Armchair adventure in pandemic
by Terri Mork Speirs, Director of Community Relations
Notes from a Trip to Russia is the first chapter in a collection of essays and speeches by Audre Lorde called “Sister Outsider.” The 23-page essay is actually a travel journal of observations from a two-week trip she took in 1976. Much fun. Delightful. I laughed out loud at some of her musings as it reminded me of the oddities (odd to me) I’ve noticed in faraway places — the sensory overload, the brain puzzles, the joy, the unexpected self-awareness, the attempts to write it all down.
This first chapter of “Sister Outsider” seemed almost unexpected diversion from the main reason I’m reading this book. It is the current choice of a book club my friend Billie Wade and I co-lead for the Center’s Antiracism Learning Group. We join together through stories and discussion. If you would like to join our group, please send me an email (email@example.com) and I’ll add you to the list. (We started this discussion cycle April 19 and there’s plenty of time to hop in to chat up the rest of the book together.)
The late Audre Lorde is a celebrated and influential writer, authoring 12 books and serving as New York State’s poet Laurette 1991-1993. Her searing line “Your silence will not protect you” is oft quoted. The respective essay is also in this book and it opened me up as though the author was my personal spiritual director and somehow knew what I needed to hear.
But the essay at hand is different. It’s raw like how you might journal while riding a cheesy tour bus. It is Audre Lorde, American gawker. That’s what makes it fun: the fairy palace skyline, the reverence of old people, the lack of men, the higher ceilings, the “vodka, which flows like water, and with apparently as little effect upon Russians.” Surface travel observations are usually huge generalizations, of course, yet somehow the reader knows that she knows that. She’s just writing what she immediately sees and thinks.
To me, one of the most downplayed observation was how cotton is picked in Russia: “It feels strange and familiar at the same time. This is cotton country. Miles and miles of it, and the trainloads of students were coming south from Moscow on a two-week vacation to party and pick coon. There was a holiday atmosphere all around.”
Stunning. Like we did it all wrong in the U.S.A. Why didn’t we make cotton-picking a festival of friendship instead of brutally torturing dark-skinned people to get free labor for centuries? She does not ask that question. All she does it tee it up for the reader.
Audre Lorde is not passing off Russia as some kind of utopia. All countries have their shortcomings, she concludes. However, she also notes that Russia has the largest reading population in the world: “Everywhere you go, even among those miles of cotton being harvested in the Uzbeki sun, people are reading, and no matter what you may say about censorship, they are still reading and they’re reading an awful lot.”