Berlin - When Mithu Sanyal’s debut novel Identitti was published in Germany to much acclaim earlier this year, one scene stood out to me in particular: Saraswati, a white female professor posing as a person of colour, walks into a room full of first-year students and demands that all white people leave her seminar. It’s a stunningly crafted moment. Only it didn’t spring up from Sanyal’s own imagination, as the author fairly points out in the book’s afterword: When Audre Lorde, iconic poet, writer, activist, feminist and more - was in Berlin as a visiting professor at the Free University, she too asked all white women to leave the classroom and only for the Black women to stay.
Can you imagine this happening today? In this loaded and seemingly never-ending climate of so-called identity politics? I feel dizzy just thinking about all the headlines such an act would generate in the Germany we are currently living in. I would of course quietly marvel at the revolutionary power of a Black academic doing this in 2021, giving his Black students some kind of feeling of privilege - no offense to any white person reading this - but yeah. It is what it is. I guess I’m just exhausted at some of the half-baked hot takes coming out, and their reception.
Lorde was and is clearly influential to a lot of (female) writers to this day, not only in the US but also in Germany, where she lived from 1984 to 1992. And to examine her lasting influence, it’s worth looking at her own body of writings. Sister Outsider is a great resource for just that, a key collection of essays and speeches, addressing a whole range of issues such as racism, feminism, sexism, class and much else. This collection is from 1984, the year Lorde started working at the Free University, so it speaks volumes that it has taken 37 years for it to be translated into German for the first time. Incidentally by Hanser, the same publisher of Sanyal’s Identitti and of works by Colson Whitehead, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Alice Hasters. Sister Outsider is a fitting addition.
What is properly breathtaking to me is how topical Lorde’s words are when you read them today. You could pick certain sentences and think that she is commenting on something happening right now. For example, in an interview with her colleague, the poet Adrienne Rich, she is asked about a poem she has written called Power. The first five lines go like this: “The difference between poetry and rhetoric / is being / ready to kill yourself / instead of your children”. Lorde is referencing a case where a white policeman has shot a Black child and has been - pause for surprise - acquitted and what it would mean to meet this killer. When I read this exchange between Lorde and Rice, I immediately have to think of the cases of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Daunte Wright in the States but also of Oury Jalloh, Ahmed A., Qosay K. and others in these parts who have lost their lives to police brutality. Lorde is writing about the 1970s, but her words haven’t lost any relevance.
Sister Outsider also includes a biting open letter Lorde wrote to Mary Daly, a well-known radical feminist philosopher. She admonishes Daly for failing to talk about African myth, legend and religion, such as the warrior goddesses of the Vodun, the Dahomeian Amazons and the warrior-women of Dan, instead only focusing on non-European women in her work when she needs to frame them as “victims or preyers-upon each other.” Now, as a man, I am in no position to mansplain feminism to anyone, but if your feminism isn’t intersectional, then what’s the point? But don’t take it from me, take it from Lorde herself: “I am used to having my archetypal experience distorted and trivialised, but it is terribly painful to feel it being done by a woman whose knowledge so much touches my own.” She is addressing the fact that a white feminism that isn’t inclusive, that doesn’t even acknowledge the struggle of Black women, cannot be the way forward. Here Lorde’s letter from 1979 is in a generational dialogue with Emilia Roig’s Why We Matter, an urgent treatise on intersections of racism and how to end its oppressive dynamics. It’s another essential read.
The German translation of Sister Outsider arrives at a time when there’s a lively - and to be honest - scary debate in this country on who gets to say what. Who gets to translate whose work? Who gets to say the N-word? Who can say the most offensive thing and then still expect not the be labelled far-right? Here’s what I suggest to all: Read Audre Lorde. She has the answers.