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Zami: A New Spelling of My Name

Audre Lorde’s biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name relates this iconic writer’s personal, poetic, political and sexual coming-of-age. Lorde was a self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and this recording of her early life is a powerful piece of writing. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in the lived experiences of intersectional marginalisation, as told by one of the most strident and talented voices to talk about these realities.

Growing up with extremely strict parents in New York City, Lorde’s childhood seems to be a constant clash of wills with her iron-willed mother. Her father from Barbados and her mother from the Grenadian island of Carriacou, her parents came to the US in their early twenties. Lorde and her two elder sisters are raised in an extremely strict family setting, as the hardworking parents struggle to make ends meet and ensure a better life for their daughters, all the while grappling with extreme inequality and structural racism in the country they have made their home.

From her descriptions of her earliest self (near-blind and always in trouble), the refusal to take injustice lying down that was characteristic of Lorde’s later self is discernible. And she confronts so many injustices, from the small needles of not being made class president despite having top marks, to the crushing indignity of her family’s being refused service at an ice-cream parlour on a holiday to Washington DC because they are Black.

As Lorde matures, she cultivates friendships with women, many of them rebellious, many who feel like outsiders. She experiences the heart-wrenching loss of her closest friend, finally leaves her parent’s home and is just about making out for herself, working hard for a pittance, when she falls pregnant. Her experiences of getting an abortion as a Black woman without means in the 50s in the US are harrowing.

The book follows Lorde’s sexual awakening, intimated from early on in the sensuality of her prose around women and the relationships between their bodies. She tells of her early love affairs, full of passionate intensity, as those of a passionate young poet might be, though always with a clear-sighted view on the political ramifications and dangers that underlie being not just Black and a woman in this world, but also a lesbian.

Zami is a critical portrayal of the United States in the 1950s: of McCarthyism, of the trial of the Rosenbergs, of the homophobia inherent in the ‘progressive’ leftist scene and the commonplace but unacknowledged racism in the lesbian scene. Literally and figuratively sunnier moments are brought into play when Lorde takes a much yearned-for trip to Mexico, where she falls in love with a sensuous way of living and an older woman. But her story brings her back to New York City and further stories of heartbreak. As dark as so many of the stories she relates are – also of struggles with mental health and emotional betrayals – Lorde’s narration is always grounded and forthright, never feeling sorry for itself and always somehow resolute. The writing is the writing of the poet she is, and absolutely beautiful in moments. It was a slow read for me, perhaps because it seemed a life so filled with adversity and sadness that I had to muster courage to sit down to it – but that’s all the more reason I recommend it. If you haven’t read this classic already, it belongs on your list.

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