There have been a number of names buzzing around my head since WomanTheory started, and making a decision about who to write about first wasn’t easy. In the end, I decided that my first post had to be about Audre Lorde (1934-1992). While there are other great women theorists whose work feature much more frequently and centrally in my own writing (Bev Skeggs, Angela McRobbie, Imogen Tyler, Valerie Walkerdine, Jessica Ringrose, Sara Ahmed), I felt compelled to write about Lorde first. Reading the initial entries on the Woman Theory website, I was struck by the vivid memories people were sharing about encountering someones work for the first time (often as a student) and the connections, reflections and transformations in thinking these encounters had engendered. For me, encountering Audre Lorde’s book Zami in my second year of university was one of those transformatory moments.
In many ways, Lorde entered into my consciousness by happenstance. Doing a combined sociology and cultural studies degree at Nottingham, I took a number of optional modules in the American studies department, somewhat begrudgingly. One of these was ‘Gender and Race in contemporary US Literature’. I was never very good at English literature at school, and so embarked on this module with some skepticism and – to be fair – not a lot of interest. Within the first couple of weeks, Lorde’s ‘Zami: A new spelling of my name’ landed on my desk and shook up my world. It was like nothing I had ever read.
In first year lectures, feminism had tokenistcally been mentioned, fleetingly addressed on dry powerpoints in cold lecture theatres. It wasn’t until I encountered Zami – a mixture of poetry, autobiography, myth, social history – that I understood what that phrase ‘The Personal is the Political’ meant. Lorde’s writing drew me in and opened up new ways of seeing the world. Her writing made me think differently and deeply about identity, power, marginalization, race, gender, bodies, love, sexuality, difference, and feminism.
In Zami, Lorde conveys the absolute necessity to tell our stories – to speak and not be quelled, silenced, crushed by others. The ‘new spelling of my name’ of Zami’s title, captured and conveyed both the violence of other’s labels, and the power – and struggle – of self-definition. Lorde’s writing also transformed how I thought about anger: an emotion I had been raised to think of as an ‘ugly’ and largely destructive object. Lorde, perhaps more than any other writer, taught me about the necessity of anger as a political tool. It is Lorde who I think about when my body responds to something I have read, heard or encountered that doesn’t sit right with me: those visceral responses to injustice and inequality, when the heat rises in my chest, when my heart starts racing, when my shoulders tense and I just cant be silent. This is why I have picked Lorde as my first WomanTheory story. Not because her work is always central in any specific and obvious way to the specific issues I write about, but because it is Lorde’s passionate and rousing call to arms, that inspires me.
One of my favourite quotes about writing (and living) comes from Lorde and is etched in my mind. To me, if there were ever a feminist mantra for living your life, then to live it with the intention of leaving the world like a ‘fucking meteor’ might just be the one:
‘I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out of my ears, my eyes, my noseholes–everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!’
Lorde, A. (1996). Zami: A new spelling of my name. London: Pandora.
Lorde, A. (1996). The Audre Lorde Compendium. London: Pandora.