REVIEW: Audre Lorde’s THE CANCER JOURNALS

lorde

The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde

San Francisco: aunt lute books, 1980

 

The Cancer Journals is a collection of essays by Audre Lorde about her diagnosis with, treatment for and healing from breast cancer and decision to undergo—and physical and emotional recovery from—a mastectomy. It contains and often riffs on excerpts from her personal journal in which she contends with her own fears and mourning, the inhumanity of the medical establishment, the warm support of the women in her life. These are powerful essays, insightful and unflinching and beautiful. Though she does not step back from the pain she undergoes, she speaks clearly about the power and support she finds, the connections to other women she intensifies, and the erotic experience of her own body. I’ve returned to this little book again and again and again throughout my adult life.

But these essays are about more than breast cancer, more than illness and disability. They are about strength, and hope, and feminism, and body politics, and power, and power, and power. Lorde frequently reminds the reader that these words are coming from a black lesbian poet, and this is important, I think—Lorde is positioning herself in the world, calling our attention to where she’s standing as she speaks. By doing so, she’s emphasizing the connection between lived experience, what one thinks about and what one is usually permitted to say.

If you’ve ever read an Audre Lorde quotation, chances are it came from this book. Remember “your silence will not protect you”? This book. If you have the T-shirt, you need to read the book, friends.

You may imagine that a book of essays about struggling with breast cancer would be depressing. This is not. Neither is it falsely uplifting (the expectation of a put-on-a-cheery-smile attitude, Lorde says, is a way of preventing women from knowing themselves and discovering their full power). The tone of the book lies smack in the middle: sometimes strong, sometimes terrified, sometimes mournful, sometimes pragmatic.  Extremely human. As a chronically-ill and disabled woman, I’ve heard Lorde’s words in my head numerous times—though I have never confronted breast cancer in my own body, Lorde speaks to my own experiences of illness and disability, and also to my experiences as a queer woman, a feminist, and even a writer.

Right now, reading these essays again (as I do every year or so), I’m finding them extra-chillingly-on-point. In this moment when institutionalized racism seems to be baring its teeth extra viciously at its targets, especially those who speak back to it; when American Black people in particular are endangered by our country’s own institutions, pResident and even some citizens; and when white folks, insisting on their “allyship,” are trying to divert attention to how white allies feel about all of this, Lorde’s words are frighteningly prescient.

“I have found that battling despair does not mean closing my eyes to the enormity of the tasks of effecting change,” she writes, “nor ignoring the strength and the barbarity of the forces aligned against us. It means teaching, surviving and fighting with the most important resource I have, myself, and taking joy in that battle. It means, for me, recognizing the enemy outside and the enemy within, and knowing that my work is part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and our power, and knowing that this work did not begin with my birth nor will it end with my death. And it means knowing that within this continuum, my life and my love and my work has particular power and meaning to others.”

She also sees clearly how such a profound threat to her life (she’s specifically talking about cancer, but is also obliquely referencing racism and sexism and homophobia) sap her energy, divert her away from exercising her own power in the world. It follows that those who have an interest in keeping down Black folks, women, queer folks, disabled folks—those whose lives are easier if all of us just sit down and shut up—also have an interest in not finding a cure for breast cancer or other chronic serious illnesses, or enacting safeguards against homophobia, sexism and racism. (And not, I might add, making complete healthcare available to all of us…) I’ve often said that taking care of a debilitating chronic illness (in my case, Multiple Sclerosis and Type I/Juvenile Diabetes) is a full-time job and leaves little energies for other things. Lorde writes:

“I am often afraid to this day, but even moreso angry at having to be afraid, of having to spend so much of my energies, interrupting my work, simply upon fear and worry. […] I resent the time and weakening effect of these concerns—they feel as if they are available now for diversion in much the same way the FBI lies are available for diversion, the purpose being to sway us from our appointed and self-chosen paths of action.”

Imagine how much more productive, creative, brilliant Lorde could have been, how much more powerful, how much more of a threat to the status quo Lorde would have been, had she not had to expend so much energy just to stay alive. One might say the same for all ailing and disabled folks, poor folks, Black folks, LGBTQ folks, POC folks… And by making our lives harder, by not providing enough support and care to such folks, American culture/government is essentially sapping our strength and robbing itself of our contributions and active presence.

