Reflections on Audre Lorde’s ‘Zami, A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography’

By Rachel Leong 

In light of the Black Lives Matter Movement, and other thoughts that have recently come to surface for our wider society, I’ve been compelled to the idea that we all need to take the initiative to educate ourselves further in order to create a better world. I chanced upon Audre Lorde’s ‘Zami, A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography at a bookshop. First published in 1982, it chronicles Lorde’s life from childhood to early adulthood. She grapples with race, gender, and sexuality – themes of intersectionality that resonate with readers even more today.

The self-proclaimed “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, Audre Lorde, dedicated her literary career to establishing her multi-faceted identity in the literary world. She is a keystone figure in tackling women’s social, political, sexual, cultural and artistic terrain. A Civil Rights activist, she succeeds in embodying intersectionality and acknowledging it – in such a way that wasn’t done before.  

Lorde was a strong advocate for the erotic as power; she encourages women to celebrate their sexuality. In her essay, ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’, she draws to the point that “we have turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with the opposite, the pornographic”. She argues that by allowing ourselves to live within ourselves, acknowledging our internal needs, we are responsible for ourselves in the deepest sense. Being empowered from within is crucial to being empowered in your external world. Celebrating the erotic is a particularly radical intervention at her time of writing, given the historical demonization of black sexuality, which makes Lorde all the more important.

‘Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, a Biomythography’ is, in essence, a celebration of all the women in her life to whom she owes her power and strength. Notably, we also follow her as she discovers her own sexuality. Critics have noted it to be her reflections of reconciliation with her mother, or a desire for maternal intimacy that she felt she never achieved. A child to Black West Indian parents, she grows up in 1930s Harlem. She has to deal with disability, poverty, and race, which her mother tries to shield her from. If being in touch with your body and your inner sensuality is important to Lorde, she certainly celebrates this in her autobiography packed with sensory imagery and records of scent and touch, a beautiful ode to her belief in getting to know one’s inner self.  

She touches early on about how a strong black woman at the time cannot be seen as anything other than disabled or a “freak”: in the book she describes her mother as a powerful woman, but “this was so in a time when that word-combination of woman and powerful was almost inexpressible in the white American common tongue, except or unless it was accompanied by some aberrant explaining adjective like blind, or hunchback, or crazy, or Black”. Throughout her novel she comes to terms with what it means to be a powerful woman, may that be regardless of race and class.

Lorde notably creates an entirely new genre of life writing: a Biomythography. ‘Bio’ presumably meaning ‘body’, while ‘mythography’ implies a story or a myth. Her infusion of myth and memory alongside the body gives us the trope of inner sensuality. By creating a new genre for herself, it allows her the space to explore a multi-faceted identity and intersectionality. Through this she uses unconventional literary methods, combining poetry with prose and emotion with social justice.

Powerful, unapologetic, and honest, this book is Lorde’s creation of space in a world that refuses to see her. A fantastic read that rings true to this day, Lorde uses her writing as a weapon against her oppression.

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