Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (A Biomythography) by Audre Lorde

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (A Biomythography) by Audre Lorde
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (A Biomythography).

Okay, some Audre Lorde this week. Wait… who?! Lorde (1934-1992) was an African American writer, poet, feminist, and activist who had a difficult upbringing, but flourished into a prominent talent. Born at a time of extreme racial tension in America, she grew up in New York at the outbreak of WWII and in the aftermath of the Great Depression (whilst also legally blind), plus in her teens she realised she was gay. Unconventional, then!

For this 1982 autobiography, Lorde invented a new genre the writer dubbed a “biomythography” – it combines biography, history, and myth into one volume. It’s an intricately detailed and fascinating account of her life – each page is crammed full of her experiences and observations, from an upbringing in poverty to her flourishing formative years, Zami is not only a historical record, but a challenging statement to the world.

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (A Biomythography)

The Zami bit – what’s that all about? Well, dear reader, it’s a Carriacou name – that’s a Caribbean island from which Lorde’s mother immigrated. We catch up with a very young Audre Lorde before she’s found any of that out; living in Harlem at a time of large bouts of racism, high unemployment rates (due to the Great Depression), and plenty of poverty.

Before you think otherwise, this is far from a morose read – depressed you will not be. With a chirpy attitude, and ability to take adversity head on like a bloody bulldozer (personality traits she clearly inherited from her mother), Lorde turns this into a life affirming story of one woman rising to significant cultural status.

This is impressive, given how difficult her childhood was. With eyesight problems from a young age (she was legally blind), her mother helped guide her through a childhood where racism was commonplace – being the smartest girl in her class, however, saw her take full advantage of her education to open up new opportunities. In the aftermath of WWII, her efforts were rewarded by an increasingly progressive America.

What plays out is a sharp intellect advancing in personal understanding. This is all detailed in incredible detail, but it’s never a bore – every minor moment is conveyed with wit and charm. Themes of gay relationships, love, dating, youth, racism, and family abound – all delivered by the self-styled “warrior poet” with a sharp wit and keen eye for social justice.

Audre Lorde

Lorde died of cancer in 1992 aged 58. Zami has just been reissued in Penguin Modern Classics, so there should be interest reignited in her work. Her focus on pertinent topics such as feminism make her ever relevant, but it’s her writing about personal identity that stand out (for us, anyway). Here’s a comment from her 1984 essay Sister Outsider that continues to draw a lot of attention:

"Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support."

The belief is she turned “trauma into art” – the opening chapters to Zami, which could have been so self-pitying and self-indulgent, are instead defiant and character building (by which I mean for the reader – buckle your belt and take the world on, type positivity). This is what we’d like others to take from the work, if you choose to read it, and we hope this continues to encapsulate her status in the decades ahead. Such an endearing personality trait is positivity.

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