The Cancer Journals

by Audre Lorde

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The primary character in Lorde's journal is of course Lorde herself. It is possible to think of Lorde's cancer as a character, or her complex feelings about her illness as a character—Lorde does not anthropomorphize these things, but they do serve as a way for her to evaluate the meaning of her life, the purpose of illness, and help clarify her thinking about women and liberation.

Lorde's journal reveals a progression in her response to cancer. At first, despair is the predominate emotion she feels. She writes on Jan 26, 1979 that "sometimes despair sweeps across my consciousness like luna winds across a barren moonscape," and then, on March 1, wonders if the despair she feels "is a result of cancer, or has it been released by cancer?" Lorde has to learn how to relate to her illness, a task that requires enormous mental and physical discipline. She write on April 16 about turning her life around, how difficult this is, how like Martha, she wants "the old me, bad as before." She is frustrated how "self referenced" she is, but at the same time recognizes that "not until every woman traces her weave back" (e.g, achieves a similar state of self-reference) will it be possible to alter the "whole pattern." (Mar 1)

Lorde's conflation of her personal struggle with her body (in the form of recovering from cancer) with the larger struggle of women forms the basis for her insistence, later in the diary, on the finding the "use" of her illness. The physical transformation of her body, through amputation, then through healing, is part of a larger transformation. She writes on November 19 that that being alive is a kind of impossibility, like the scientifically impossible flight of bumblebees: "But I do live. The bee flies. There must be some way of integrating death into living, neither ignoring it nor giving in to it." She finds this connection in her work, and her "love of women." On January 20, 1980, she writes that "in the recognition of the existence of love lies the answer to despair. Work is that recognition given a voice and name."

A possible second character emerges in a dream she records on July 10: she is attracted to a "shadowy" teacher who is training her to change her life, to "do everything in a new and different way." A fellow student tells her about a language class she is taking, and Lorde wants to take that class too, although the teacher tells her she won't learn anything new. In the same way Lorde works through pain and despair in the journal to become "possible," she is excited to realize that she is all the people in the dream. The dream is a kind of representation of her own psychological journey through illness.

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