Sisterhood and the Erotic in Zami by Audre Lorde

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name
(1982) is the 'biomythography' of the African-American lesbian poet and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde. Lorde writes that a 'biomythography' is fiction that is built from many sources and that Zami has elements of biography, history, and myth. The novel is also considered to be a Bildungsroman (the novel of the growth of a protagonist from childhood to adulthood) and a Künstlerroman (the novel of development of an artist). Lorde's novel spans the years of its narrator-protagonist's childhood in Harlem, New York, in the 1920s and 30s, and that of her youth in a number of locations including Mexico. Lorde, in her novel, engages with political, feminist, racial, class, and queer issues and themes.

The first section of the novel pays homage to the women who have contributed to the growth of the narrator-protagonist as an individual. She writes that her father leaves an imprint upon her but "his is a distant lightening"; it is the images of women, "flaming like torches", that "adorn and define the borders of my [her] journey." She owes to these women her survival and her 'becoming'. Zami is a narrative about female-bonding, about sisterhood and survival. The title of the novel refers to a practice among women in Carriacou, Grenada, from where the narrator-protagonist's mother belongs. In "The impact of migration on the metropolitan and folk society of Carriacou, Grenada", anthropologist Donald R. Hill writes that

Zamis are lesbians and are said by male informants to be mostly married women whose husbands have been abroad for many years.

Lorde refers to the practice in Zami. She writes,

Women who survived the absence of their sea-faring men easily, because they came to love each other, past the men's returning.

For the narrator-protagonist, 'Zami' becomes the 'new spelling' of her name. She embraces her matrilineage, relationships with women govern her life and give her strength, and she rejects heterosexual normitivity as well as the formation of a family unit by marriage.

It is possible to read the narrator-protagonist's relationships with women in the novel using a feminist-psychoanalytical perspective such as presented by Luce Irigaray in "When the Goods Get Together". According to Irigaray, "the trade that organizes patriarchal societies takes place exclusively among men" and women, signs, goods, currency etc. are exchanged among men. The socio-cultural order, in this manner, necessitates a 'homosociality' which remains under the garb of normative heterosexuality lest the phallus appear as a means of pleasure alone and lose its power. The 'trade' that organizes the society of Zami-women, however, is among women. In embracing this matrilineage, the narrator-protagonist embraces this 'trade' and her refusal to adopt heterosexual normativity can be read as her refusal to go to the 'market'. 

Furthermore, in all of the narrator-protagonist's relationships with women, the erotic element is very strong. Through these relationships, the narrator creates, what Irigaray calls, an "economy of abundance" wherein there is a realization of the pleasure principle or 'jouissance'. This pleasure principle serves as a source of creativity. In "The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power", Lorde writes that the Erotic is

... an assertion of the lifeforce of women, of that creative energy empowered... which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history... our lives.

In Zami, the mother is the first object of desire and eroticism. The narrator-protagonist writes how it felt to touch the "smooth deep firmness of her [the mother's] breasts against my [her] shoulders"'; the adult narrator-protagonist confesses that the "strongest words for what I have to offer come out of me sounding like words I remember from my mother's mouth" and "I am a reflection of my mother's poetry..." Zami can be read as an example of écriture féminine or 'feminine writing', a concept given by Hélène Cixous in "The Laugh of the Medusa". The narrator-protagonist is attached to the mother as a child. When she moves out of her home as an adult, her poetic expression is still in the language of the mother. In this sense, Zami may be seen as recapturing the pleasures of the Imaginary Order and undermining the rationality of the Symbolic Order, as Cixous writes in the aforementioned essay, taking from the psychoanalytic theory given by Jacques Lacan. 

A significant shortcoming of this feminist-psychoanalytical framework is that it comes dangerously close to biological essentialism. Also, in proposing almost a 'lesbian utopia', the framework distances the political, cultural, and social contexts of the narrative of Zami, especially the contexts of race and the American Civil War. 

Picture: Audre Lorde. Source: Flavour Wire.

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