Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
The Queer Syllabus is a joint project from The Rumpus and Foglifter Press that allows writers to nominate works for a new canon of queer literature. When we identify our roots, when we point to the work that shaped us as writers and as people, we demonstrate that our stories are timeless, essential, and important—and so are we. The Queer Syllabus is edited by Wesley O. Cohen and Marisa Siegel.
“To whom do I owe the symbols of my survival?” writes Lorde at the opening of Zami, her beautiful and epic “biomythography,” a genre she describes as a blend of history, myth, and biography. The book is Lorde’s intimate and evocative account of her life, from vivid memories of her childhood in 1940s Harlem to reflections on her relationships with the women she loved. From the desperately lonely child biting her palms to stay awake so she can listen to the stories her older sisters tell each other at night, to an out Black lesbian in 1950s New York, Lorde knew early that survival meant creating her own space in a world that refused to make it for her. Zami is “a Carriacou word for women who work together as friends and lovers,” and that’s exactly what Lorde does with the women she finds, together learning to uncover the autonomy and self-love necessary for survival.
I read this book religiously, poring over it like I would a sacred script. It almost reads like one, too—Lorde’s writing is so sage-like and refined it nearly belies the surging emotion beneath. With beautiful, imaginative prose that nods to her poet’s brain, Lorde renders her life and sexuality with unshakable honesty, vulnerability, and sincerity. I quickly fell in love with her and her view of the world, my heart breaking when hers did but always getting put back together in a better way than before.
Although the meaning and nature of my survival is much different than Lorde’s, I still was compelled to consider the question she poses to herself at the beginning of Zami: To whom do I owe the symbols of my survival? I owe mine undoubtedly to writers like Audre Lorde, who bring their truth outward and tell their stories unapologetically, who make queerness and otherness into something that empowers and unites rather than something that weakens and divides, who speak to those reaching for a place in the world and make them feel a little less alone.