Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Susan Petrole)

Susan Petrole
English 985/Dr. Alexis Lothian
Summary #3: Zami by Audre Lorde
How does a black lesbian woman negotiate a cohesive self? In what ways do race, sexual identity, and gender intersect and render a human being who is liberated by the very things that oppress her? Audre Lorde explores these themes in her self described “biomythography” Zami. With viscerally sensuous language and articulate self-reflexivity, Lorde takes readers on a journey through her childhood and early adulthood, demonstrating how she comes to realize her true name. Zami is “a Carricacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers” (Lorde 255). This term is derives from her parents place of origin: the West Indies. Her mother, however, is the emotional center of this memoir, the derivation and impetus for the patterns of connection and exploration that Zami encounters through the central female figures of her identity formation. Taken together, these women foster within Lorde the cohesive self. As Zami, Lorde has recreated “in words the women who helped give me substance” (Lorde 255).
Although Lorde examines numerous facets of her identity formation, including racism (she is spit on for being black (17); the family’s landlord hangs himself because he has to take in black tenants (59); the family is not served in a segregated Washington, D.C. restaurant (70)), what resonates most loudly is the ways that her relationship with her mother and subsequent other female relationships inform her identity formation. This strong identity seems analogous to the identity politics discussed in the Combahee River Collective statement, which states, “the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept” (267). Lorde embodies this very politic as she mines her memory and articulates the scenes that have formed her identity with striking verisimilitude.
For example, in one of numerous scenes describing her complicated relationship with her mother, Lorde states, “I am a reflection of my mother’s secret poetry as well as her hidden angers” (32). This statement harkens back to previous explanations of her mother’s wish to return to her homeland, Grenada, and this longing for home is assimilated into her daughter. Mother and daughter have an antagonistic relationship throughout the text, as Linda seems to want Audre to know the realities of her identity as a black woman; however, sensual moments of connection show the complexity of this relationship. On pp. 33-34, Linda combs Audre’s hair (to her protests and pain): “I remember the warm mother smell caught between her legs, and the intimacy of our physical touching nestled inside of the anxiety/pain like a nutmeg nestled inside its covering of mace…the rhythms of a litany, the rituals of black women combing their daughters’ hair” (33). Further in this scene, Audre climbs into bed with her mother on a Saturuday morning. The descriptions are intensely sensory and sensual: “Feeling the smooth deep firmness of her breasts against my shoulders, my pajama’d back, sometimes, more daringly, against my ears and the sides of my cheeks…Her arm comes down across me, holding me to her for a moment, then quiets my frisking…I nuzzle against her sweetness, pretending not to hear” (34). Here, the connection between mother and daughter is clear, yet Audre struggles to separate at the same time, as is seen in later scenes throughout the text. Always, however, there is a return to the maternal space of comfort and oneness that she later attempts to return to through other lovers.
Lorde frames her identity formation through subsequent relationships with both women and men. Genevieve, her first lover who also kills herself, represents for Lorde both a rebellious separation from her mother as well as an identification with same sex desire, which one could argue is a kind of return to the maternal. She continues to search for her identity through other lovers, notably a young white man named Peter who also gets her pregnant. This incident seems almost insignificant, however, compared to the descriptions of her encounters with female lovers, again showing the instrumental part these females play in Lorde’s constructing a black lesbian identity. Further, we see Audre engage in other lesbian relationships, culminating in Aphrekete, whom she connects with Genevieve: “Afrekete lived not far from Genevieve’s grandmother’s house. Sometimes she reminded me of Ella, Gennie’s stepmother, who shuffled about with an apron on and a broom outside the room where Gennie and I lay on the studio couch” (251). By merging these various lovers and women, Lorde claims herself as Zami. In the epilogue, she states, “The casing of this place had been my home for seven years, the amount of time it takes for the human body to completely renew itself, cell by living cell. And in those years my life had become increasingly a bridge and a field of women. Zami” (255). The message here is one of empowerment, a claiming of an authentic lesbian black self that extends beyond those very categories. The message is ultimately redemptive and hopeful.
Discussion Questions:
1. How do our discussions of queer theory reveal themselves in the text? More specifically, how can queer time, queer space, and queer anger be applied to Lorde’s text?
2. In the prologue, Lorde discusses how she wants “to be both a man and a woman” (7). In what ways does this duality reveal itself in the text?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *