouyant is rendered as an old woman who lives by herself; she’s self-sustained, living at fringes of villages. She’s not contributing to the social life or economy of the spaces she calls home. And so, I always understood the soucouyant to be a cautionary tale. You don't want to be her. You must always be in service of something; you must be productive. We teach people to behave in particular ways because certain modes of comportment are more conducive to capitalism, reproduction, and cis-heteronormativity. So I’m thinking about all this when I say she’s a kind of pedagogical tool. All the things that one should not be is what she is, and yet still she exists.
Jewelle Gomez (JG): I was thinking the same thing. In Caribbean culture, being female and old has been demonized in a particular way. The soucouyant is a variation of vampirism, but I think comes from a different kind of anxiety or fear. Western mythology around vampires, which I have worked hard to adapt, is relatively recent mythology. Dracula is the most popular obviously, but we have to know that vampiric characterization belongs to every culture throughout time.
If you study any culture throughout the world, you're going to come across some kind of figure that can beat death with certain powers over life whose existence is closely tied to the natural world. Questions emerge like, can they be out in the light? Or, are they stronger with soil? So, it's been interesting for me to expand on what the Western traditions have been as understood through Dracula and Anne Rice. To this end, one of the things I find so fascinating about Kearra's film is that it dips back into pre-Victorian, pre-Christian mythology to bring us a figure that is a powerful older woman. I love that Carmilla in your film looks like one of our relatives.
DB: Right. Staying in this realm of power, I'm curious to hear you both speak to the theme of eternal life in relationship to vampires and soucouyants. In my eyes, it's both a blessing and a curse. It has the potential to cause immense loneliness, but it’s also an opportunity to find and nourish kin across timeframes and existences. How do you see this operating in Ca(r)milla?
KAG: I think that something that is really salient to me is the concept of time as it relates to immortality. The world becomes more malleable when you have an eternity in which to shape it. There's so many things that one could focus on; so many things that one could fixate on. You could fixate on when the best time to die is. But you could also fixate on the best ways to sustain life. On a personal note, as I was thinking about immortality in Ca(r)milla, I was also thinking about grief. Can fantasy soothe grief before it happens? I was using the soucouyant as a balm for a wound that hasn't happened yet. Especially because I cast my mother as Carmilla. I was coming to terms with the reality that there will be a time when she’ll leave me on this earth. I don't like that; however, if I can mythologize my mother within twelve minutes, I'll take that. This is a fiction I can live with.
JG: I think that what Kearra is saying is kind of at the root of what I was trying to think about when I was creating Gilda’s character in The Gilda Stories. Gilda understands that death for the immortal is a choice. And so, this question of purpose emerges. Everyone must have a purpose to continue living for hundreds of years. And I think that's one of the reasons that traditional vampires have survived not just on blood, but on terrorizing mortals. I decided that in the life of the “positive vampires”, their role is to learn how they can nourish mortal life. Carmilla is right in the culture, providing a service to others like her around the world.
DB: Let’s talk about the relevance of soil to vampires and soucouyants. In this work, a soucouyant’s native terrain holds revitalizing nutrients, sustaining their eternal existence. This dependence on one’s birth soil poses interesting questions about Indigeneity. It asks us to consider what it means to be truly “from” a place, to be tethered to and dependent on a land, for better or for worse. What do you make of the significance of soil in Ca(r)milla?
JG: I want to first say that I love how Kearra has condensed the idea of the soil so that Carmilla is packaging and selling it. I feel like this is so at the heart of our own mythology, about where we are, where we’re from, and how connected we can be when we’ve been stolen, transported around the globe, and denied access to our native soil because it has been colonized.
The idea of the soil as a mode of grounding oneself was something I learned in my research for The Gilda Stories. There's a fabulous Count Saint-Germain series in which they talk about keeping the soil in the heels of the shoes, which I thought was quite good. To this end, I think that soil being at the forefront of Kearra's film is really significant and makes it even more palpable. You can embody the story more because everybody knows what soil feels like. I see Ca(r)milla from the context of a garden. What is more life-giving than to be in a place where plants are growing from soil?
KAG: Through the selling of soil, I was thinking a lot about commerce and capitalism. What is capitalism to the vampire? What does it mean for Carmilla to be selling this to other vampires? Carmilla might as well give it away because her community will always pay her price. But the selling of soil and the teaching of how to tend to the soil for generations to come became this sort of transferring of care and caretaking among her community. The soil embodies a transfer of knowledge in this way. Carmilla is talking about the land as this place that is generative. She models a commitment to the land, to creating more from the land, and to serving others through it.
DB: Through Ca(r)milla, Kearra inscribes themself within a lineage of artists, writers, and thinkers mining and reimagining speculative mythologies. Jewelle, you’re often regarded as an early pioneer in Afro-futuristic storytelling. I’m curious for you, as you engage with Kearra’s film, how do you perceive the priorities of speculative storytelling today? How do they diverge from and collide with those of the late 20th century, when you were writing The Gilda Stories?
