Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde’s prose masterpiece, examines a young black woman’s coming to terms with her lesbian sexual orientation. An autobiographical novel, Zami has earned a reputation as much for its compelling writing as for its presentation of a coming-of-age story of a black lesbian feminist intent on claiming her identity.
At the age of nineteen, Zami flees New York City, where she was raised by her West Indian parents, for Mexico. There, she falls in love with an older expatriate woman named Eudora, who opens up her sensual life to the younger woman. Through her relationship with Eudora, Zami realizes the paralyzing consequences of the “racist, patriarchal and anti-erotic society” that Eudora fled when she left the United States. Zami returns to live in the “gay girl” milieu of Greenwich Village in the 1950’s. She commits herself to a long-term relationship with Muriel, a white woman with whom she builds a home. Muriel completes the sexual awakening that Eudora began. Muriel is threatened, however, when Zami enters therapy and enrolls in college. As Zami forges an identity that integrates her sensual, intellectual, and artistic sides, Muriel moves out of the Greenwich Village apartment. Zami moves forward, even in grief, toward her new-found life.
Erotic language and scenes pepper the story. Zami learns to accept her own erotic impulses toward women, and her acceptance leads her into a larger life where love for women is central. Her eroticism is about the acceptance of the stages of a woman’s physical life. Eros is also language that she uses to infuse her poems with life. As Zami goes to college, begins to send out her own poetry, and opens to life while Muriel declines, she meets a female erotic figure of mythic proportions: Afrekete.
Years earlier, Zami met a black gay woman whom she named Kitty: a woman of pretty clothes and dainty style. The two women meet again at the novel’s end. Kitty has become a fully erotic woman, who has assumed the mythic name Afrekete. After her liaison with Afrekete, Zami finds that her own life has become a bendable, pliable entity that challenges myths and, in the end, makes a new myth of its own.