Monday, March 31, 2014

Reading Audre Lorde's "Cancer Journals"

The Cancer Journals, Special Editon
Audre Lorde
Paperback, 104 pages
Aunt Lute Books (September 2006)

I read May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude right before I started this, so there will be a bit of comparison. I enjoyed this one more than Sarton's book, perhaps because it does deal with illness in a very real, very frank way. In general, Lorde held more strength in her writing. While Sarton's book had its profound moments on creativity, being a woman, etc.
It seemed as if Lorde, despite what she was going through, was solid, present in the now. Not so much with Sarton. Her writing, an extension of herself, felt meandering and wispy, not quite as solid.

This was originally written in 1980-a little over 30 years ago. In 2006, a new edition was released with tributes by Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker and others. She moves back and forth from journal entries, poetry and prose that flows seamlessly.
A lot of what she says about doctors, hospitals, the Cancer foundations can still be applied to today's standards. For example:

"I would lie if I did not also speak of loss. Any amputation is a physical, psychic reality that must be integrated into a new sense of self. The absence of my breast is a recurrent sadness, but certainly not one that dominates my life. I miss it, sometimes piercingly. When other, one-breasted women hide behind the mask of prosthesis or the dangerous fantasy of reconstruction, I find little support in the broader female environment for my rejection of what feels like a cosmetic sham. But I believe that socially sanctioned prosthesis is merely another way of keeping women with breast cancer silent and separate from each other. For instance, what would happen if an army of one-breasted women descended upon Congress and demanded that the use of carcinogenic fat-stored hormones in beef-feed be outlawed?"-page 14-15 (Italics mine)

The woman was simply years ahead of her time. This book remains relevant because of statements like these and the entire premise of the book. Nobody had ever before written about breast cancer, let alone a black, lesbian woman. She was not afraid to tell it like it is.

In one scene of the book, she is in the hospital, recovering from surgery. A friendly nurse comes in to check on her and offers her advice about prosthetic breasts; how she would feel "more like a woman" stuffing her bra with one of these cold, form-fitting breast-like things. She simply refused to do it because it would be "a sham" and that women should feel no shame. It was also a slight hit to conformity. Why should she conform if only to please society's image of womanhood?

There are many, many passages underlined in my copy of this book. It's an amazing and essential read, particularly in Women's Studies and African-American literature.

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