Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Audre Lorde, in her poetry, her fiction, and her nonfiction, always assumes the role of outsider. She speaks for those who are marginalized for a number of reasons. She speaks for African Americans, for women, for lesbians, and for cancer patients. This volume documents her discovery that she has breast cancer; her reactions; the medical procedures performed on her, including a mastectomy; her subsequent emotional coming-to-terms; and her courageous speaking out about a disease so dreadful that it is considered bad form even to mention it.

The central issue addressed in this volume is how people deal with cancer. Lorde has always been a fighter, both in her personal life and in her writings. Her poetry resounds with the songs of warrior women, and Lorde herself is one of them, waging war against the illness within her body as well as the sickness in her society. This book and her other works are not merely against the problems in current world society. This book is also profoundly pro-women. Its truths are painful, both physically and spiritually, but Lorde sees a necessity of telling them, as part of the continuum of her life’s work of reclaiming both the earth and power for women.

The introduction includes some entries from her 1979 journal. In these entries, readers find neither a woman made saintly by suffering nor a woman hardened by pain. Instead, Lorde admits that, in the eighteen months since her surgery, cancer and its implications were never far from her mind. She also speaks of hope and despair, of her sorrow when another black young person was needlessly shot, and of the difficulty of trying to make her voice as a cancer patient heard. She admits to difficulties of leading such a life, made self-conscious by illness. She also addresses the problems of her physical loss. Her succor is that she knows that, by being honest with herself and by writing honestly about her pain and suffering, she can be of help to other women.

The volume is divided into three sections. The first section, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” was originally a talk given at the Modern Language Association meetings in 1977. In this talk, which holds up remarkably well on the written page, Lorde examines the difficulty of speaking out about a subject so very personal. She weighs the stress of risking misunderstanding or even ridicule against the comfort of silence. During a three-week period during which she waited to find out whether the lumps in her breast were cancerous, she came to some courageous conclusions about the transformation of silence into language and action. She found in her psychic self-examination that her only regrets about her past life had to do with those occasions when she did not speak out. Furthermore, she knows that her silences have not protected her. She finds that when she has made an attempt to speak hard truths, she has found power within herself, and that in making contact with other women, she has been able to bridge their differences. Most important, these contacts with others gave her the strength necessary for her self-examination and for the hard road she inevitably had to choose.

Moreover, with the prospect of cancer before her, it was obvious that the possibility of final silence was something she had to consider. Because...

(The entire section is 1356 words.)

The Cancer Journals Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Alexander, Elizabeth. “’Coming Out Blackened and Whole’: Fragmentation and Regeneration in Audre Lorde’s Zami and The Cancer Journals.” In Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture, edited by Kimberly Wallace-Sanders. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Comparative study of physical and psychological pain and healing in two of Lorde’s autobiographical works.

Brooks, Jerome. “In the Name of the Father: The Poetry of Audre Lorde.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Brooks stresses Lorde’s courageous description of her emotions during and after the operation. Finds the subtitle of one chapter, referring to black lesbianism, irrelevant. Many feminist critics would disagree.

Herndl, Diane Price. “Reconstructing the Posthuman Feminist Body Twenty Years After Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals.” In Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, edited by Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2002. Looks at the legacy of Lorde’s work for feminist representations of unwell female bodies and the state of feminist disability studies in the early twenty-first century.

McHenry, Susan. Review of The Cancer Journals, by Audre Lorde. Ms. 9 (April, 1981): 42. Brief summary accompanied by McHenry’s evaluation that the book is akin to Lorde’s poetry, because it expresses “raw emotion with precision and clarity.” Also notes that the book is a powerful example of self-healing useful to anyone working through a crisis.

Perreualt, Jeanne. “’That the Pain Not Be Wasted’: Audre Lorde and the Written Self.” Auto/Biography Studies 4 (Fall, 1988): 1-16. This essay’s complex first half summarizes deconstructionist literary theory. The second half demonstrates Audre Lorde’s use of the changed physical self in her work.

Pinney, Nikky. “Vital Signs, Well Water: On Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals.” Social Policy 20 (Winter, 1990): 66-68. Relates a personal response to Lorde’s book, emphasizing Lorde’s insistence on an open response and the necessity of talking about an issue of such importance to women. Affirms Lorde’s questions about the causes of increased incidence of cancers as “mainly exposures to chemical or physical agents in the environment.”

Small Press Review. Review of The Cancer Journals, by Audre Lorde. 13 (March, 1981): 8. Emphasizes Lorde’s courage, passion, enormous poetic gift and craft, and feminist commitment.