Zami, Audre Lorde
// review by Claudia Wilson //
I was at a friend’s house a few months ago browsing his bookshelf waiting for him to finish cooking food for our bi-monthly writing workshop called “The Writing Brunch” -- yeah, we real basic out here... -- this friend has a plethora of good books: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, and a collection of essays by James Baldwin -- classics. I tell myself that I don’t have time to read and I don’t. I work a lot and I’m usually so tired when I get home from work that all I want to do is eat and sleep, but I try cause I still love to read even when I’m not reading and I’m constantly licking my lips when I see a good book, salivating at the thought of new insights and possibilities. Maybe I was trying to cop a feel for the energy that the books on his shelf possessed rather than read their actual words -- philosophized by yet another book-gathering friend, who once told me that sometimes we just need to feel the energy of books. I kept perusing, touching each book’s spine as if through osmosis I could render its wisdom and knowledge through my fingerprint into my brain -- not really thinking that I’d actually settle on choosing anything until I did. It turned out to be a thick book, almost Game of Thrones-ish thick -- I once tried to read GoT, but I got distracted by another book, my life, right? I read the title with my head at a tilt and I spelled the name to myself before I said it out loud: Z-A-M-I by Audre Lorde.
Knowing what I know, I think Audre Lorde is a beast! Her birthday was on February 18th and she’s the patron saint of same-gender loving black women. She’s the truth-teller for all things righteously lesbian, black, anti-oppressive, and poetic. I know this because I read Sister Outsider and it shook off all the nonsense I had of not loving myself and of living indifferently in a world that mostly despises blackness except for when it’s exploitable. So, after picking up the book I realized that I had tried to read Zami before about a year ago, but it didn’t work out then, mainly because I wasn’t ready. Then, I couldn’t reconcile the sage/essayist/activist that Audre Lorde is and was, with the seemingly coming of age Audre Lorde. Where did I get this idea? I was set in my ways and had a fixed mindset of what Audre was and could be (ahem, we’re on a first name basis).
Yes, I do tend to call on Audre Lorde from time to time...when a white woman touches my hair, when a white colleague over steps. When I’m sexually harassed. I say “my silence will not protect me.” When a system I’m engaged in f*cks up. I say, “the master’s tools will never destroy the master’s house.” I be throwing out activist Lorde quotes like scripture because all of the time it is holy. It does what it was meant to do, which is shame the devil, bring truth to oppressed people and places: sets captives free. Activist, feminist, black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet, Audre Lorde slays! But ironically, I wavered… I didn’t make room in my heart for all of her dimensions. I thought to myself what if there are no powerful one-liners, no tongue lashings for folks who oppress others, what if it’s ordinary and like re.gu.lar? I reconciled all this by telling myself that I needed to try. I need to give the book a chance, and since Sister Outsider did not disappoint, I could have faith that Zami wouldn’t either. And after reading, I am quite pleased to tell you that there was SO much for me in this book! So much that is vital. I look back at my time in my friends house, at first glance, and remember my doubt as if I was a backsliding disciple.
The Prologue of Zami reads:
I have always wanted to be both man and woman
And I’m like what!!?? I read these lines and I feel so understood. Lorde continues, “I would like to enter a woman the way any man can and to be entered -- to leave and be left…” Who knew Audre Lorde felt gender in this way? My kinship to her is deepened and my own internal self is at peace, and this is just the beginning of the book!
Audre Lorde was born in New York, to immigrant parents born in Grenada (her mother) & Barbados (her father). Most of Zami takes place in Harlem and New Mexico. The first few chapters centers her relationship with her family: in fact, her relationship with her mother is the seed from which her story grows. These chapters were particularly reflective and meditative.
To whom do I owe the symbols of my survival?
Lorde asks herself this question which compels the reader to ask themselves the very same thing. Our answers are obviously different, but it’s the question itself that is stirring, especially during these times of anti-immigrant policies that have lead to the devastation of families along with the horrific news of the deaths of black lesbians -- not new. The question invokes a deep appreciation for survival and the means by which we stay surviving.
Audre Lorde has called this book a biomythography because it integrates biography, history, and myth. Merging the genres contributes to the book’s fluidity which creates a black, lesbian odyssey that readers will travel through from girlhood to the rich relationships that Audre Lorde has with women.
Landmark: "When I visited Grenada I saw the root of my mother’s powers walking through the streets. I thought this is the country of my forefathers, my forbearing mothers, those black island women who defined themselves by what they did…"
Landmark: "As a child, I always knew my mother was different from the other women... I use to think it was because she was my mother. But different how? I was never quite sure…but that is why to this day I believe that there have always been Black dykes around in the sense of powerful and women-oriented women who would rather have died than use that name for themselves…"
These scenes provide the foundation for the lessons that Audre Lorde receives. Some with devastation and anguish, yet others with great joy and promise. Myths have been defined as traditional stories about gods and heroes -- in this story the heroes are human, the mother gods are flawed and daring. Each experience Lorde goes through is the equivalent of a Herculean act of strength intertwined with pain and tenderness. This, I believe, built Lorde’s framework for working with women and loving women. I read this book religiously, finding in it jewels and treasures and affirmations that connect me with other queer women of color who are on their own journeys of acknowledging themselves.
Landmark: "Every women I have ever loved has left her print upon me, where I loved some invaluable piece of myself apart from me -- so different that I had to stretch and grow in order to recognize her. And in that growing, we came to separation, that place where work begins."
Destination: may the work continue.