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.)