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Show and tell a Malady

In 1980, the poet Audre Lorde wrote Cancer Journals about the silence around breast cancer and its increasing fatality. At the time, cancer was encumbered by metaphoric associations to depressed or melancholic personalities, joining the ranks of discredited women’s illness experiences. Lorde had no precedents to look up to as a lesbian woman of colour after her mastectomy, and her refusal to wear a prosthesis was an act that made visible a secretive, almost forbidden disease.

For Lorde, to tell was to give a voice to the illness and reclaim agency from medical decisions that gave little autonomy to the patient. With every entry in the journal echoing rebellion, Lorde asks: “I am myself, a black woman warrior poet doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours? And, of course I am afraid — you can hear it in my voice — because the transformation of silence into language and actions is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger.”

Cancer Journals became the prototype for the feminist breast cancer memoir.

In earlier narratives of the disease, such as the The Diary of Alice James, the relief of diagnosis overshadows the tediousness of having to live with a terminal illness, ringing close to patient experiences of chronic illnesses that are hard to diagnose such as chronic fatigue syndrome. Having suffered from mysterious and undiagnosable illnesses for 40 years, Alice, sister of the American author Henry James, experiences relief on being diagnosed with breast cancer, finding at last a name to the illness to which she would succumb.

Forty years after Lorde’s trailblazing memoir, much has evolved about the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer — and also its representation. Breast cancer memoirs are a genre of their own, and using transgressive textual strategies, the writers offer to those looking for anecdotal help an honest account of the extreme event of cancer that disrupts their everyday.

One such genre is the graphic illness narrative — a memoir in comics format. While graphic refers to that which is drawn and easily imagined, it could also mean unpleasant. The format has been effectively used by patients, caregivers and physicians to show and tell illness, with integrity and acute awareness of the bodily self.

Popular breast cancer graphic narratives such as Marissa Marchetto’s Cancer Vixen, Miriam Engelberg’s Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person or Jennifer Hayden’s The Story of my Tits re-vision cancer in their own terms, and with self-deprecating humour and relatable art add experiential value to the cancer imagery. An important element of these books is their engagement with the materiality of cancer. For instance, in Cancer Vixen, a graphic memoir about the fashionable writer’s tryst with breast cancer in fast-paced New York, Marissa Marchetto draws life-sized needles, with images of actual X-rays, bills and scans, drawing and writing over them, taking ownership of her categorised body through her unique storytelling technique.

Different experience

This year, a new graphic memoir called Kimiko Does Cancer registered a queer, mixed-race woman’s experience of breast cancer at 25. Kimiko Tobimatsu and her collaborator, Asian artist Keet Geniza, have been posting comics about the process of writing the book on Instagram for a couple of years now, a behind-the-scenes rendition that represents a unique voice among breast cancer culture’s tendency to over-represent one particular demographic — that of the heterosexual white woman — and hence dangerously perpetuate a single story, where cancer survivors like Kimiko, just like Audre Lorde four decades ago, are left with no models to associate with.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to viral discussions, the language of the immune system is no foreign parlance for cancer survivors. Through the pandemic, cancer patients like the American academic Susan Gubar are patiently blogging about making sense of the quarantine as they made sense of their cancer, asserting their voices as bodies-at-risk.

Susan Sontag famously spoke of the “kingdom of the ill” as being another world that everyone at some point must travel to.

For Lorde, the journey of self-scrutiny was painful, but the most rewarding journey of all. For the new breed of memoir writers recording their illnesses, the best way to understand this journey is to be able to tell or show it in their own unique ways.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2021 6:57:43 AM |

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