This review of Zami is the first in our series of investigating classic queer literature, forming an OutWrite Archive of novels, poetry, and memoir that our staff believes everyone should read.
In the acknowledgements, Audre Lorde tells the reader the structure of Zami. She says, “From the bottom of my heart I thank each woman who shared any piece of the dream/myths/histories that give this book shape.” Lorde does not just mean the content of her book is about women, but the actual transitions of her narrative can be traced to the women in her life. This gives the women in the narration a central significance. By linking the narrative with the women in her life, Lorde creates a mythology of women that reflected back to her identity. In shaping the “dream/myths/histories,” Lorde uses the idea of magic to tie the content of her imagination with the reality of her life. The idea of magic in the book shows the power of fantasy in protecting her identity from the hostile socio-political ideologies of her time.
The ability of Lorde’s desires to call upon women are first manifested as a child. Lorde harbored desires for a girlfriend when she was left alone outside by her mother. A little girl appears in front of her. Audre reacts to the appearance of the girl as if she had come from her dream: “Had some beautiful and mythic creature created by my own need suddenly taken the place of my jovial and matter-of-fact buddy” (140). Lorde sees the girl as dreamlike. She touches her to make sure she is real. And like a dream, the girl is transitory and disappears altogether from the narrative. She appears to show Audre the evocative strength of her desires.
Lorde grew up amidst racism and inequality. To survive racism in the early to mid 20th Century America, Lorde needs internal strength, as well as spiritual strength. Magic is one way of representing this spiritual strength. Her intense desires for survival, affirmation, and love are transmuted into magic that evokes her guides and lovers. This evocative desire is seen from Lorde when she was still a child: “No matter how many intricate rituals and incantations and spells I performed, no matter how many Hail Marys and Our Fathers I said, no matter what I premised god in return, the vanilla-tinted clay would slowly shrivel up and harden, turn gradually brittle and sour, and then crumble into a grainy flour dust” (36). This passage shows that she is conscious of evoking lovers by simply needing and wanting them. Her preoccupation with “rituals and incantations” is a sign of her rich internal world as a place where she can practice her influence. Her affinity for the internal world serves to be a place where she can safely explore homosexuality, which will then lead her to explore beyond fantasy.
Lorde’s desire for same sex love is an experience for her to explore outside the tradition of heteronormative sex, and this unknown beyond responds to her need by conjuring images of women warriors and lovers that aid her on her journey of becoming a woman herself. Gennie becomes the first lover to lead her into an exploration of an alternate way of life true to her identity. Lorde writes, “Gennie was the first person in my life that I was ever conscious of loving” (87). The name “Gennie” is associated with the Jinni of Arabian mythology. For Lorde, Gennie embodies love and death. Gennie imparts to Lorde a haunting memory of her suicide and also a sense of audacity and inner strength. When Lorde decided to leave home on behalf of Gennie’s memory, she takes Gennie’s guitar with her (104). The image of Gennie then returns to Lorde’s inner world, the desire from which she was conjured. She serves Lorde as a catalyst to explore sexuality then becomes a part of her mythology. Gennie is one more image added to mythology of women that serves as a creative source for Lorde’s to defend herself against hierarchy and paternalism and to build her sense of heroism.
Lorde evokes these women from dreams and myth. She writes, “where they dance with swords in their hands, stately forceful steps, to mark the time when they were all warriors.” The image of women warriors marks the level of her maturity and tolerance against paternal social constructs. The spiritual support she receives from the recollection of the mythology of women shows the efficacy of her internal world. This source of identity and strength is safe from the outside reality of paternal institutions. It is timeless and belongs in the world of myth. They do not only imbue Lorde with internal strength, but also fulfill her need for strong role models.
Like all the encounters with her lovers, they all return back from the place of dream and are turned into myth. Lorde writes, “Eventually, her image receded into that place from which all my dreams are made.” This statement reveals the close relationship between Lorde’s internal and external realities. While her internal world responds to her desire by manifesting lovers, consequently they are transitory and leave her with a sense of loss but also affirmation. Kitty/Afrekete returns to Lorde after a breakup only to leave again but to impart a sense of affirmation. Lorde writes, “Something about Kitty made me feel like a rollercoaster, rocketing from idiot to goddess” (248). In this passage, it is revealed that dreams do become reality when Afrekete imparts Lorde with a sense of affirmation. Afrekete, like all of Lorde’s lovers, then returns to the source of Lorde’s dreams, which is also the source of her history and mythology.
The aspect of magic in Zami shows the power of fantasy in preserving internal strength and its ability to create affirmation that is safe from paternalism and hierarchy. Paternalism and racism may be able to ascribe damaging social constructs for Lorde, but the internal world, made of desires and books, creates a path for her to find affirmation to all the aspects of her identity. While the socio-political world of her time continued to threaten her identity in every way, her dreams continued to provide guides, lovers, and warriors to help her. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name shows that dreams and magic are not only real, but they also shape reality.