I’m a bad feminist, because somehow I managed to reach my 30’s without ever having heard of Audre Lorde before. In a way, I’m also grateful for it, because I don’t think my brain could have really taken in her work a decade ago. If you have not read her work, don’t wait as long as I did.
Lorde’s preferred method of expression is poetry and this is evident throughout the book. Every word feels deliberate, agonized over, in a way that might make the writers among us feel deeply inadequate. I am not big on poetry myself, but there was a bone deep beauty to Lorde’s application of poetic, lyrical language to the mundane. A mortar and pestle becomes a lifeline to a better world that may not even exist. Trips to a market or bodega transform into life affirming journeys or else terrifying and lonely. The simple joys of every day are centred, while in the background, so far away it might as well be another planet, big societal decisions are made by people who look nothing like Lorde or the women that make up her vibrant world make decisions that try to squeeze them into nothing.
What this book really is then, is a love story. It is a love story to herself, who had survived and survived and survived. To the women in her life who helped shape who she was, who taught her the ways she could do more than just survive. She writes of these women, even those that had hurt her terribly, with relentless compassion. Here is a taste:
I grew Black as my need for life, for affirmation, for love, for sharing – copying from my mother what was in her, unfulfilled. I grew Black as Seboulisa, who I was to find in the cool mud halls of Abomey several lifetimes later – and as alone. Mu mother’s words teaching me all manner of wily and diversionary defences learned from the white man’s tongue, from out of the mouth of her father. She had had to use these defences, and had survived by them, and had also died by them a little, at the same time.
While the language can be poetic, it is intensely grounded in the physical. Lorde writes matter-of-factly, academically, about the difficulties she encountered, including abuse, sexual assault, abortion, heartbreak, explicit racism and cruelty and benevolent racism that exists even in places she considered safe, like the lesbian community she was part of in New York, where even the woman Lorde chose to spend her life with (however briefly) would say that to be white and queer was the same to society as to be Black. She focuses her descriptions on physical sensations, smells, sounds, sights. She celebrates the infinite variety of women’s bodies in such an authentic way that would still put our meager attempts at body positivity to shame.
In fact, I was particularly struck by how modern the book reads. Outside of a round of groceries costing $0.75 (!!!!) and the lack of texting and TV’s and occasional reference to the more significant political events of the day, you could be forgiven for thinking this book was written a couple of years ago, rather than in 1982, discussing events that took place between the 30’s and 50’s. It is a vital reminder that there have always been intensely progressive people. That the arc of justice doesn’t bend because we get better as people, or because progress becomes easier, but because compassionate, thoughtful, driven people in every generation have done what they could to move towards a world we still struggle to imagine, let alone manifest.