Biographies aren’t generally my thing, but Audre Lorde—“black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet warrior” (her own words)—is a writer whose writing has had a profound effect on my life and thinking about the world. I had come across her poetry in (I think) the late 80s, and was intrigued. Imagine my surprise when I signed up for a few Women’s Studies courses and discovered that some of Lorde’s essays from Sister Outsider were on the syllabi. Next time I re-read Sister Outsider or her other books, I’ll talk more about that, but for now, let me just say that she’s one of the people whose writing has greatly influenced my thinking about race, gender, social justice, the value of art, and the need to live my politics rather than just talking about them.
So when I came across Warrior Poet by Alexis De Veaux, I was excited to have a chance to learn more about Lorde and how she grew into the icon she became. I have to admit the book sat on my shelf for a very long time, because as I mentioned above, the idea of biographies doesn’t excite me (although when I buckle down and get started, I tend to enjoy them—go figure).
I was delighted right away with De Veaux’s style of writing. The book is meticulously researched and endnoted in true textbook style (and I am a student-book-nerd who swoons at the heft and density of a new textbook), but De Veaux tells the story of Lorde’s life in such a readable and interesting way, with little side trips into the whys and wherefores and whos and whats.
I very much appreciated De Veaux’s introduction in which she discussed the use of personal journals as historical or research documents. It fit with a blog post I read quite a while back about how journals are the place where we are what we want to be, or could be, or hope to be, or think we are, or a place where we are trying things on, rather than a place of strict factual accuracy and precision. De Veaux tried to reconcile contradictory information (such as dates, states of mind, motivations) among various sources (journals, letters, interviews, etc.). I found this quite fascinating, especially the places where things couldn’t be reconciled and so were examined in parallel.
Lorde’s life and work intersected with that of so many other interesting women (Adrienne Rich, Barbara Smith, Gloria Joseph, Michelle Cliff, Mary Daly, Cherie Moraga and so many more—although I would have liked to hear more about how De Veaux herself knew and interacted with Lorde), and so the reader gets treated to bits of their stories, as well as some of the history of Lorde’s family and her attempts to find a place (physically, spiritually, politically) where she felt at home. Her life as a “black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet warrior,” navigating the contradictions inherent in these different identities to be true to herself and all of her facets, is a fascinating read. I kind of think I wouldn’t like her in person, though. She sounds like in some ways she was a bit narcissistic and entitled in her personal relationships, and kind of pushy sexually. But she also took her work very seriously and I don’t know if she’s been able to accomplish as much if she had been a self-effacing people-pleaser.
If you’re into biographies, this is a well-written book telling the story of an interesting life. If you are interested in Lorde’s work and thinking, definitely consider reading this. I enjoyed learning more about how her life experiences shaped some of her ideas, poetry, and essays, and it was helpful to have so much historical and personal context.
Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis De Veaux. 2004. ISBN 9780393019543.