Zami: A New Spelling of My Name Themes

The main themes in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name are love between women, racism in America, and conflict with family.

  • Love between women: Lorde explores her diverse relationships with a variety of women, each of whom leaves an indelible imprint on her life.
  • Racism in America: Despite her parents’ attempts to shield her from it, Lorde is forced to contend with the realities of racism in school, work, and her personal life.
  • Conflict with family: Lorde feels isolated within her family and clashes with her mother, while many of the women she meets experience even greater family conflict.

Themes

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Last Updated on December 15, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1109

Love Between Women

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Audre Lorde describes one brief sexual relationship with a man, which led to one of the most painful experiences of her life, an abortion that caused severe short-term illness and long-term mental anguish. Aside from Peter, the father of the child, and Byron, Audre’s own father, the only men in the book are sinister, abusive figures: Father Brady, the Catholic priest, and the unnamed comic book storekeeper, both of whom molest children; and Phillip Thompson, who scratches his daughter’s face and drives her to suicide. Love, kindness, generosity, excitement, and pleasure are described exclusively as taking place between women and other women.

At the beginning of the book, Lorde’s mother, Linda, is placed in the foreground. Byron is described in relation to her, as a good husband and therefore a good man, a reversal of the convention that defines women solely by their wifely role. Although she felt compelled to escape from Linda’s overbearing personality, the author returns to her mother and her dreams of Carriacou in the epilogue, ending the book with the sentence:

There it is said that the desire to lie with other women is a drive from the mother’s blood.

Though Linda’s influence may have been a factor in the author’s sexual orientation, her parents’ relationship provided her with no model to imitate. This is a point that is repeatedly made about love between women: insofar as it follows any patterns at all, these patterns are still being created and refined. There are bisexual women who regard lesbian love as an enjoyable diversion from the real business of marriage and family. There are women who try to follow the patterns of heterosexual marriage with other women. There are open relationships, triangular relationships, and various other forms of experimentation.

By the end of the book, the author has been profoundly affected by the failure of her longest relationship, which was initially monogamous but changed to allow the participation of others. After this, she is comforted and invigorated by her brief, intense affair with Afrekete, which is closer in type to the series of short-term relationships she had before meeting Muriel. However, she does not suggest that her relations with Afrekete will be a pattern for the future. Instead, she celebrates the diversity of all the women she has loved, and the ways in which she has loved them, in helping to create the person she has become.

Racism in America

The author says that she was largely unaware of racism in early childhood, partly because she was so isolated and partly because both her parents tried hard to shield their children from racist abuse, largely by pretending that it did not exist. It did not occur to Lorde to doubt her mother’s assertion that low-class people spit randomly into the wind and that some of the spittle landed on her by accident. This meant that when she did encounter overt racism that could not be mistaken for anything else, the effect was even more shocking. This is most vividly illustrated in the family trip to Washington, D.C., in chapter 10.

The fact that the dining car is not open to Black people can be covered up by preparing a feast for the children to eat in the carriage. However, the author then reveals that the whole trip was arranged because Phyllis could not go to Washington with her graduating class, since the hotel where they were staying did not rent rooms to Black people. Byron and Linda dealt with this privately and tactfully as well, vowing that they would arrange a better trip for their children than the school outing. Finally, however, there is an indignity they cannot altogether ignore: being refused service at Breyer’s ice cream parlor.

This experience of racism sickened the author and made her feel alienated from her own country. She noticed how many of the buildings and monuments in Washington were white, like the vanilla ice cream, the marble counter of the ice cream parlor, and the waitress who refused to serve them. Many of Lorde’s later relationships were with white women who thought that lesbians were excluded from mainstream society in the same way as Black people. Her childhood experiences of segregation, and the racial discrimination she continued to experience throughout her life, made it clear to her that they were wrong, creating yet another barrier to understanding in interracial relationships.

Conflict with Family

Throughout the first part of the book, while the author still lives with her parents, her relations with her family are in constant conflict with almost everything else that matters to her. The first time she attempts to make a friend in the street outside her house, Linda hurries her away, and she never sees the girl again. When she falls in love with Gennie, her parents disapprove and discourage her from visiting the apartment. Even the simple desire for privacy to work and reflect is constantly thwarted. As soon as Audre has her own room, Linda objects to her closing the door. She is never alone except in the bathroom, and even there, not for too long.

Audre’s family deprives her of solitude without giving her company. Her elder sisters regard her as a nuisance. Linda is angered by her stubbornness. Byron scarcely talks to her at all. Inevitably, her own experiences cloud her views of families in general, and her dim view of them is soon confirmed. Gennie’s mother is quite unlike her own, being pretty, young, and progressive. Gennie, however, does not want to live with her and threatens to kill herself if she cannot go to stay with her father, a bitter, sinister man. From the scratches on her face when she comes in desperation to see Audre, it appears that Gennie’s father abuses her, but she still refuses to return to her mother, preferring to take rat poison rather than live with either of her parents. Family conflict can be deadly.

In adulthood, when she spends more time with other lesbians, Audre discovers a wide range of conflict in their family backgrounds. Some are estranged from their parents, while others are compelled to lead a double life in the attempt to avoid open hostility. Typically, Audre herself falls somewhere in between, barely contacting her mother, but meeting her in the neutral territory of her sister’s house on Christmas Day. Finally, she comes to realize that her mother is the first of the many women she has loved, and conflict with her was a part of that love, which has shaped her character and writing.

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