Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Writing Power: Identity Complexities and the Exotic Erotic in Audre Lorde's Writing

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Writing Power: Identity Complexities and the Exotic Erotic in Audre Lorde's Writing

Article excerpt

Audre Lorde is often cited as an icon for defining and asserting multiple identities in her life as well as in her prose, poetry, and mythic autobiography. Lorde has been tapped as a profound urban, American poet by academics, claimed as "foremother" by diasporic black lesbians, and cited as the only canonical black lesbian writer for white academic lesbians. (1) Most often, Lorde's identity as Caribbean descendant is glossed over with the mention of her parental heritage, even though numerous critics analyze her use of African diasporic mythology and imagery. Notable exceptions to this occurrence are Trinidad-born Carole Boyce Davies's analysis in her Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject and in Haitian-born Myriam Chancy's Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile. Davies asserts that Lorde "resolves" her Caribbean identity in her "biomythography," Zami. Chancy sees Lorde's and other Afro-Caribbean women's writings as a move toward "self-love and self-awareness" and "toward a revolution of consciousness, which could one day affirm the beauty and wisdom of Black women and end [their] alienation," which she believes will facilitate "the return home" (219). Both critics find resolution to Lorde's exile status through her positing of cultural, political, and gender-relative subjects in the personae, issues, and objectives of her writing. In her essays, especially those in Sister Outsider, Lorde as feminist and cultural theorist provides the basis for a framework to view society and to assess activist social engagement. She does this from the gaze of a woman with many identities: Black woman, lesbian, mother, poet, Caribbean descendant, political activist, and teacher, to name only a few of. Her poignant and absorbing prose and poetry about surviving breast cancer and facing terminal cancer add other roles. What becomes clear is that throughout her writing life, Audre Lorde tried to honor and celebrate her identities. In particular, her role as activist/intellectual accords with the established intellectual tradition of many Caribbean writer activists who, as Jamaica Kincaid says, must leave the Caribbean because if they stay home they will stop writing (131). One of the most prominent of those intellectuals, C. L. R. James, in describing "the great artist" could very well be describing Audre Lorde's actual production:

   [T]he great artist is the product of a long and deeply rooted
   national tradition.... He appears at a moment of transition in
   national life with results which are recognised as having
   significance for the whole civilised world. By a combination of
   learning (in his own particular sphere), observation, imagination
   and creative logic, he can construct the personalities and relations
   of the future, rooting them in the past and the present. By that
   economy of means which is great art, he adds to the sum of knowledge
   of the world and in doing this, as a general rule, he adds new range
   and flexibility to the medium that he is using. (185)

Although James cannot cite a "great Caribbean artist" using his somewhat elitist and male-centered criteria in this 1959 lecture at the University of West Indies, Jamaica, his definition portends the unique impact of Lorde's major contribution to women's literature and women's studies as poet, novelist, and feminist theorist.

With the rise of postcolonial theoretical formulations regarding Caribbean literary and artistic output, the works of major African Caribbean writers are often analyzed and categorized by the well-known theorists; their theory "still turns on Western phallocentric (master) or feminist 'gynocentric' (mistress-master) philosophy" (Davies 39). However, the African Caribbean writer, born in a metropolitan center as Lorde was, writes of "a place I had never been to but knew out of my mother's mouth" (Zami 256). It follows that Lorde's activism as black woman, lesbian activist, and artist in the United States becomes "representative of individual quests for freedom of choice in romantic and sexual partnerships and, ultimately, as microcosmic glimpses of a struggle for human (and democratic) rights" (Kemp 76). …

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