After encountering numerous sneak previews of Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals in my preliminary readings about illness narratives, I had high expectations. And Lorde certainly did not disappoint. I was incredibly impressed by the true poetic beauty of her writing, the honesty of her exposure, the infallible strength of her will. Her character was moving: her possession of breast cancer and her strong, dedicated commentary about prosthetic breasts, about being a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, woman,” about being herself (92).
Through post-mastectomy journal excerpts, Lorde takes the reader along her journey with cancer. She acknowledges the need for language to escape the comfortable but inadequate confinements of silence, claiming that “what is important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood” (17).
She explores her arrival at the decision to have the mastectomy and the love and support of women who enabled her to endure the procedure and the pain. Lorde resists the prosthetic breast, instead allowing herself to acknowledge the loss of her right breast, to examine its absence, and to accept. She powerfully critiques the prosthetic breast and plastic surgery breast reconstruction, calling attention to greater social flaws in the perceptions and expectations of women as objects of attraction. Lorde boldly makes claims that invite a pause, a reconsideration of the present rather than a blind acceptance of the way things are.
Lorde has been a source of inspiration to many: Blacks, women, lesbians, aspiring writers/poets, cancer warriors, and more. The powerful prose in The Cancer Journals leaves no question as to why this book resonated with so many and still does today. As the first of its kind, the first to take a step back from conventional depictions of illness through the triumph narrative, this book does not shy away from the truth of Lorde’s pain, even if it is alarming and painful to experience as a reader.
Within the eloquence of Lorde’s writing, two repeated phrases stood out to me. Lorde referred to “america” many times (ex. 77). Not “America.” “america.” Each time I did a double take, left with an unsettled feeling as though something wasn’t quite right. There was something extremely jarring about her conscious choice to resist this conventional norm, to be aware of it and to decide against abiding by it. In deflating the capital A, Lorde powerfully disregards the power attributed to America as a nation such that it becomes just another word on the page. The persistence of her power, in many ways shaped by her encounter with cancer, is repeated throughout her journal and her reflections: “once I face death as a life process, what is there possibly left for me to fear? Who can ever really have power over me again? (63). Through The Cancer Jounals, Lorde finds a way “to be of use” (50).
1. Excerpts from Lorde’s journal of the past are interspersed with her reflections from the future. What are the effects of this on the narrative? Does it distort the narrative?
2. Why might Lorde consistently disregard the capitalization of America?
3. How has the breast cancer movement and experience been revolutionized and transformed by Lorde’s book?