I feel this especially strongly during Pride month and in the midst of BLM demonstrations and our own pResident’s threats of violence and “crackdown” on demonstrators and dissenters. In this context, Lorde’s words, written in the 1970s, seem to predict this moment. But, of course, it is more likely true that, though much has changed, little has changed since Lorde wrote these essays. Our government is still under the sway of racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist agendas. Women, LGBTQ+ folks, disabled folks, POC, Black folks… all live with the threat of violence. All deal daily with a lack of fiscal, legal, intellectual and bodily safety and security. All need, desperately need, the brilliant, powerful, brave and true words of this book now more than ever.

 

REVIEW: No Other World by Rahul Mehta

mehta No Other World

No Other World

Rahul Mehta

New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017

 

One of the greatest parts of being queer is that, by virtue of the fact that one is often rejected by, at odds with, or just a stranger in one’s family of origin, “family” becomes redefined. We make our own families. “Family” is based in the affinity of one’s heart, not simply in the affiliation of one’s genes.

I couldn’t help thinking about this as I read Rahul Mehta’s beautiful, beautiful novel No Other World. I also couldn’t help thinking about how the immigrant experience and the queer experience are, along the lines of displacement and family, along the lines of having to invent what you lack and creatively redefining the world and yourself, along the lines of being so often a stranger in a strange land, a nomad with no place which feels entirely like home, so similar.

Mehta’s World follows the Shah family. There’s Nishit and Shanti, who emigrated from India to start a family in the U.S., and their children, Kiran and Preeti. Their extended family—namely Prabhu, the brother Nishit left in India, and Prabhu’s son Bharat and Bharat’s eventual wife Ameera—barges in and out of this family’s narrative, too. Nishit is a doctor, and the family is financially comfortable in the U.S., but this does not necessarily mean they are comfortable. Shanti struggles to find her happiness somewhere between her arranged marriage to Nishit and her love affair with an American man. Preeti and Kiran grow up with one foot in home culture and one in American culture, and no sure footing anywhere (as teenagers, as immigrants, Preeti as a pretty girl and Kiran as a queer boy). When Preeti is assaulted by the white boy she’s dating (who, for some inexplicable reason calls her “Pochahontas”) and teenaged Kiran fails to protect her, the family begins truly to unravel.

This is one of those books I thought about when I was not reading and could not wait to get back to when I had the chance. I’ve finished the novel, but I’m still thinking about what happens to Kiran, to Pooja (the hijra girl, a sort of third gender in India, a vilified class of folks we might called “trans” in the U.S. who are treated much the way Europe treated its “gypsies”), whom Kiran befriends when he meets her in India, to Preeti (turned uberChristian after her assault)… all the characters, actually. This one reverberates long after the record stops spinning.

The novels dips in and out of different points of view, the omniscient narrator peering over the shoulder of, at different times, several of the family’s central figures. However, in my mind, this is really Kiran’s story, and it is Kiran’s point of view which flourishes and sticks at the end. He’s a flawed character, not always loyal or brave enough, not always calm enough, but so brilliantly alive and real—sort of like most of us actual human beings. I loved him for all of it.

The prose is neither overly ornate nor bald—it fades, as it should, into its own story very naturally. It’s the story itself, and the lives of all these characters, which pulled me in and kept me there. The narrative is so generous, keeping one foot in India (where some of the story takes place) and one foot in the U.S. (where more of the story is centered), an ear toward each of its characters’ points of view. It’s some wonderfully-choreographed gymnastics that a lesser novel would not have pulled off without the different characters all blurring together. Everyone here, every place and situation, however, is distinct. The novel puts the reader in a position sympathetic to all in the immigrant experience, for I developed empathy for Nishit struggling to raise a family apart from his own, for his wife who cheats on him, for their daughter Preeti who disappoints them, for the son Kiran who betrays Preeti and then the family, and even for the cousin who eventually betrays Kiran. I felt like I had eight legs, each foot struggling to stand in a different place, no firm place to balance, all the plates in tectonic shift. This was as it should be.

What a far-reaching, glorious novel. If I had to classify, I suppose I would call it a family saga, but I don’t think that covers it, exactly. It’s a generous thing, this novel, taking into it a broad range of characters, of places and minds and desires, of subjects and meanings. Right now, because of where my head’s at in this moment, I’m reading it in terms of its story about finding one’s place in the world (immigration, queerness, hierarchy, belonging) and confronting one’s past, one’s betrayals and selfish mistakes. Reading it again next year, I am sure I will think of it in a different light, and in another light the year after that.

