When I picked up Audre Lorde’s “biomythography”, I believed that what I would be reading would be a “coming out” narrative. My previous experience with excerpts from the book, which is roundly canonized in black radical women’s circles, had to do with the notion of “Zami.” I had understood that this was a West Indian patois for “friend” used particularly between women, and that it had “queer” connotations. I wasn’t sure if I believed that this ancestral queerness existed, but I was very eager to read the book by the woman whose biography, Warrior Poet, I loved. What I found upon reading Zami is that it is not so much a “coming out” narrative as it is a “coming in” one. Lorde comes into a consciousness of her true self via all of her experiences with women, some of whom she sleeps with, all of whom she loves.
Lorde begins the novel by tracing her ancestral lineage back to the island of Carriacaou, a place she only found on a map twice, and a place from which the custom of “friending” or “Zami” originates. Her evocative descriptions of the smells and scenes of the place from which both her parents come are intoxicating. In fact, Lorde observes that her parents never truly gave up the notion of returning “home.” She writes, “For if we lived correctly and with frugality, looked both ways before crossing the street, then someday we would arrive back in the sweet place, back home” (13). For me, this was reminiscent of African American folktales like, The People Could Fly,
that imagines slaves, upon hearing some ancient forgotten call, suddenly taking off and returning to Africa. The home Lorde was raised in was in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, and though not impoverished did suffer from a dearth of affection. Her mother ran the house with West Indian expediency and no time for “Jacabat” foolishness. Despite her mother’s no nonsense personality and reliance on corporal punishment, in the section titled “How I Became a Poet”, Lorde credits her mother’s incredible poetic language as the genesis of her own muse. Lorde also gives ample credit to the culture of storytelling in her home, particularly between her two sisters whose favorite nighttime ritual was to tell each other epic tales featuring characters of their own making. Notably, the characters were transgressive girls who wore boys clothing or boys with the last name “Vaginius” (46).
For Lorde, race was an ever present and interconnected part of her experience. She noticed her mother could have passed for white and recounts a story where her mother did not dispute an employer’s belief that she was “Spanish” and was only found out when her darker skinned husband came to her workplace. Lorde also pulls no punches when describing the racist nuns and priests she encountered in her matriculation through New York’s catholic schools. One particularly poignant incident occurs when her family is refused service at an ice cream counter in Washington, DC. Remembering this brush with racism in the most ironic of places, Lorde writes, “The waitress was white and the counter was white, and the ice cream I never ate in Washington, DC that summer I never left childhood was white, and the white heat and the white pavement and the white stone monuments of my first Washington summer made me sick to my stomach for the whole rest of that trip and it wasn’t much of a graduation trip at all” (71). Lorde’s tale is largely focused on the exploration of what it means to be female, lesbian, and a first generation black American, raised by immigrant parents. Her relationship with her mother grows progressively more strained and finally breaks around the time that her first love, Gennie, commits suicide. For Lorde, though, none of this is linear or simple and the times when the prose is its most engaging is when she is exploring her complex relationship with her mother. An example of this is Lorde’s recounting of the day she got her period. Lorde treads on taboo when she writes of how, whenever she remembered how she smelled that day, “Years after”, she fantasized about her and her mother “touching and caressing each other’s most secret places” (78).
Luckily, for Lorde, her queerness did not make her an island, and she was able to find community among a group of girls at Hunter High School who called themselves “The Branded.” Coalescing around, queerness, ethnicity, poetry and communist politics, the Branded provided Lorde with a place to stay when she left home and refuge after she had an illegal abortion that thankfully did not leave her permanently injured or worse. By 1952 Lorde was an emancipated girl cum woman who lived alone and had not yet made love to another woman. Outside of the physical act, though, all of her signature relationships were with women. I must say that her most extraordinary relationship, however, was the one she had with herself. Lorde explored her politics fully, moving to Mexico for a time. She also went to college, obtained the equivalent of a Master’s in Library Science, and experienced what it was like to be a leader in expatriate communities, leftist political communities and Lesbian communities. She queried monogamy, exploring an open relationship with her first live in lover, and she even did her time in the proletariat, working in an assembly line at a plant in Stamford, Connecticut.
Lorde’s life brings to bear several issues we have been exploring in Dr. Lothian’s Queer Theory course. Here are just a few:
1. Lorde writes, “For them, being gay was ‘bourgeoisie and reactionary”. A reason for suspicion and shunning. Besides, it made you more susceptible to the FBI” (149). We have been reading about a reticence to connect queer liberation to all freedom struggles. Were the 1950’s different? The same?
2. Lorde writes, “I was in Mexico and I stopped feeling invisible” (173). What do you think Lorde means? Is this a racial invisibility? A sexual invisibility? Both?
3. Lorde writes, “And in that moment as in the first night when I held her, I felt myself pass beyond childhood, a woman connecting with other women in an intricate complex, and ever widening network of exchanging strengths” (175). This quote seems to nod toward the intersectionality that is called for by queer theorists, doesn’t it?
4. Lorde writes, “I remember how being young and black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth, the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell” (176). Does this isolation Lorde speaks of speak to our class conversation about political alliance and whether or not it is necessary?
5. Lorde addresses race in Lesbian circles over and over again. At one point she writes facetiously, “after all, gay people weren’t racist” (180), but on at least two other occasions, she concedes that “So far as I could see, gay girls were the only black and white women talking to each other” (225). What does it mean to say that part of the reason these women were able to overstep race was because they were not sleeping with men?
Thanks for giving such detailed questions on Lorde, Treasure! I am glad that the class gave you an opportunity to engage with Zami first hand rather than via reputation.