By Jewelle Gomez for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on March 29, 2010
Audre Lorde was an iconic literary and political figure in New York City's feminist community of the 1970s and 1980s. Her stature rested on not just her writing and organizing but also on her persona, which was both imperious and accessible. She was also flirtatious. So I took her at her word: "silence has never brought us anything of worth.”
Despite being shy in 1980, I took a leap and mailed her a copy of my self-published first collection of poems. Why not?
She left me a message on my phone machine in her mellifluous Caribbean voice. I listened to it in shock about ten times before I actually heard her words of congratulations—along with editing comments.
Thus began one of the most important professional and personal relationships of my life. Not like best friends or anything, but it did grow into a sense of collegiality that I treasured. Every writer needs the tough love and cheerleading that Audre was willing to provide for lesbian feminist writers. Her legacy is her own large body of work—a major accomplishment in its own right—and the work of the many writers and activists she nurtured, cajoled, and seduced into fulfilling their writing and political promise.
In 1984, I interviewed her for the documentary Before Stonewall. I was extremely nervous as we sat outside of the Cornelia Street Café in the West Village, waiting for the camera set-up. She immediately saw that and ordered wine—it was 10 in the morning!—and then said, “Pretend we’re on our second date.”
When she and the other interview subject, Maua Flowers, finished laughing at my blushing, my anxiety had evaporated and we were friends, talking about our lives, just in front of a camera.
Some years later, as she was giving me a ride home, I again dug up my courage and asked Audre if she'd read my collection of lesbian vampire stories. She was definitive in her response: She didn't like vampires, she wasn't that fond of short stories, and, yes, she'd read them.
Waiting for her response was not the most relaxing period in my life, believe me. When it finally came, I was unprepared for the complete fulfillment of her reputation: Imperious—she was still not fond of short stories. Accessible—she thought my book was really a novel, and she knew I would do the editing to reshape it. Her assurance, even as she contradicted what I thought I was doing, turned my first novel, The Gilda Stories, into a reality.
The last time I saw her—in her NYC hospital room, where she and I finished judging a poetry contest together—she was still as tough and incisive in her opinions as ever. And as playful. When I leaned down to hug her good-bye, she sniffed at my neck, admiring the scent I was wearing, gardenia body oil. So I left the little vial for her bedside stand, as if I could remain there and keep her from leaving us.
Jewelle Gomez is the author of seven books including The Gilda Stories, winner of two Lambda Literary awards. It’s been in print for nineteen years. You can find her online at her website jewellegomez.com or Redroom.
Read Jewelle Gomez's review of I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde, edited by Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta Betsch Cole, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, in the March/April 2010 issue of WRB.