Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is an autobiography mixed with mythic and fictional elements. Audre Lorde, a black poet and lesbian, wrote this story of her life as a kind of Genesis for other black lesbians, who she hoped would be able to draw identity and solidarity from Lorde’s pioneering work. The large number of lesbian lovers discussed in the book may shock some readers, but Lorde is not promoting promiscuity; rather, she is creating a mythic story of how she came to live without fear as a black lesbian in a homophobic, racist society.

The book describes two kinds of “blankness,” one that nourished Lorde and another that almost destroyed her. The life-giving blankness was the way of life on the Caribbean island of Grenada from which Audre’s parents emigrated. This notion of “blank” space does not imply any sense of “emptiness.” Rather, it was “blank” because it was so different from the homophobic, racist society in which Audre grew up. It was the blank of her grandmother’s way of life, a blank that would prove nurturing and nourishing to Audre. The close ties between women in her grandmother’s fabled land would provide Audre with the title of her book, because “Zami” means just that, a group of women with close ties, both emotional and erotic, beyond the analysis and labeling of Eurocentric thought.

The second kind of blankness the book describes is the life-destroying blank of American racism and homophobia, the terrible vacuum that lesbians of color were forced to occupy in the 1950’s. These life-threatening forces valued lesbians of color as “less than nothing.” In Zami, Lorde takes on this destructive blankness and rages against it, even as she is nourished by the mythical, unclassifiable blankness of her grandmother’s way of life in Grenada, a way of life that flourished without the cancer of racism.

Zami inhabits the space between these two blanks. It is more than autobiography: It is a successful attempt to make a space for lesbians of color in society, as it challenges homophobia and racism and offers alternatives based on memory and imagination.

Zami can be divided into roughly four parts: Lorde’s childhood in New York City; her discovery of her roots in Grenada; a mystical vision she experiences in Cuernavaca, Mexico; and her return to New York as a person transformed. Audre’s childhood experience of racism in New York has an unusual aspect; her mother, Linda, has light enough skin to pass for...

(The entire section is 1036 words.)

Zami Bibliography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Abod, Jennifer. The Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde. New York: Women Make Movies, 2002. This documentary video covers a global conference held in Boston in 1990 that used Lorde’s work as a basis for discussions on race, gender, class, and sexuality.

DeVeaux, Alexis. Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. This biography provides facts about Lorde’s life that help readers to see Zami as a mythical reworking of Lorde’s experience. Divided into two parts, one before and one after Lorde’s diagnosis of cancer.

Hall, Joan Wylie, ed. Conversations with Audre Lorde. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. Gathers together dialogues between Lorde and other feminists, lesbians, and poets. Particularly important is the conversation between Lorde and Adrienne Rich.

Kader, Cheryl. “’The Very House of Difference’: Zami, Audre Lorde’s Lesbian-Centered Text.” Journal of Homosexuality 26 (1994): 181-195. Shows how Lorde came to carry her “home” on her back like a snail, refusing to settle down in any “permanent home” of identity.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press, 1984. Many of Lorde’s writings in this collection link to themes and moments in Zami. Two such essays are “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” and “Grenada Revisted: An Interim Report.”