Why you Should Read THE AMERICA PLAY AND OTHER WORKS by Suzan-Lori Parks

America Play

Suzan-Lori Parks has long been my favorite playwright and one of my favorite authors of anything. I used to teach “The America Play,” which students sometimes found confounding to read—perhaps due at least as much to my own inability to teach it properly as to its difficulty as a text. I think, if one were to see it on stage, perhaps it would be easier for some folks to grasp. (I know this was true for me of another Parks play, “Father Comes Home from the War,” one part of which I saw in a small off-Broadway theater and loved—it was, like many of Parks’ plays, a layered thing. In this one, meaning came not only from the actors’ words and actions and the mis-en-scene, but from text broadcast above the stage (given as stage directions and footnotes in the written play).)

Still, I’ve pulled The America Play and other Works off my bookshelf to write about today because it is a collection to which I’ve returned and returned, recommended infinitely, and loved so much my copy is just a series of loose pages held together by a rubber band wrapped around the cover. It’s a collection of Parks’ plays and essays which feels ever more relevant in the moment (though, to be clear, it never stopped being relevant, like a river running underground is still running even if you don’t see it, is still nourishing what grows in the soil above, still filling the wells from which we drink. But, knowing all this, I’d say the words feel as though they’re speaking to this current time.

The essays are deadly brilliant. “Possession,” “Elements of Style” and “An Equation for Black People on Stage” all are more than worth several readings. The ideas have guided me as a writer and as an audience/reader ever since I read them. “Equation,” for instance, begins with this assertion:

“The Bulk of relationships Black people are engaged in onstage is the relationship between Black and the White other. This is the stuff of high drama. I wonder if a drama involving Black people can exist without the presence of the White—no, not the presence—the presence is not the problem [.…] The interest in the other is. The use of the White in the dramatic equation is, I think, too often seen as the only way of exploring our Blackness; this equation reduces Blackness to merely a sate of ‘non-Whiteness.’ Blackness in this equation is a people whose lives consist of a series of reactions and responses to the White ruling class.”

Boom. Suzan-Lori Parks hits the nail on the head, but it’s a nail of which so many of us (including me) were ignorant until she hit it.

Perhaps my two favorite plays in the collection are “The America Play” and “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.” I won’t go into great specifics about each of these, simply because I’m hoping the titles alone will provoke your interest and lead you to read them for yourself. “Last Black Man” features some historical Black figures (like ‘Queen-then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut’) mixed in with some stereotypes of American Blackness (characters like ‘Black Man with Watermelon,’ or ‘Woman with Fried Drumstick,’ or ‘Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork’) speaking. They are reminders, they are mourners, they are echoes speaking back to us—as much as they also feel like just people. The whole scene is set in something called “the Great Hole of History” for which Parks gives no stage directions: how to set this scene? what does the Great Hole look like? In this Great (W)Hole of History (oh, golly, I love that pun, by the by) are all the narratives and people left out of Official Western History. The characters speak in near-poetry, unnatural and beautiful. It feels like a play, like a self-conscious display of something, and that is, I’d venture, pretty intentional. Though tempted, you’re never permitted to get lost entirely, to suspend disbelief. The work does not follow the conventional Western plotline, nor the conventional Western 3-act play structure. If you come to “Last Black Man” expecting the simple satisfactions of such a structure, you’ll be disappointed, and it will be your own fault. You’re always reminded: THIS IS A WORK OF ART. THIS BEARS THE ATTENTION OF INTERPRETATION. For this, I truly love it.

“The America Play” centers on The Foundling Father (oh, Parks, your puns! I just adore!), a Black man who is a grave digger and an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. He becomes particularly popular among white people who want to re-enact Booth shooting Lincoln—even better if they can shoot a Black Lincoln to boot! The Foundling Father soon disappears from the stage, and becomes a central figure in absentia, like the Great Hole of History he’s tried to replicate: what has been removed is what makes the thing (like a hole is not a hole unless things have been removed to make a hole). Lucy, his wife, and Brazil, his son, spend the last act alone. They are professional mourners, hired to gnash and moan at funerals to make others feel the dead had been important. Their lives are full of death and mourning. Their business, all, is absence, is the hole, is acting as if rather than simply getting to be.

I could write forever about these plays, having taught them and thought about them for so long. (And just so we’re clear, teaching the text does not mean I know anything about it—teaching was a way of figuring things out, thinking about things, so I mention it only to suggest I’ve spent many years thinking about these beautiful plays. Even so, they exceed my ability to think through them—I never “get” the whole thing, because if I think more, I discover more in them.) I won’t dissertate. Instead, I’ll simply urge you to read them—or any of Parks’ writing, for that matter. They plays and essays are genius postmodern works, rife with wordplay and exactly-needed difficulty. They are passionate and deeply felt strikes at the world’s stoicism.

