Recently I read Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. A Biomythography by Audre Lorde. I recommend it, it’s a great read.
Zami is a “Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers” (Audre Lorde, Zami, p. 255). Carriacou is a Caribbean island from which Lorde’s parents emigrated to New York. It’s important for Lorde’s identity.
The “biomythography” is about how Audre Lorde grows into herself as a black lesbian woman. It celebrates the bonds between woman, between grandmothers, mothers and daughters. Between the women that came before her and shaped her, and her own shaping of herself. I think “mythography” refers to a recognition of the sacred in relationships between lovers. Lorde tells us about a number of women she loved during different times of her life and the way each love shaped her (and also her lover). The last relationship in the book is one with a woman who calls herself “Kitty” but also “Afrekete”, who seems like a goddess. This is the love that brings sacred, life-affirming love to its fulfilment (in contrast to the earlier relationships, which always failed due to some issue on either Lorde’s or the lover’s part). Although the relationship doesn’t last very long, as one day Kitty alias Afrekete disappears to return to her daughter, whom she had left to be brought up by her grandmother in the American South. Lorde never meets her again, but she remains in her memory.
I don’t know if this sort celebration of lesbian love has been done before. It is absolutely affirming (and can, I believe, be true for any kind of love, but since lesbian love has historically been devalued, the affirmation is especially important).
The mythical parts of the biomythography are mostly addressed at the beginning and the end and only sometimes touched on in the main part of the book. The book covers Lorde’s life from her childhood to her young adulthood. She grew up in New York with her parents and two older sisters. The family, and Lorde herself, experienced racism, but her parents tried to hide it from them which only worked when Lorde was younger. Lorde had a contentious relationship with her parents, especially her mother, and moved out when she was 17. Soon afterwards, she had a painful and dangerous illegal abortion (she could not afford to keep a baby and her lover left her). She worked a lot of jobs, some of them under awful conditions, but she also found her first women lovers. She saved up and moved for a few years to Mexico, where she experienced being accepted and valued by society as a black woman for the first time. All her experiences are presented through Lorde’s relationships with her friends, her family and later her lovers. She also reflects on the effects her experiences had on herself and how her actions were interpreted by the people she interacted with. There are also a lot of details about how life was like from the 1930s to the 1960s, first focusing on her childhood, later on her experiences as a lesbian, always also centered on her being a black girl and woman and what that meant.
The mythical parts of the biomythography are mostly addressed at the beginning and the end and only sometimes touched on in the main part of the book. Lorde had an interesting life, and I enjoyed reading about it. It was very moving in places and powerful. Sometimes funny, also shocking – all that racism. I though she was very courageous. Very independent. I wasn’t half as independent and would have been too scared to move out at 17 (but I didn’t have much conflict with my parents as a teenager, so didn’t need to assert myself in that way). I also wouldn’t have dared to move to another country by myself without much money and not knowing anybody there. I did spend a semester at a university in the UK, but that was all nicely organized and paid for by a scholarship. I also had a lot of jobs to finance my university years (except for that one scholarship and some state loans which I later paid back), so I emphasized with Lorde about that. My jobs weren’t dangerous to my health, though, and I didn’t have to deal with racism. I liked how she cheated the system at one of the horrid jobs.
I was surprised by the ending, because Lorde didn’t include her later life after the early 1960s. I didn’t know that she spent many years in Berlin for instance (found it out via Wikipedia). I did know that she’s an important feminist as well as poet. I would have enjoyed reading about these aspects of her life too. I’m planning to check out her poetry and maybe some of her other work, but not sure when I’ll get around to it.
Keep safe, world.