Issue 3: Dictationship

Thoughts on the Erotic in Audre Lorde's Archive

Christina Olivares

"What I leave behind has a life of its own. I've said this about poetry. I've said it about children. Well, in a sense, I'm saying it about the very artifact of who I have been."[1]

Audre Lorde is generous with her archives. There are rules, and I was supervised. But there are few restrictions on access, and the sheer volume of material available is extraordinary, even overwhelming. In them are kept Audre's journals—which number more than fifty, ink aged into milky-bright greens and soft browns—and her correspondence, curricula she built and taught, flyers, photos and their negatives, drafts of essays, poems and novels, and boxes upon boxes of things that are simply labeled ephemera. Those contents include a flaking wallet peppered with Hunter College stickers, a child's glasses adorned by tiny metal butterflies, scuba gear, a folded pile of wax print clothing, stuffed animals, and hats made festive with bright, sewn-on patches. [2]

It's summertime. I sit in a hard-backed chair in a room on the second floor of a Spelman College building to pencil in a series of numbers on a slip of paper, and more and more of Audre's living is wheeled to me by kind archivists. The earliest journal I requested to hold, on the first day, was one Audre had written as a teenager; she continued journaling in a remarkably steady and consistent way throughout her life, though most of the journals themselves look different from one another in design. By the end of that week, I'd held each one, and had begun working my way through her boxes of ephemera, whose contents, as their naming suggests, are dreamlike in their randomness, specificity, and lack of context. Each object, journal or otherwise, seemed to me to be less a piece (implying fracture, partialness), and more a moment (wholly contained temporality) of a life flourishing in and unconstrained by the box it inhabited.

Over her lifetime it is possible, and I imagine probable, that Audre's hands had engaged in every possible combination of activities just prior to her journaling: grasping a receiver, twirling a phone cord, leafing through student work, penciling a new poem, typing, gardening, writing on chalkboards, touching her own face and hair and body, touching the face and hair and body of another, grasping subway poles or bus straps, raising or lowering windows, eating, drinking, picking flowers, bedding seed, clapping, snapping, threading, swimming. Her fingers and palms stayed hers, yet shedded cells daily and over decades. The pages she wrote on similarly aged, but over subsequent decades. Here is the oil of her fingers, the dust of her skin, and the dust and inevitable disintegration of the journals themselves: we do not last. I touched everything so gingerly so as to not make any mark of my own, which at an atomic level is simply impossible. Each of my touches left behind invisible traces of my own oil and dust. It is impossible as an embodied being, which I currently am, to leave no physical trace. We do not last.

Dust: fine, dry powder consisting of tiny particles of earth, or waste matter on the ground or carried in the air; any material in the form of tiny particles; a fine powder; a cloud of dust; a dead person's remains; the mortal human body; the act of dusting. [3]

Our encounter on the first day felt surreal and decadent, but also terrifying. Who am I to touch her? To others, I'd characterized my presence in Audre's archive as that of a student, Audre's student, because I liked that word's invitation to vulnerability. In truth, I was handling her (objects) with all the guilt of a conscience-ridden thief. I did my best to dissociate from feeling, thinking I might be more sure of myself if I worked clinically. This did not work. I forced myself to look differently. One gaze for Audre, one gaze aimed hazily at my own interior. I found that my desire to leave no trace was merely solipsistic, not generous at all, arising from an alarmingly stubborn refusal to engage myself while in Audre's presence. In order for an exchange to occur, I had to choose to sit at the table with her.

My week was not perfect. Over and over, I neared and distanced myself. But those moments of grasping towards my interior (which seems terrifying from afar, and more comforting the closer I get) are satiating despite their transience. And once self-inhabited, I could be anything, with less fear of my own recrimination: lover, friend, stranger, teacher, student, whichever. And Audre is Audre is Audre, in all her variable selves, spanning decades. She is so human. These wholly contained moments of exchange between us—tactile, interior, and unequivocally erotic—are what drive the thoughts in this essay: can one have an erotic encounter with the archived leavings of a life? What of the touching between the dust of which we are both made? What new life does the encounter give way to?

