Audre Lorde: Revolutionary, Poet-Activist and Self-Professed “Biomythographer”

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is Audre Lorde’s coming of age story, in a sense. It is also a story of her mother, women like her, and the blurring of memory with a poet and activist’s voice. It was published in 1982, but it is so timelessly valuable and relatable.

Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was an exceptionally talented non-fiction and poetry writer born in Harlem, New York. She was also a proud mother, activist, community member, and she was also a librarian! She defined herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” All these identities were inextricable and of the utmost importance to her.

One of the dedications of Zami states, “In the recognition of loving lies an answer to despair,” which says it better than I ever could.

Lorde’s writing is consistently clear and conversational, and in this book at least, defies a neat categorization of genre. She writes so vividly of being a child in Harlem, the blossoming lesbian nightlife scene in NYC, and a powerful examination of what shapes and makes a person. It is a sweeping, unabashedly honest, complicated love letter to all the people who have shaped her, and did I mention it’s so gorgeously written?

She defined Zami as a “biomythography,” as some of the book is autobiographical, but she also draws on fiction and “personal myth.”

Lorde, for a time, doesn’t always fully believe her mother’s claim of the existence of Carriacou, an island in Grenada where Lorde’s mother was from, and she grew up hearing lots of stories of her mother’s coming of age tiny island of Carriacou. She doesn’t find Carriacou on a map until her mid-20’s, so the truth of this island hangs over her head for much of her life.

Much of the book is about her complicated relationship with her mother (and father), and the complexities of being a child of diaspora.

I have always thought it was so interesting when writers transgress this boundary of truth and fiction, and Lorde excels at it. Not only was Zami one of the first books I read where queer women had complex, fulfilling relationships – more importantly it gave me a radical education in the experiences of Black women in America that I was never exposed to before.

Lorde’s writing on her experiences of anti-Black racism is of course, harrowing. There are many moments of segregation, violence, and harassment just because of her existence. This is an important part of Lorde’s becoming and is unfortunately inextricable from her coming of age.

However, Zami is a book of joy and love – it’s full of delicious foods, rich imagery of warm beaches, busy streets, and so many other universal human moments that so many people can relate to.

What I find so special about Lorde’s writing is her ability to cut straight to the heart of showing and dissecting deep-rooted issues of anti-Black racism, homophobia, and other social injustices while simultaneously giving readers the encouragement to fight for a better world. To Lorde, art, activism, love, and true self care are inextricable and necessary to create a more just world.

Lorde’s writing is whip smart, cheeky at times, and truly revolutionary. Many have heard her famous ethos of “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” from her fantastic speech that is titled the very same, which can be found in Sister Outsider or The Selected Works of Audre Lorde.

She was truly a writer that was brave enough to look the injustices of the world directly in the eye, ask us to look too, and not only refuse to accept it, but create art, work, and a life that centers interpersonal and social justice as the greatest act of love.

I also encourage you to check out her poetry – Lorde was a “warrior poet” and her poetry is breathtaking. I adore Zami and revisit it often but check out some of her other work in WPL’s catalogue, too!

There are also two excellent documentaries about her life and work on Kanopy, The Edge of Each Other’s Battles and The Cancer Journals Revisited, which you can watch with your library card!

Photo credit: The Poetry Foundation