Borne Through Words: A brief exchange between Lana Lin and Megan Moodie about Lin's film, The Cancer Journals Revisited (2018)

Curator's Note

Megan Moodie: Thank you so much for this film. In addition to bringing us all closer to Audre Lorde’s incomparable work in The Cancer Journals, your film provided a new angle on the vexing question of the relationship between language and profound bodily states. While some commentators contend that profound bodily states exist outside language, it’s very common to hear that the ability to cast the body into story is essential for those who experience disability, illness, pain, and trauma. A telling example of this perspective comes from Anatole Broyard in his memoir, Intoxicated by My Illness, “The patient has to start by treating his illness not as a disaster… but as a narrative, a story. Stories are antibodies against illness and pain… I think that language, speech, stories, or narratives are the most effective ways to keep our humanity alive” (1992: 20).

The focus on the poetic in your film reminds us that language is not equal to story. Language can create feelingful resonance but is not always beholden to meaning. We might call this perspective anti-narrative, in the sense that it would caution about the dangers of narrativizing away bodily experiences for which narrative conventions are inadequate, though language itself may not be. How did you think about language while making this film?

Lana Lin: It is telling that in my book, Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects, I quote Broyard’s insight on how death dehumanizes, but I intentionally cut off his claim about the most effective means to keep humanity alive. I do not disagree on all counts, but my selective excision reveals my gravitation away from the lure of story. Broyard lumps together language, speech, stories and narratives, yet as you emphasize, language is not equal to story. The Cancer Journals, as a hybrid memoir/manifesto that blends poetry and politics, is an exemplary demonstration of the use of language towards ends other than story. Speech and language are allies in opposing silence. Nowhere in the alchemical process of transforming silence into language does she prescribe “story” as the cure to social and bodily ills. For Lorde, poetry has curative properties because it provides illumination. As a subset of language, it supplies the means through which feelings, ideas, and action come into being.

MM: In a way, Lorde offers us an intimate account of what Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebox call “felt time,” when “reality often feels unmoored, confusing, unstorified, especially in crisis” (2018). And I really got this from the film, as well; yet words are everywhere – its subject matter, in a way.

LL: Yes, the film is saturated with words, and I found myself pondering what these words do. The film concludes with the meditation: “Some kinds of pain are not so much expressed by words as borne through words.” I wanted to respond to that call for language that pain seems to both beg and belie. If pain is unrepresentable in language, words nevertheless offer a medium through which to bear it. And yet, my film continues: “sometimes words escape us, and then what we have is breath.” So, I return to the body and to the inexpressible, to what sustains us from birth, and will continue to until our death. If poetry is pre-lingual in the way Lorde understands it, it may consist more of breath than words.



Broyard, Anatole. Intoxicated By My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1992.

Juhasz, Alexandra, and Alisa Lebow. “Beyond Story: An Online, Community-Based Manifesto.” World Records 2, article 3 (Fall 2018).

Lin, Lana. Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects: Fractured Subjectivity in the Face of Cancer. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017.

Lin, Lana. The Cancer Journals Revisited. Digital film. Women Make Movies, 2018.



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