Sister Outsider, Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde

Ten Speed Press, 1984

One of my favorite bookstagrammers, @blkemilydickinson, describes Sister Outsider in this article for Crwn Mag, The True American Curriculum: 10 Books to Remind the Black Woman she is God, as “A holy text,” and concludes, “If I could go door-to-door with this text Jehovah’s Witness style, I would.” So that about sums it up. If you’re looking for a powerful, brilliant, unapologetic takedown of white feminism, colorblindness, the patriarchy, you name it, Sister Outsider is IT. And behind each of the 15 speeches and essays is Lorde’s steadfast reminder that time and time again it is the oppressed who are asked to educate the oppressor (spoiler: this is a tool the oppressor uses to distract the oppressed and ultimately maintain the status quo), and that the oppressed—those furthest from America’s “mythical norm,” that is white, male, young, thin, heterosexual, and wealthy—are so often called to lead the revolution against the system that works against them. There is a reason you find Black trans women at the forefront of the fight for gay rights, at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement now, and at the forefront of each preceding revolution.

Lorde asserts over and over again that it is the acknowledgement and celebration of our differences—not the erasure or ignorance of them—that will lead to liberation for all. She was a visionary, and instead of a traditional review, I have decided to highlight ten quotes from Sister Outsider that provide a glimpse into what you will find in her essays.

  • “In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid?”
  • “Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons why they are dying.”
  • “To refuse to participate in the shaping of our future is to give it up. Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it.”
  • “Revolution is not a one-time event. It is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make genuine change in established, outgrown responses; for instance, it is learning to address each other’s difference with respect.”
  • “If we are to keep the enormity of the forces aligned against us from establishing a false hierarchy of oppression, we must school ourselves to recognize that any attack against Blacks, any attack against women, is an attack against all of us who recognize that our interests are not being served by the systems we support.”
  • “But there is no simple monolithic solution to racism, to sexism, to homophobia. There is only the conscious focusing within each of my days to move against them, whenever I come up against these particular manifestations of the same disease.”
  • “The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference. The old definitions have not served us, nor the earth that supports us.”
  • On the mythical norm: “In america, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure…Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practicing.
  • “Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions.”

And finally, the quote I have seen most often cited in other literature:

  • “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

Each of these quotes is powerful on their own, but void of so much of the meaning you will find when reading them yourself in context. Black feminism is the heart of the revolution and has been and will continue to be where real change stems from. Read Sister Outsider or choose to read one of the countless other Black feminist texts available to you.

Links: Audre Lorde (Poetry Foundation .org) | Goodreads .com | Buy it on Bookshop .org

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018

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I bought this book knowing I’d love it. A series of beautifully written autobiographical essays on writing and life? Sold. In retrospect I would’ve enjoyed it even more if I was familiar with Alexander Chee before reading it, but alternatively, I’ll probably enjoy reading his novels more now than I would have before, and I will definitely be reading them. Chee’s writing is wonderful and feels effortless, although he emphasizes that writing is never an effortless task. Any aspiring writer has been told some way or other that writing is hard work and requires extreme perseverance. Chee addresses this frequently in his essays but in a way that is more inspiring than daunting. If I was an aspiring fiction writer, which I am not, I would treasure these essays as a source of motivation. What I am, however, is an aspiring editor, and I found lessons in Chee’s essays for myself—both direct and indirect. On the last page of the essay titled The Autobiography of my Novel, Chee writes about the challenge of getting his first novel published and how, after getting rejected over and over again, the right editor changed everything.

Each essay varies in length and format. They don’t follow any timeline and aren’t centered around any one event. Instead they are organized the way memories are; the thread connecting one to the next isn’t always clear but is there, somewhere. As I progressed through the book, I had the feeling that the essays were building up to a climax of some sort, and then I read The Guardians. It is the third to last essay, and it is the heart of this book.  I started reading and lost myself in it immediately. The Guardians deals with Chee’s childhood trauma: the ways it has affected his life and how he’s processed it through different stages of his adulthood. It’s an essay that I imagine many people could connect with, feel understood by, or even use as a model to help process their own traumas.

In the final essay, On Becoming an American Writer, Chee asks, how do we create art after September 11? How do we create art in a Trump presidency? He is asking these questions to himself and attempting to come up with an answer for his students. In that essay is the following quote that is simple, and to me, entirely true: “But books were still to me as they had been when I found them: the only magic.”

Links: Goodreads | Alexander Chee | Buy it on Bookshop .org