I wish we could sit together, and have a cup of tea, and talk about breast cancer. And feminism, and race, and diaspora, and narrative, and academia, and the world. I think we could talk about all of those things, through the lens of breast cancer. After all, she wrote The Cancer Journals- the first (as far as I know) chronicle of breast cancer that critically interrogates the personal, political, embodied experience of cancer, in a way that only Audre Lorde can. Her work has mattered to me for a long time, since a prof assigned Sister Outsider in a freshman level course I took at Pitzer College, yet her Cancer Journals has struck a chord inside me unlike her other work. I have read and re-read passages, I have asked what treatments she did and thought of copying her, I have spent hours considering my surgery decisions in relation to her beautiful, political, writing about how breast reconstruction is a symptom of greater, uglier social ill surrounding the female body as an object of attraction, about how we need to be able to recognize each other, about how breast reconstruction let’s everyone live in la-la-no-cancer-land. In the context of cancer (but also always in the context of lesbian/black/feminist/mother/poet), she wrote: My silence had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. I wonder what she would have made of the world of blogging, of the proliferation of cancer blogs and dedicated cancer twitter chats and facebook announcements. Gosh, we need her. I am angry at breast cancer for taking her. And I am angry that decades ago- decades ago!- before I was even halfway through elementary school, she called for a cancer revolution, she called for bodies to be dumped on the steps of what matters, she called for organizing— and you know what? It hasn’t happened. Because here I am, twenty two years after her death, and I had breast cancer, and her words still ring true. Not much has changed.
Tonight, I watched a film about part of her life– Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years. We sat together in the Vancity Theatre. I was buzzing, because earlier today we met with our fertility team and surrogate, and it looks like everything is going to move forward with crazy-baby-making involving our embryo in someone else’s body. It was the first time I saw lots of UBC folks since my diss defense, and there were many “Oh, you look so well!” “Oh, your hair is so long and looks so good!” and “So your health is OK, now, right?” comments. I do look well, my hair is (relatively) long, and since I used to have cancer, well, anything looks good in comparison, right? There’s such a fixation, I’m always reminded in these contexts, on my being healthy. There is no space for me to say I’m not healthy. And of course, I am healthy, and that’s awesome. However, I feel always compelled to blurt out, “But with breast cancer, no one can ever know. There’s no way to monitor.” It just feels so pervasively like, you must be ok and if you’re not I can’t hear about it/don’t want to know. Especially this month, in the wildly inappropriate pink celebration, I have to refuse the “but you’re OK now, right?” Because, and if only because, who ever knows? And also, not everyone is OK, and that is especially the case in the more aggressive breast cancers that affect younger people. But mostly, what if I stopped being OK? It’s as though there’s no room for me to qualify my health, and not even the tiniest nod to the insane amount of damage wrecked on my body, mind, and soul. I suppose I’m so bothered because it leaves me no choice to respond but with, “Yes, I’m OK.” Instead, why won’t they just ask how I am? Why can’t they let me answer? I wouldn’t spill my guts to most of these folks anyway, but then they could actually witness my statement that I’m OK (or that I’m not), instead of defining my experience for me and making me wish I could disappear into the ground. This is like human interaction 101: Empathy. Even Brene Brown said so.
I loved the movie. I was entranced. I was hopeful- listening to this inspiring feminist. I love the way Audre Lorde speaks, the slowness of her words, the carefulness in her speech, the way she uses her eyes to really get right at the heart strings, to produce feeling and wonder and hope in only a few words. What a gift that her words are recorded anywhere. I was in absolute wonder. She is awesome. But then they started down the cancer route. It was like a splinter underneath my fingernail, wiggling around in there. First the doctor on camera said she had survived longer (her breast cancer was metastatic) because she was “special.” Ok look, she was special. But so is everyone else, and I bet she’d be the first to argue that, and then maybe she’d argue for just health care practices (she went to Berlin to access alternative health care). I loved every second she was on screen, but these kinds of moments left a metallic taste in my mouth, the feeling that it just wasn’t represented as carefully as it could have been, the feeling that her cancer words were bruised and misunderstood.
Maybe I’m over-reacting. Maybe I am over-reacting because I over-react with any kind big-screen cancer representation. Maybe it’s still to raw. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll always react. But all I wanted to do was book it, as soon as that screening came to a close, and talk with my cancer-buddies, who I desperately wished I had dragged with me to the screening. And as I drove home, I realized that the kind of profound misunderstanding I felt after the film, as more questions of “But you’re OK, now, right?” peppered the small talk is mine alone. And so in solitude, I drove across the bridge, and it was silent, and it felt right, and the air felt heavy with my thoughts and my anger at cancer having stolen Audre from the world, and my rage that nothing has changed, and my sadness that I can’t have a cup of tea with her.
And then I found myself in Sammy’s arms, and he reminded me that today is a day to celebrate. After all, before I went to the film we talked hospitals and birth weights and ferry rides and midwives with our surrogate over lattes after we all signed endless paperwork at the fertility clinic. It felt good, and we all were giggling with excitement, and I can’t believe it’s actually happening. And it’s pretty freakin’ awesome to figure out how to do something you wanted really bad, especially when you thought it had become impossible. Today, we made real gains on scaling up the side of an im/possible cliff. For months, all I could think of was the cancer killing me. Really. I was certain the cancer would kill me. But my certainty has given way to something else, and now I’m only certain we can have what I thought was impossible. Im/possible. What a hopeful slash.
And so we did. Cookies and tea. About the best kind of celebrating as far as I am concerned. Cheers, we said, because we passed the phsych screening test to proceed with surrogacy. Cheers, because we think we’ve found the right woman to carry our baby. Cheers, because the doctor was hopeful and helpful. Cheers, because we can still fight for what we want, even if its not how we envisioned it, because we want it bad enough to be creative and silly and stubborn in our pursuit. Cheers, even though there is darkness, even though there is sadness. Cheers, because the darkness’ twin is light, and cheers, because they always exist together, balancing and sometimes, producing a grounded hope. Grounded hope.
Mine alone is the feeling of knowing that Audre Lorde film from a white/cancer/feminist perspective. That’s both terrifying- mine, alone?- and liberating- how many multi-faceted, creative, surprising interpretations were there? What would happen if we could all listen to each other reflect on the lifework of this ground-shaking feminist/lesbian/poet/black woman? I wish we could sit with tea, I wish I could listen to her. But instead I have her writing, her texts, her poetry. And you bet I’ll be reading again, soon. And mine alone will be the feeling in the bottom of my stomach, when I feel her stories, when I know the cancer stories from the inside out, when I hear them reflected by my cancer buddies, when I hear my own cancer stories echoing hers, when I wonder why nothing feels like it’s changed, except that now breast cancer is dripping in pink ribbons. Mine, alone. A power to claim, that is, indeed. It is most certainly a way of knowing that is critical, and it is mine.
If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. – Audre Lorde