I began to understand my engagement with Audre's archived materials as erotic when I took an impulsive shower the second night at the hotel, simply to wash us off of me, the way one might wash off sex. This washing-off did not feel like rejection, or loss, but like a secondary form of pleasure. I thought first, this feels right, then, this is bizarre. That night I wrote:

Washing the silt of her off of me as if washing off the body of a lover. As if I could smell her. As if I was close enough to be. I have made a lover of she. Or she has made a lover of me. Sweat sticky and Atlanta seethes my skin. But deeper there is a constellation embedded in the fine dust I can't see but feel. The dust of her living still living. Were there tears, sweat? What about the traces of her true lovers' bodies on her hands as she handled a pen. Beyond the imprints of flowers—which are numerous—there is she—her skin as stars, as dust—her breath? and what it carries—all of her, the liminal as material and vice versa.

My use of the word erotic refers to Audre's invocation of the word as a guide to our interior selves, which seek satiation and joy in communal and/or individual acts.[4] In archive, Audre's body of work, thinking, and feeling, which eventually feels indistinguishable from a self, or, from a tangible body–hers–is available for touching, exploring, investigation, seeing, naming, communion[5]. It is possible to construe her archive as a vast ecosystem of erotic possibility.

Imagining others sifting through my unedited journals and ephemera does frighten me, because of what I imagine they might discover: my shortsightedness, failures in reasoning, too much desiring. When I imagine myself as the subject or object of archival inquiry, my not-body body laid out on a library table, I note shame rising, offering itself from within like some prophylactic measure against the possibilities of this imaginative exercise.

In archive, I soon figured out that what was being expected of me—should the dead expect anything of us—was the opposite of what I had initially, on day one, felt compelled to do: overidentify, mythologize, avert my gaze in the moments that I projected she might feel shame for my seeing. But politeness is not the gift archive wants, nor is it the solution to the riddle of critical engagement with an entity that is not housed in your own body. Audre's lifework, simplified, was to interrogate and to name, in order to carve out a space for both the literal and imaginative possibilities of her own Black, female, lesbian, mother, poet, and thinker existence. One way to play with Audre's theory of the erotic is to imagine our own saturation within, and engaged response to, her materiality, her selfhood as archive, as the inevitable next step her work must take.

If I can wash us off my body, maybe she is corporeal and not a spirit. Not a memory, nor traces of life. Her archive, her in archive, as living, as body. Whole, not remaindered. Distinct from me. And as I sit, turning pages, physical transference occurs between us. My tactile engagement—dust of me, dust of she—creates some liminal space occupied impossibly by both of us simultaneously as distinct, living beings. I wonder if paying unguarded, close attention to anybody for too long can result in falling in love with them. I've tricked myself this way before—suddenly you are the most gorgeous. (Suddenly I am.)

And who is this indistinct self, this dust, writing this essay? All the brown in me, Caribbean-originated, is Black. By american definition of drops (seaspray and blood), so now then am I. Those long-dead spaniards would put me somewhere between morisco, albino, torna atras. Uptown, where we are many things, people say, what are you? you spanish? you white? eres americana, no? eres blanca? o boricua? My one parent is cuban, a naming which indicates a place of birth and conceals physicality, materiality. My one parent is american and white, a naming which signals a set of material consequences, including various forms of ease. I have two parents. I am making this complicated for a reason. Maybe I should say: my hair texture is wavy. Uptown, I hail cabs with no difficulty, am not followed around stores, and am fearful—but because of what I've grown up seeing happen to people I love and not because of a thing yet done to my body — around police. Or maybe I should say, where I work, my skin and performance of self a visibly differently marker in a whiter sea, I am sometimes confused for other women of color who might or might not look like me, and sometimes my interaction with certain colleagues and families is raced: interrupted, spoken over, denied eye contact, assumed younger than I am, assumed to be in or less experienced, and so forth. This all captures much of my raced materiality as it is embodied today.

america is a bit of a sadist, and marginalized is a fancy way to point to its violent erasure of unconsenting people. The infliction of pain on the unconsenting blocks, denies, or limits access to the existence of our interior selves (and of knowing fully for our individual selves if some version of pain, experienced consentingly, could even have utility). [6] In the tedious indeterminacy of child-to-woman, I experienced myself in flashes as alternately invisible and ghost. Reconciling myself unheathily with an existence that was sometimes not seen—not or not wholly there—became my unconscious license and freedom from self-interrogation. I didn't always engage with my interiority because I didn't have to. I wasn't consistently expected to have an interior, which is the excuse I made, while the truth was more like: if I touch her, I am afraid of finding out how much she aches, the gravity of her need to burn something down, and so I will keep her hungry for me, pretending to the point of knowledge that she, which is me, is unreal.

