Review of Zami: a New Spelling of My Name

A Biomythography by Audre Lorde

Poet Audre Lorde, 1983
Poet Audre Lorde, 1983. Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is a memoir by feminist poet Audre Lorde. It recounts her childhood and coming of age in New York City, her early experiences with feminist poetry and her introduction to the women’s political scene. The story meanders through school, work, love and other eye-opening life experiences. Although the overarching structure of the book lacks definitiveness, Audre Lorde takes care to examine the layers of female connection as she remembers her mother, sisters, friends, co-workers and lovers—women who helped shape her.

Biomythography

The “biomythography” label, applied to the book by Lorde, is interesting. In Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde does not stray far from normal memoir structure. The question, then, is how accurately she describes events. Does “biomythography” mean that she is embellishing her tales, or is it a comment on the interplay of memory, identity, and perception?

The Experiences, the Person, the Artist

Audre Lorde was born in 1934. Her stories of her youth include the beginning of World War II and a fair amount of political awakening. She writes of vivid impressions remembered from childhood, from first-grade teachers to neighborhood characters. She sprinkles snippets of journal entries and fragments of poetry in between some of the stories.

One long stretch of Zami: A New Spelling of My Name treats the reader to a view of the lesbian bar scene of New York City during the 1950s.

Another portion explores factory working conditions in nearby Connecticut and the limited job options for a young black woman who had not yet gone to college or learned to type. By exploring women’s literal roles in these situations, Audre Lorde invites the reader to ponder other more esoteric, emotional roles played by women in their lives.

The reader also learns about Audre Lorde’s time spent in Mexico, the beginnings of writing poetry, her first lesbian relationships and her experience with abortion. The prose is mesmerizing at certain points, and always promising as it dips in and out of the rhythms of New York that helped shape Audre Lorde into the prominent feminist poet she became.

Feminist Timeline

Although the book was published in 1982, this story tapers off around 1960, so there is no recounting in Zami of Audre Lorde’s rise to poetry fame or her involvement in 1960s and 1970s feminist theory. Instead, the reader gets a rich account of the early life of a woman who “became” a famous feminist. Audre Lorde lived a life of feminism and empowerment before the women’s liberation movement became a nationwide media phenomenon. Audre Lorde and others of her age were laying the groundwork for a renewed feminist struggle throughout their lives.

Tapestry of Identity

In a 1991 review of Zami, critic Barbara DiBernard wrote, in the Kenyon Review,

In Zami we find an alternative model of female development as well as a new image of the poet and of female creativity. The image of the poet as black lesbian encompasses continuity with a familial and herstorical past, community, strength, woman-bonding, rootedness in the world, and an ethic of care and responsibility. The image of a connected artist-self who is able to identify and draw on the strengths of women around her and before her is an important image for all of us to consider. What we learn may be as significant for our individual and collective survival as it has been for Audre Lorde.

The artist as black lesbian challenges both pre-feminist and feminist ideas.

Labels can be limiting. Is Audre Lorde a poet? A feminist? Black? Lesbian? How does she construct her identity as a black lesbian feminist poet native to New York whose parents come from the West Indies? Zami: A New Spelling of My Name offers insight into the thoughts behind overlapping identities and the overlapping truths that go along with them.

Selected Quotes from Zami

  • Every woman I have ever loved has left her print upon me, where I loved some invaluable piece of myself apart from me—so different that I had to stretch and grow in order to recognize her. And in that growing, we came to separation, that place where work begins.
  • A choice of pains. That's what living was all about.
  • I wasn't cute or passive enough to be "femme," and I wasn't mean or tough enough to be "butch." I was given a wide berth. Non-conventional people can be dangerous, even in the gay community.
  • I remember how being young and Black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.

Edited and new content added by Jone Johnson Lewis.​

 

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Napikoski, Linda. "Review of Zami: a New Spelling of My Name." ThoughtCo, Feb. 28, 2018, thoughtco.com/zami-a-new-spelling-of-my-name-3529072. Napikoski, Linda. (2018, February 28). Review of Zami: a New Spelling of My Name. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/zami-a-new-spelling-of-my-name-3529072 Napikoski, Linda. "Review of Zami: a New Spelling of My Name." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/zami-a-new-spelling-of-my-name-3529072 (accessed April 21, 2018).