More people should know, read and (inevitably) love Parks’ work.

 

Find Suzan-Lori Parks at http://suzanloriparks.com/

Find her books everywhere. Here, try Alibris: https://www.alibris.com/booksearch?author=suzan-lori+parks&mtype=B

REVIEW: Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara

Gorilla my loveGorilla, My Love
Toni Cade Bambara
First published 1960

I first read this collection of short stories when I was in college, back in the late 1980s. It stunned me so deeply, I’ve remembered it—especially the title story—for decades. I should write a letter of thanks to the college professor who first turned me on to it, but I no longer remember who it was. Well, I’m sending thanks out to the universe, anyway, because the stories of Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara have rumbled around my head, flavoring everything I’ve written and everything I’ve read since.

Fifteen short stories, each told in the first-person voice of a different character (or sometimes a 3rd-person limited omniscient, as if privy to the thoughts of a character), make up the collection. It feels as if all the characters are neighbors, all know each other, and are all talking smack about each other (though the collection isn’t set up that way).

What resonates most for me about these stories is, first, the voices and, second, the rhythm.

The voices seem so believably right. The title story, “Gorilla, My Love,” is told by a young girl (Hazel) who feels betrayed by the adults in her world. She goes with her brothers to see a film she thinks will be a gorilla movie (perhaps like King Kong, but even better), but is furious to find out she (and the entire audience of rowdy kids) has been tricked. “So the movie come on,” the narrator says, “and right away it’s this churchy music and clearly not about no gorilla. Bout Jesus. And I am ready to kill, not cause I got anything gainst Jesus. Just that when you fixed to watch a gorilla picture you don’t wanna get messed around with Sunday School stuff.” She and her brothers—and the whole audience—start a little popcorn-and-kicking riot, the harmless kind of tantrum one is inclined to throw in the face of powerlessness and betrayal.

Layered in an around this narrative is the story of the narrator’s loss of her Hunca Bubba, who gets married and starts going by his full proper Christian name (Johnathan Winston Vale). He’d promised, probably jokingly, to marry the narrator when she grew up, and was always the adult she could count on for friendship and understanding. Suddenly, he’s gone deep into the adult world and she’s left on the outside. Hazel has nobody but the other kids, all of them feeling the sting of the things adults promise but don’t really mean.

Every narrator’s voice feels true in this way, pulsing with the character’s needs, passions, anger. But it’s not a bitter collection in the least. It feels wistful. It feels true. It’s sometimes funny with a gentle, kind humor (the kind that doesn’t have to knock anybody down to make its mark).

As for the rhythm, I don’t simply mean the rhythm of the prose itself—though that is beautifully done. I remember when I was studying writing in college, and someone suggested to me that the major concern of poetry was at the level of the sentence and language, but the major concern of fiction was at the level of concept and story. I still think that’s wrong—good poets and good fiction-writers should always be concerned with both the big picture and the details. The best fiction writers, I think, compose every line of prose as if it were a line of poetry, that carefully. In Gorilla, My Love, words matter.

What I mean by “rhythm” is both the language-level rhythm (which, here, is masterful) and the ig-picture rhythm. Each story opens, build and closes in a sigh or a scream. The stories of the collection build upon one another to make a greater picture, so that the final story, “The Johnson Girls,” takes some of its effect from the momentum built by the stories that came before it. The last line—“’Right,’ say Gail, and lights my cigarette”—doesn’t sound particularly important until you’ve been carried to it by the story, by the whole book. Ending the collection on this line, then gives it extra weight, and I usually break into tears at the resignation it suggests.

I mean, you kinda have to be there (read it) to get it.

I’ll be at NY Public Library, and You’re Invited

Hey, all!

Come join me, Nisha Sharma, Adriana Hererra and Damon Suede for a collaborative talk/Q&A about queer and PoC folks in romance.

CHANGING FACES IN ROMANCE FICTION

Minday, February 11

6:00pm til ?

(because I love invitations that say ” til ?,” so full of undisguised hope! Like, when will it end? We dont know because it will be so awesome!)

For details, see https://www.nypl.org/events/programs/2019/02/11/mid-sentence-modern-lovers-changing-faces-romance-fiction

Where my New Yorkers at?