Words by Alex Newell
Audre Lorde is self-described as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” and her writing powerfully reflects the intersections of her own identity.
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name chronicles Lorde’s evolution from child to adult, heteronormative to queer, and from new partners to familiar heartbreak.
Lorde masterfully invites you into her world and you grow with her on a journey which is immensely personal. It starts inside the mind of a toddler-aged Audre, shut out by her sisters and parents in a strict household where corporal punishment is rife. Racism was never spoken about in the Lorde house, but its rhetorical absence did not prevent its practical permeation. This is crystal clear in the following passage:
It was not until years later once in conversation I said to her: “Have you noticed people don’t spit into the wind so much the way they used to?” And the look on my mother’s face told me that I had blundered into one of those secret places of pain that must never be spoken of again. But it was so typical of my mother when I was young that if she couldn’t stop white people from spitting on her children because they were Black, she would insist it was something else. It was so often her approach to the world: to change reality.
Again, the reader learns about the racism Lorde faces as she continues her journey and forges relationships with (mostly white) women. They — all too often — view their gayness as a vehicle of homogenous communion. The nuances of black lesbianism are white-washed by Lorde’s white girl friends and partners.
Her descriptive passages, particularly on loving women, are some of the best pieces of writing I’ve come across in recent years. There’s one part where Lorde describes a loss of love which especially resonates:
The heartbreak of holding on seemed preferable to the heartbreak of ever having to try again, of ever again attempting to connect with another human being. All the pains in my life that I had lived and never felt flew around my head like grey bats; they pecked at my eyes and built nests in my throat and under the centre of my breastbone.
When I finished Zami, I was filled with a visceral sadness. Sadness that Audre Lorde is no longer with us, sadness that her story looks so radically different to how it could be today. There are some parallels that can be drawn with the queer world now but the weight of racism, homophobia and misogyny is so heavy that Audre’s life story is defined by the limitations imposed on her. Her activism and intersectional queer theory, although not explored explicitly in this book, are beacons of hope in the here and now. Lorde’s works have been directly impactful in improving the lives of others gay and/or black alike. Her story reminds us that progress has been made but that we must not be complacent.