Desire in Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name
Updated: Mar 13
In Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde uses the erotic, or what Mary Karr might call the carnal, to deeply embed herself in her body and in her desire. Lorde is frank about desire in a way that challenges my own sense of decorum. She matter-of-factly describes her 4-year-old self throwing a tantrum on the floor of the library “Like a furious little brown toad, screaming bloody murder and embarrassing my mother to death.” Her tantrum is a response to her thwarted but deep desire to learn to read, to participate in language and story as her older sisters do—and her frenzy suddenly subsides when she looks up to see “a library lady standing over me… She had immense, light, hooded eyes and a very quiet voice that said, not damnation for my noise, but ‘Would you like to hear a story, little girl?’”
I recall a tantrum of my own that took place at my 4-year-old birthday party. I only remember being deeply out of sorts about something I couldn’t name, realizing that everyone was mad at me, and finding no solution other than a deep sense of shame for that outburst which I’ve damned as greedy desire for 46 years.
Audre Lorde refuses to couple desire and shame. She describes a deeply erotic encounter as a small child with the little girl Toni. “I started to sweat inside my snowsuit as I usually did, despite the cold. I wanted to take off her coat and see what she had on underneath it. I wanted to take off all of her clothes, and touch her live little brown body and make sure she was real. My heart was bursting with a love and happiness for which I had no words.” The mute and elemental curiosity and desire driving Lorde to explore the girl's clothes and body while sweat trickles down her own back is a frank revelation of the way a child’s curiosity and desire can take her to the edge of the taboo. (No surprise that Audre Lorde’s Pluto in Cancer is in the 10th house: her mission to the community is to look unflinchingly, and compassionately, at the taboo. Plus with the Moon in sensual Taurus in the 7th house and the Sun, Saturn, Mars and North Node in the 5th house, sensuality and the pursuit of pleasure were important for Ms. Lorde’s soul evolution.)
She brings that same carnal, erotic, sensuality to the grinding of spices for souse—a sensual act that Lorde describes with intimate and erotic detail and which is tied, in her memory, with the day she got her first period. “As I continued to pound the spice, a vital connection seemed to establish itself between the muscles of my fingers curved tightly around the smooth pestle in its insistent downward motion, and the molten core of my body whose source emanated from a new ripe fullness just beneath the pit of my stomach. That invisible thread, taut and sensitive as a clitoris exposed, stretched through my curled fingers up my round brown arm into the moist reality of my armpits, whose warm sharp odor with a strange new overlay mixed with the ripe garlic smells from the mortar and the general sweat-heavy aromas of high summer.”
I squirmed with discomfort at this passage, ill at ease with the carnal details in which the body, food, sexuality, sensuality, women’s desire and cooking mingle frankly. Reading Zami is an exercise in becoming comfortable with, receptive to, the erotic.
It also becomes a doorway to better understanding Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” The sensual details that fill Zami illuminate what Lorde calls in her essay “that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge.” No wonder Lorde refuses to link this power with shame.
I wonder if Audre Lorde and D.H. Lawrence would have understood each other? In his biography of Lawrence, John Worthen writes that Lady Chatterly’s Lover “was, thus, written by a man reaffirming the life of the body…After finishing Lady Chatterly, [Lawrence] began to use the phrase ‘phallic consciousness’ to describe its central experience. He was attempting to channel an exclusively male word into a special term for awareness of the body; and he used it to imply something conventionally associated with women rather than men. He would, for example, call his book a nice, tender phallic novel: a warm phallic novel…which would have been a way of explicitly asserting its ‘female’ quality of responsiveness and denying its traditionally ‘male’ characteristics of demand and rapacity.”
I find reading Lorde has enriched my understanding of D.H. Lawrence whose writing I somehow find opaque. (True confessions: I’ve never gotten past the beginning of Women in Love or Sons and Lovers.) But, in my favorite D.H. Lawrence novel (and the only one I’ve read all the way through), The Virgin and the Gypsy, Yvette is told by the old gypsy woman, “Be braver in your body, or your luck will leave you.” This is the courage to trust that nonrational erotic knowledge. As Lorde writes in "Uses of the Erotic," “...the erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation.”