Maybe the erotic is both the unmasking of authentic hunger and any movement towards the satiation of those hungers. If the erotic is our true machinery, one sadness is our capability to disavow our machinery, even as our machinery tries to sustain us. What are you?

I read Zami at fifteen. I carried it around, made diagrams, memorized passages, wrote in the margins. Something clicked. I had a self. I could choose it. It would not be easy, given the pressure and my consequent habit of succumbing to that pressure, to not divest from it. I would have to grapple with all its heavy and foolish shit. I might have to write. But I could have it. Take responsibility for it. Wrest it for itself. I paid attention to how Audre wrote Zami. She was weird, not always good, desiring so much. A whole person was in there. At fifteen, this was the bridge I met her on.[7]

A different take, from when I was older: An ex-partner taught me an object lesson in gentleness every time we went to sleep by clasping my hand loosely in hers before she drifted off. But I do not actually need her to do this any more in order to understand what it is to feel completely held with minimal touch, or to understand that I am deserving of such whole and vulnerable tenderness. To my relief, I find that I am enough. I remember, and so does my body.

On my fifth day in archives, I encountered a large, shallow box. Like all of the ephemera boxes in Audre's archive—and unlike all of Audre's other boxes—the contents were collectively catalogued but individually unnumbered, leaving the contents a mystery. This box lid fit so tightly it felt stuck. Stuckness, stickiness, resistance. I wondered, as I refixed my fingers, about whether the delay was or was not the object(s) inside resisting interrogation, or was or was not the spirits that might speak through the object(s) resisting interrogation. I made a decision to continue. It took several tries to open it. And then it opened. Audre's locs—all of them—spread out like a floating halo, curlicued and stark. So much, so much, so much. Box, hair. No cloth, no wrapping, no clues. All week I'd spent daily investing in, and nightly divesting myself of, Audre's materiality. Here's her hair that lived, lives? Her body that lived, lives? Does it live right now? Behold constellates with: see, observe, survey, witness, gaze at/upon, regard, contemplate. I didn't touch her hair. I put my hand over my own mouth to cover the loud sound I made by accident. I beheld in lieu of touching her.

And yet I do touch, page by page. Still I find I can't place my finger with certainty upon the moments in her journaling where Audre told herself a lie. In a way, I don't really care because I'm neither a biographer nor a psychologist, but I'm selfishly curious to see how this operates within her compared to me. I know some things—could pick out her handwriting anywhere, identify, probably, how old she was at the time of writing, if you put a slip of paper with her looping scrawl in front of me. I know she skipped the first page of each journal and would write in those journals others gifted her. I know as she grew older, she pressed flowers between the pages, and was slightly less methodical about using up all the blank space on a given page. These are intimate details. But the accrual of intimate details does not an intimacy make. Perhaps what I do know—the quickness with which feeling reared in her, the consistent documentation of her complex interiorities, her stubborn refusal to be spoken for, her voracious appetite for ideas, lovers, community, her flair for the dramatic—I only know because I see these in myself.

Some of my own journal entries from that week in Audre's archive read as mandates to my future and past selves, as if notation could ensure her and her comprehension: Be very aware of mortality. Be very aware this body will become a series of other things. We are transient. No dura.[8]

1.From the documentary film A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde (Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson, 1995).

  1. Audre Lorde's archives exist in different places. The essay was conceived in the archives at Spelman College, Atlanta, GA, during the summer of 2015.
  2. This is what happened when I Googled "dust" on June 10, 2017.
  3. See Audre Lorde's description of the erotic in her essay, "Uses of the Erotic: Erotic as Power," in the collection Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press: Reprint Edition, 2007), and which I reference throughout this essay. Quotes and page numbers below are from this edition of her book.
  4. Re: connection — "...self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my capacity for feeling." (57)
  5. Thank you to Andrea Warmack for helping me think through this essay as a whole, and for the articulation about sadism here specifically.
  6. Re: bridges and difference — "The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference." (56)
  7. In that journal entry, I was playing both with the phrase no dura in spanish, which means what it means, and sounding out my fascination with Myung Mi Kim's phenomenal text Dura.