Zami: A New Spelling of My Name Summary

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is a 1982 autobiography in which Audre Lorde charts her coming-of-age as a Black American lesbian poet.

  • Lorde is born in Harlem to parents who immigrated from the Caribbean. She is legally blind as a child and the only Black student at her high school.
  • After a traumatic abortion, Lorde moves to Connecticut and Mexico, exploring her identity as a writer and lesbian.
  • In New York, Lorde embarks on a relationship with a fellow poet named Muriel and, after Muriel leaves, experiences a brief but meaningful affair with a woman named Afrekete.

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Last Updated on December 15, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821

The author was born in New York City during the Great Depression, to parents who came from the Caribbean (though from different islands) and first arrived in the United States in 1924. She grew up in Harlem, where she struggled at school due to poor eyesight. However, her mother, Linda, a powerful and imaginative woman, instilled in her a love of language, along with a strong sense of her heritage.

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As she grows up, the author’s relationship with her mother, who disciplines her harshly, becomes more strained. She is often lonely, as her two sisters are several years older and are close to each other but not to her. Her life is also often overshadowed by racism, as she attends a school where she is the only Black student. When the family moves to a white neighborhood in Washington Heights, their new landlord commits suicide, apparently from the shame of having to rent to Black people. On a family trip to Washington, D.C., the family is refused service on racial grounds at an ice cream parlor, and for the rest of the holiday, the author feels sickened by her separation from the literally and metaphorically white institutions and monuments she sees in the national capital.

During Audre’s first year of high school, a girl named Gennie joins the school. Gennie is the first true friend Audre has ever made and the first person with whom she falls in love. During the summer of 1948, the two girls spend all their time together, out in New York City or in the apartment of Gennie’s mother, Louisa, who is more liberal than Audre’s mother. Louisa has long been separated from Gennie’s father, Phillip, but in 1948, he makes contact with Gennie, and she decides to live with him. After this, Audre sees Gennie less often. Once, however, Gennie comes to Audre’s apartment with scratches all over her face, and shortly afterward she commits suicide.

After finishing high school, Audre moves out of her parents’ home and begins an affair with a white boy named Peter. She does not enjoy their sexual relationship but sleeps with him because this is the normal thing to do. They break up after a few months, but soon afterward, Audre finds out that she is pregnant and undergoes a traumatic and painful abortion. Though the physical effects last only a few days, the poems she writes for some time afterward are dark and despairing in tone.

Failing in college and eager to escape from New York, Audre moves to Stamford, Connecticut, and takes a job in a factory. There, she begins a relationship with one of the other workers, a woman called Ginger who has already been married and divorced. Even after they begin sleeping together, Audre is uncertain about the nature of her relations with Ginger, who seems to enjoy sex with women but not to see it as any kind of serious commitment.

Audre’s father has a stroke and dies, prompting her to visit her mother, whom she has not seen for a year and a half. Returning to Stamford, she saves as much money as she can, with the intention of moving to Mexico. Within the year, just before her nineteenth birthday, she is on a flight to Mexico City. Audre loves the colorful, vibrant culture of Mexico and the friendliness of the people. However, the only friends she makes are Americans in the expatriate community of Cuernavaca, and she soon begins a relationship with a much older woman, who is an alcoholic. The two of them eventually quarrel, and the other woman, Eudora, leaves Cuernavaca. Shortly after this, Audre leaves Mexico. She returns to New York City and settles in the East Village, where she begins a relationship with a fellow poet named Muriel.

Audre is deeply in love with Muriel, who moves in to her apartment, where they build a home together. The relationship lasts for two years and is by far the most significant in Audre’s life to date. However, Muriel suffers from schizophrenia and has low self-esteem. She feels that, while Audre is making progress in her life, she is achieving nothing. Her long-term unemployment causes friction between them, and she has several affairs in quick succession. The relationship deteriorates along with Muriel’s mental health, and on the day she finally moves out of Audre’s apartment, she burns all her poems.

Audre is devastated by the loss of Muriel and is feeling miserable when, one evening, she runs into Afrekete, a woman she met a couple of years before at a party. The two have a brief and intense relationship. Although Afrekete leaves New York suddenly and without warning, Audre feels that their encounter has made her stronger. She concludes the book by acknowledging all the women she has loved, each of whom has influenced her character and her work as a poet.

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