A Burst of Light: Audre Lorde on Turning Fear Into Fire
By Maria Popova
“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,” Toni Morrison exhorted in considering the artist’s task in troubled times. In our interior experience as individuals, as in the public forum of our shared experience as a culture, our courage lives in the same room as our fear — it is in troubled times, in despairing times, that we find out who we are and what we are capable of.
That is what the great poet, essayist, feminist, and civil rights champion Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) explores with exquisite self-possession and might of character in a series of diary entries included in A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (public library).
Seventeen days before she turned fifty, and six years after she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, Lorde was told she had liver cancer. She declined surgery and even a biopsy, choosing instead to go on living her life and her purpose, exploring alternative treatments as she proceeded with her planned teaching trip to Europe. In a diary entry penned on her fiftieth birthday, Lorde reckons with the sudden call to confront the ultimate fear:
I want to write down everything I know about being afraid, but I’d probably never have enough time to write anything else. Afraid is a country where they issue us passports at birth and hope we never seek citizenship in any other country. The face of afraid keeps changing constantly, and I can count on that change. I need to travel light and fast, and there’s a lot of baggage I’m going to have to leave behind me. Jettison cargo.
“Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,” the poet Mark Strand, born within weeks of Lorde, wrote in his stunning ode to mortality. Exactly a month after her diagnosis, with the medical establishment providing more confusion than clarity as she confronts her mortality, Lorde resolves in her journal:
Dear goddess! Face-up again against the renewal of vows. Do not let me die a coward, mother. Nor forget how to sing. Nor forget song is a part of mourning as light is a part of sun.
By the spring, she had lost nearly fifty pounds. But she was brimming with a crystalline determination to do the work of visibility and kinship across difference. She taught in Germany, immersed herself in the international communities of the African Diaspora, and traveled to the world’s first Feminist Book Fair in London. “I may be too thin, but I can still dance!” she exults in her diary on the first day of June. She dances with her fear in an entry penned six days later:
I am listening to what fear teaches. I will never be gone. I am a scar, a report from the frontlines, a talisman, a resurrection. A rough place on the chin of complacency.
Echoing Dr. King’s abiding observation that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” she adds:
I am saving my life by using my life in the service of what must be done. Tonight as I listened to the ANC speakers from South Africa at the Third World People’s Center here, I was filled with a sense of self-answering necessity, of commitment as a survival weapon. Our battles are inseparable. Every person I have ever been must be actively enlisted in those battles, as well as in the battle to save my life.
Two days later, as the opaqueness of her prospects thrusts her once again into maddening uncertainty, she redoubles her resolve to let fear be her teacher of courage:
Survival isn’t some theory operating in a vacuum. It’s a matter of my everyday living and making decisions.
How do I hold faith with sun in a sunless place? It is so hard not to counter this despair with a refusal to see. But I have to stay open and filtering no matter what’s coming at me, because that arms me in a particularly Black woman’s way.
In a sentiment that parallels Rosanne Cash’s courageous navigation of uncertainty in the wake of her brain tumor diagnosis, Lorde adds:
When I’m open, I’m also less despairing. The more clearly I see what I’m up against, the more able I am to fight this process going on in my body that they’re calling liver cancer. And I am determined to fight it even when I am not sure of the terms of the battle nor the face of victory. I just know I must not surrender my body to others unless I completely understand and agree with what they think should be done to it. I’ve got to look at all of my options carefully, even the ones I find distasteful. I know I can broaden the definition of winning to the point where I can’t lose.
Echoing French philosopher Simone Weil’s bold ideas on how to make use of our suffering, Lorde writes three days later:
We all have to die at least once. Making that death useful would be winning for me. I wasn’t supposed to exist anyway, not in any meaningful way in this fucked-up whiteboys’ world. I want desperately to live, and I’m ready to fight for that living even if I die shortly. Just writing those words down snaps every thing I want to do into a neon clarity… For the first time I really feel that my writing has a substance and stature that will survive me.
Beholding the overwhelming response to her just-released nonfiction collection, Sister Outsider — the source of her now-iconic indictment against silence — Lorde reflects:
I have done good work. I see it in the letters that come to me about Sister Outsider, I see it in the use the women here give the poetry and the prose. But first and last I am a poet. I’ve worked very hard for that approach to living inside myself, and everything I do, I hope, reflects that view of life, even the ways I must move now in order to save my life.
I have done good work. There is a hell of a lot more I have to do. And sitting here tonight in this lovely green park in Berlin, dusk approaching and the walking willows leaning over the edge of the pool caressing each other’s fingers, birds birds birds singing under and over the frogs, and the smell of new-mown grass enveloping my sad pen, I feel I still have enough moxie to do it all, on whatever terms I’m dealt, timely or not. Enough moxie to chew the whole world up and spit it out in bite-sized pieces, useful and warm and wet and delectable because they came out of my mouth.
Over the following year, Lorde continued asking herself the difficult, beautiful questions that allowed her to concentrate the laser beam of her determination and her purpose as an artist and cultural leader into a focal point of absolute clarity. In a diary entry from October of 1985, several months after her daughter’s hard-earned graduation from Harvard, she wonders:
Where does our power lie and how do we school ourselves to use it in the service of what we believe?
How can we use each other’s differences in our common battles for a livable future? All of our children are prey. How do we raise them not to prey upon themselves and each other? And this is why we cannot be silent, because our silences will come to testify against us out of the mouths of our children.
In early December, she resolves with magmatic determination:
No matter how sick I feel, I’m still afire with a need to do something for my living.
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 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 lived nearly another decade after her diagnosis, during which she was elected Poet Laureate of New York State. In an African naming ceremony performed in the Virgin Islands shortly before her death at the age of fifty-eight, she took the name Gamda Adisa — “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.”
Complement this particular portion of A Burst of Light, an explosive read in its totality, with Alice James on how to live fully while dying, Descartes on the vital relationship between fear and hope, and Seneca on overcoming fear, then revisit Lorde on the indivisibility of identity and the courage to break silence.
Published March 1, 2018