Words by Saskia May, Books Editor
Published as a ‘biomythography’, Zami (1982) is Audre Lorde’s only novel. Loosely based on her childhood in New York in the 1930s and 40s, and her experiences as a Black lesbian in America in the 1950s, this is a book that seamlessly combines myth, biography, and history, to tell a tale like no other. Whilst Lorde, self-described as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet” is better known as a poet, activist, and essayist as opposed to a prose writer, with prose so beautiful and expressive, it is hard not to fall in love with this novel.
‘I was gay and Black’, Lorde writes in Zami, a novel which is, above all else, an ode to intersectionality. The term intersectionality was coined by professor Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, in her legal article, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’. For Crenshaw, intersectionality is about how multiple identities – race, sex, gender, class, disability, sexual orientations – overlap – in addition to the ways these identities relate to systems of privilege and oppression. Black women, such as Lorde, often ‘experience double-discrimination, the combined effects of practices which discriminate on the basis of race, and on the basis of sex’. ‘The intersectional experience’, Crenshaw argues, ‘is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, and any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.’
Recalling how impossible it is ‘to be liked, to be loved, to be approved’, when as a ‘black fat girl, born almost blind and ambidextrous, gay’, Lorde notes that ‘the question of acceptance held a different weight for me’. Lorde is astute in capturing her experience as a Black, queer woman, ‘If nobody’s going to dig you too tough anyway, it really doesn’t matter so much what you dare to explore’. Articulating the intersections she exists between, Lorde writes, ‘when the Black sisters on the job think you’re crazy and collect money between themselves to buy you a hot comb’, when ‘your Black brother calls you a ball buster… want to break you open to see what works inside’, and the ‘white girls look at you like some exotic morsel’ and ‘the white boys all talk either revolution or money’. With a fellow Black, lesbian friend, Lorde recognises that they shared ‘both a battle and a strength that was unavailable to our other friends’.
From friendships, self-introspection, and falling in and out of love, Zami’s depiction of the struggles of heartache, poverty, and academic pressure, are nothing short of brilliant. Growing up in 1930s Harlem with poor eyesight, which greatly affected her ability to read and learn, Lorde articulates how it feels to be left behind, to be looking in, ‘my heart ached and ached for something I could not name’. We feel Lorde’s loneliness when she trudges the streets of New York City, heartbroken one New Year’s Eve. We mourn her losses, her struggle to be accepted at school, despite being ‘the smartest girl in class’. ‘American racism, a new and crushing reality’ is one that Lorde endures even when she does not always recognise it, such as when, as a young child, she is barred from eating ice-cream at a parlour with her family, or when she asks her family to eat in the dining car but her mother tells her that it is too expensive, not that it was illegal for Black people to eat in dining cars in trains heading South in 1947. ‘Since the only place I couldn’t see clearly was behind my own eyes’, Lorde writes, ‘obviously the trouble was with me. I had no words for racism’.
Zami is not just a tragedy though, for whilst there is much grief and despair, there is also much to celebrate. When Lorde travels to Mexico City on a journey of intense self-discovery, she is enraptured by its beauty, ‘filled with the excitement of curiosity’, we cannot help but see her poetic love for vitality, for light and ‘dazzling colour’. Embarking on her first sexual, lesbian relationship, Lorde’s rush of young love makes for wonderful reading, ‘coming home to a joy I was meant for’, ‘I wondered, silently, how I had not always known it would be so’. The depiction of sex in Zami is pure art, for it is erotic, immersive, and deeply sensual. Lorde makes us feel her pleasure and satisfaction, ‘my mouth finally against hers, quick breathed, fragrant, searching, her hand entwined with my hair’.
Evocative, exquisite use of imagery flows throughout Zami. Writing in the first chapter how her mother ‘knew green things were precious, and the peaceful, healing qualities of water’, Lorde’s novel is an homage to the beauty and captivating magic found in the everyday. From drinking foamy café con leche at an open air café in Mexico City, to the ‘brilliant jacaranda trees dripping their flowers over the walls’, Lorde is exact and tantalising in depicting her scenes. Yet Lorde’s writing truly shines through when it comes to metaphors. Take for example, when the young Lorde first starts her period, ‘I had become a woman…I realised with a shock of pleasure and surprise that I was almost as tall as my mother’. Whilst left alone in the kitchen, away from the eyes of her ever-present mother, Lorde crushes garlic, onion leaves and celery with a pestle and mortar, the grinding of the herbs awakening her to her own sexuality, ‘in my mother’s kitchen there was only one right way to do anything. Perhaps my life had not become simple, after all’. Lorde’s complex and ambivalent relationship with her mother is returned to throughout the book, a relationship which continues to perplex both Lorde and her readers. It is only when Lorde begins to fully see her mothers pain, her blindness and her strength, that she begins to see her as separate from herself, and to feel freedom in acknowledging that.
A rapturous love letter to female relationships, for ‘every woman I have ever loved has left her print on me’, Lorde consistently touches upon facets of vulnerability, grief, and desire in her prose. By exploring universal issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality through a deeply personal, intimate lens, Zami continues to be a powerful and enduring read, for we are still yet to fully learn and consider what intersectionality means. As Crenshaw notes, there is all too often a ‘tendency to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive categories of experience and analysis’.