JG: I think of this as a circle, really, because mythology is a kind of speculative fiction. So it all begins with African mythology, which was then transferred around to Caribbean mythology, and Native American storytelling–which is also part of my heritage. These stories, these mythologies, always had "magical" or what we might call speculative aspects to them. So, while Western literature has dominated this field up until recently with speculative fiction stories, I think it doesn’t take into account all of the storytelling that came before from Indigenous cultures. And I feel really fortunate that in doing some of my research, I came to understand this.
So in a way, writing The Gilda Stories for me was about coming back to indigenous mythology that had gotten pushed into the shadows in the rise of the popularity of Western mythology. When I started writing The Gilda Stories, many African American writers that I knew were horrified that I would write a vampire novel. People told me, “Well, our lives are bad enough. Why would you want to do that?” And I just kept at it because I understood I was tapping into something that existed way before Dracula. So I think that's how Kearra's story and mine are really connected.
DB: I'm curious for you, Kearra, as you were working on Ca(r)milla, what kinds of priorities were important for you to recontextualize in the context of this cultural mythology?
KAG: I wanted to make clear that terrorism and monstrosity don't exist in vacuums. I love reflecting on the monstrous. The soucouyant's existence is a reactionary response to a hostile environment as opposed to the creation of one. This was a big priority for me: this figure is one that has a commitment to sustaining life–not necessarily to the lives of people that want to end her, but to nourishing those also living on the fringes. I was thinking about the soucouyant as a person that generates possibilities for people on the fringes.
JG: I love your use of the word monstrosity because in the way you use it, it gives us an entry into another way of being. The monstrous is a bigger mode of looking at the world as opposed to a way of destroying the world. As Carmilla says, “God created everyone.” So how do we decide who is monstrous and who is not?
KAG: And is there shame in being monstrous?
JG: Is there shame in being monstrous? Is monstrosity monstrous? Is monstrosity a way that we can break apart the system that has oppressed us for generations? Is monstrosity the way that we remove the bricks that hold up the wall of capitalism and break through to another side?
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Kearra Amaya Gopee (they/them) is an anti-disciplinary visual artist from Carapichaima, Kairi (the larger of the twin-island nation known as Trinidad and Tobago), living on Lenape land (New York, NY). Using video, sculpture, sound, writing, and other media, they identify both violence and time as primary conditions that undergird the anti-Black world in which they work: a world that they are intent on working against through myriad collective interventions. They render this violence elastic and atemporal--leaving ample room for the consideration and manipulation of its history, implications on the present, and possible afterlives. In the spirit of maroonage, they have been developing an artist residency in Trinidad and Tobago titled a small place—after Jamaica Kincaid's book of the same name. They hold an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles (Interdisciplinary Studio); BFA in Photography and Imaging from New York University; and are an alumnus of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Currently, they are a fellow at Queer|Art. This year, they participate in residencies at MacDowell and The Center for Photography at Woodstock.
Jewelle Gomez (she/her, Cape Verdean/Ioway/Wampanoag) is a writer and activist. She is the author of seven books including the double Lambda Literary Award-winning, Black lesbian vampire novel, The Gilda Stories (1991). She also wrote the play based on the novel, Bones and Ash, which toured thirteen US cities. Her third collection of poetry, Oral Tradition, was also nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry are included in over one-hundred anthologies. She has written essays and literary and film criticism for numerous publications including The Village Voice, MS Magazine, The Advocate, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Black Scholar. She was a member of the editorial collective of Conditions, an early lesbian/feminist literary journal and was one of the first contributors to On Our Backs, the erotic lesbian journal. She was on the founding board of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD); of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice; and the Open Meadows Foundation. She’s taught creative writing and popular culture at San Francisco State University, Hunter College (NYC), New College of California, Menlo College, as well as the Maui Writers Conference. She most recently taught poetry at the annual Saints & Sinners LGBT Writers Conference in New Orleans. She sits on the poetry selection committees for the Commonwealth Club of California Book Awards; and for the San Francisco Poet Laureates. She currently serves as President of the San Francisco Public Library Commission. She’s just finished a new novel, Televised, that’s looking for a home and her new play about James Baldwin premiered at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (San Francisco) in the fall of 2011.
The Soucouyant/Carmilla- Camilla Gopee
Dr. Vincent- Ishara Agostini
Investigator- Kearra Amaya Gopee
Direction, Camera, Editing- Kearra Amaya Gopee
Colour- Kya Lou
Sound design- Akeema-Zane
Title animation- Maya K. Ramesar
Interview Editing- Zahra Gordon
Video Viewing Room was initiated with the support of the NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund in The New York Community Trust; annual grants from Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation and Howard Gilman Foundation; and in part by public funds from New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.