Audre Lorde’s Autobiography Offers Tales of the Women Who Shaped Her

Audre Lorde's book "Zami: A New Spelling of my Name" sits on a table lit with fairy lights and a candle.
Photo by Ella Abbott.
Title: Zami: A New Spelling of My Name
Author: Audre Lorde
Genre: Autobiography
Rating: 8/10

The late Audre Lorde is a well-known figure in both the queer community and the black community. She was known chiefly as a feminist, civil rights activist and poet. Her book Zami describes her journey of self-discovery and acceptance not only of her queerness, but also of her blackness.

As a white person I don’t feel qualified to critique the latter element of the book because I have no experience being a person of color. Of course, I can’t ignore it, since the author is a person of color and the book deals heavily with themes of racism and growing up as a black girl, so forgive me for being sparse with my comments on those issues. However, as a woman who has grown up around a strong community of women and has nothing but admiration and love for them, I do feel qualified to speak about the rest.

Zami details Lorde’s life as told by herself, starting from when she is a little girl living with her parents and two sisters in Harlem during the 1930s and 1940s. As I suspect is the case with most people’s lives, the events of the book center around Lorde’s different relationships with her family, friends and lovers as she grows up and begins to explore different aspects of her identity. The thing I loved most about this book was seeing how each relationship Lorde went through helped her grow, even if the relationship itself was a failure, such as with her high school friends who more than once took advantage of Lorde’s kindness or Bea, whose heart Lorde ends up breaking.

Reading the life story and intimate experiences of a woman I have grown to admire was something I enjoyed about this book.  

I wouldn’t say there’s a definite climax of the story, like there are with fiction pieces, but there are many smaller peaks of action relating to different people Audre interacts with. Consequently, it feels like events are sometimes at a lull or they happen out of nowhere, but since it’s an autobiography and life doesn’t happen in the same way a fiction story does, I can’t fault it for this.

Since most events happened before I was born, I found some passages confusing and had to look up dates, places or events to better understand the context. For example I needed to find out who Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave who was the first casualty of the Revolutionary War, was because I’d never heard of him.

Anyone struggling to find their place in the queer community, especially women and especially fans of Audre Lorde, should read this book. Although reading it may not inherently help you find out where you belong, but it shows how even the most accomplished members of the queer community had to go through a lot to feel comfortable with themselves.

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