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BOOK REVIEWS | summer 2009

THE POET IN PROSE
I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde
Edited by Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta Betsch
Cole and Beverly Guy-Sheftall
Oxford University Presss

By Angela Bowen

I FIRST MET THE POET AND RADIcal black feminist Audre Lorde in the 1970s at 2 a.m. My family tucked in, I was reading the lesbian magazine Azalea and found myself laughing and thrilled by her writing. Not long after, I met her in the flesh at a feminist
bookstore where she was reading her poetry, one-breasted and comfortable without a prosthesis. When a baby cried, she told the mother not to worry and the rest of us to relax; she could read above the baby, she said, and she did.

Lorde’s generosity was legendary, as we learn in this collection of her nonfiction prose, including selections from The Cancer Journals and the essays and speeches in Sister Outsider, along with several personal reflections from those who knew her, including her companion Gloria Joseph and her friend Alice Walker. Walker tells of being nominated for the 1974 National Book
Award in poetry, along with Lorde and Adrienne Rich. “Audre and I suspected the winner would be Adrienne—no black woman poet had ever been selected before,” she writes. Lorde telephoned Walker and read a statement she had crafted with Rich announcing that whoever won “would accept the award in the names of the other two, as well as in the name of all women.” Rich did win, and, in one of feminism’s finest moments, she read their statement from the stage.

Another of Lorde’s signature attributes was courage, especially when it came to owning her sexuality. In a 1979 speech at the National Third World Gay and Lesbian Conference, she said, “I stand here as a 46-year-old black lesbian feminist warrior poet come to do my work as we have each come to do hers and his—the community, and the work of redefining our joint power and goals, so that our younger people need never suffer in the isolation that so many of us have known.”

Above all, she had a big heart. I was present at another of her talks when a young black woman came to her teary-eyed. The poet
hugged her, asking what the trouble was. The woman said she’d heard that whenever Lorde spoke in public, she always said she was a lesbian, and this time she hadn’t. Lorde answered she would make sure she never left it out again.

Lorde died of breast and liver cancer in 1992 at the age of 58. The editors of this abundant feast of a book remind us of the importance of her work, which for 40 years has served as a foundation and catalyst for questions of identity, difference, power and social justice. There is much to ponder, discuss, teach and revere in this compilation.

ANGELA BOWEN, PH.D., is professor emeritus in women’s studies at California State University, Long Beach.

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