Audre Lorde – Zami: A New Spelling of My Name

zamiPublished in 1982, Zami is a memoir by Audre Lorde, the black feminist lesbian writer. Lorde died of cancer in 1992, having gained a position of great respect in the 1980s women’s movement for her writing about the overlapping issues of race, gender and sexuality which had formed the context for her own life. As I recall, while the word “intersectionality” wasn’t used back then, these were live issues – there existed a Gay Black Group and a Gay Lesbian Group which met at Gay’s the Word bookshop.

Zami covers the period from Lorde’s birth in 1934, through her childhood in the depression and World War Two, to her life in the mid-fifties. She was raised in Harlem by parents whose own experience of growing up in the Caribbean had not prepared them for the racism they, and their children, would encounter in America. Lorde’s mother carries a supply of pieces of newspaper in her bag to clean her children’s clothes after random strangers spit at them in the street. Audre is never invited to the houses of her white school friends. Visiting Washington DC in the late 40s, the Lorde family are told that they can’t eat in an ice cream parlour alongside white people.

To her experience of racism is added in her teen years Audre’s experience of her sexuality. She has some experience with boys, some of it the result of coercion. She becomes pregnant, and has an illegal abortion. She moves out of her parents’ home, and much of the rest of the book takes place in the bohemian homes and bars of Greenwich Village. Here she hangs out with other lesbians, most of them white, while never really sharing the assumption many of them make that they are all outcasts together, so that race isn’t really an issue. She attempts a non-monogamous relationship with another woman, which lasts for several years.

While she never faces direct police harassment, she makes very clear the oppression involved in living a lesbian life in 1950s New York. She wears jeans and dungarees in her own time, but has to wear a skirt for work. She and her friends hang out in bars, none of which are open very long because of police raids. Her flatmate, a Communist Party member, moves out because she has been denounced inside the party for sharing a flat with a homosexual. Suicide and mental illness are a repeated theme.

Overall this is a splendid book – beautifully written, dealing with issues still relevant today, and in the sections about Greenwich Village revealing a little-known history.

You can buy this book new, but many second-hand copies are available through for under £5, including postage.