Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde

Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde is a book I have ached to read for as long as I have known about it. I love Lorde’s poetry and her spirit, knew I would enjoy her memoir of her own experience with breast cancer. I also recommended it repeatedly to my book group because I knew it would be a controversial read, the type of book that opens itself to discussion and debate. (Also, it was a book that could actually be found at the library and since I was trying not to buy more books I kept urging them to choose books that could be found in public libraries.)
The introduction summarizes the memoir and almost cautions the reader about some of the content. However, Lorde is clear—the choices she makes in her life are not the kind of choices she would demand of other women. A part of her understands, through a tone of judgment, why some women would choose reconstructive surgery. Lorde clearly sees this as a political choice.

In part one she shares a speech she gave at the 1977 Modern Language Association including a powerful poem about Winnie Mandela. At a time when few knew about Apartheid, Lorde speaks out against silence, reminding everyone the importance of speaking, and by implication writing, about your individual experience. Individual though it may be, we learn from one another and perhaps recognize ourselves and our feelings mirrored in one another’s truth.

In part two Lorde begins sharing excerpts from her journals, interspersing her entries with narrative. On page 43, after the mastectomy of her right breast, she asks herself the kind of questions that any woman would understand as her own. I haven’t had a mastectomy and so far my biopsies have turned up nothing malignant but I know these questions. I know them as if I had read a script for how be behave after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Lorde’s details are not my own; her feelings are familiar in the most essential meaning of that word.

When she writes about crawling back into her bed and crying herself to sleep at 2:30 in the afternoon, I fought not to join her with my tears. I was so tired reading her words in that sort of odd sympathy that some memoirs arouse.

I wanted to write in my journal but couldn’t bring myself to. There are so many shades to what passed through me in those days. And I would shrink from committing myself to paper because the light would change before the word was out, the ink was dry (45).

In the third section, Breast Cancer: Power vs Prosthesis, Lorde offers an argumentative essay that defends her choice to not have reconstructive surgery. It might be easy to dismiss her arguments as somewhat dated or even radical. I suggest that you google the word "mastectomy" or "post mastectomy" and look at what you see. Implants. Pretty young girls, who are statistically not the typical age for breast cancer survivors, modeling special bras. A whole page of double breasted women. The few single breast images you will find are more often than not drawings. But yes, you will find the occasional mastectomy photograph. You may even find the glorious tattoo done by Chris Dingwell which is, if you hold your mouse over the photograph, called "thrive."

I had tears in my eyes when I saw that and I've put in a request with the artist to please allow me to share the image here.

But I digress.

I bought the special edition of the book which includes some black and white photographs of Lorde with other women and finally a collection of testimonies--poetry and prose--testifying to what the reader will have already discerned by reading Lorde's own words. She is a warrior, unafraid of offending and deserving of admiration, respect, and love.

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