This was by far the best memoir I have read in a long time. Audre Lorde is a poet, so everything she writes is tinged with a spectacular lyricism that feels hearty and alive. When I picked up Zami: A New Spelling of My Name it was in an Audre Lorde reader that included a collection of her poetry titled Undersong and the collection of her social/political essays, Sister Outsider.
While not “political” in the most direct and confining sense of the word, Zami is Lorde’s telling of her own coming of age – her life from childhood until mid-life. I drank in every word as she talked about the final push that sent her from her mother’s house, her experiences discovering and growing into her sexuality, her most basic struggles to support herself financially and emotionally.
As I was reading I could just hear the struggle and the wisdom that had befallen her in the wake of that struggle. I love the stories of survivors – the underdogs that have so much stacked against them but refuse to let the world take them down. I love these stories because they remind me of the places me and my family have come from and the struggles we have challenged. They are stories of humility, the kind that remind us that no one really ever makes it alone.
This was the best memoir I have read in a while. I would put it near the top of my list of recommended memoirs, along with Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “A Place to Stand.” And as one of the foundational voices in intersectionality studies and identity formation, Lorde’s work is a great example for those of us who are interested in unearthing the voices of those often silenced.
It was a good enough read to warrant a collection of “best quotes,” or at least my list of personal favorites:
“She taught me that women who want without needing are expensive and sometimes wasteful, but women who need without wanting are dangerous – they suck you in and pretend not to notice.” -5
“…I watched, not caring whether or not she was a poem…But I loved her, because she moved like she felt she was somebody special, like she was somebody I’d like to know someday. She moved like how I thought God’s mother must have moved, and my mother, once upon a time, and someday maybe me.” – 4
“My mother’s words teaching me all manner of wily and diversionary defenses learned from the white man’s tongue, from out of the mouth of her father. She had to use these defenses, and had survived by them, and had also died by them a little, at the same time. All the colors change and become each other, merge and separate, flow into rainbows and nooses.” – 58
“We learned that not feeling at all was worse than hurting.” – 82
“And there I found other women who sustained me and from whom I learned other loving. How to cook the foods I had never tasted in my mother’s house. How to drive a stick-shift car. How to loosen up and not be lost.” – 104
“It was a choice of pains. That’s what living was all about.” – 111
“All my friends knew we were a menace to the status quo, and defined our rebellions as such. Scientists had broken the code of Linear B, enabling them to read ancient Minoan script. The day before the FBI agents stood in my doorway, Eva Perón had died in Argentina. But somehow we were a threat to the civilized world.” -121
“I soon discovered that if you keep your mouth shut, people are apt to believe you know everything, and they begin to feel freer and freer to tell you anything, anxious to show that they know something, too.” – 129
“However imperfectly, we tried to build a community of sorts where we could, at the very least, survive within a world we correctly perceived to be hostile to us; we talked endlessly about how best to create that mutual support which twenty years later was being discussed in the women’s movement as a brand-new concept.” – 179
“What I didn’t realize was how much harder I had to try to merely stay alive, or rather, to stay human. How much stronger a person I became in that trying.” – 181
“As I say, when the sisters think you’re crazy and embarrassing; and the brothers want to break you open to see what makes you work inside; and the white girls look at you like some exotic morsel that has just crawled out of the walls and onto their plate…; and the white boys all talk either money or revolution but can never quite get it up – then it doesn’t really matter too much if you have an Afro long before the word even existed.” – 182
“It was a while before we came to realize that our place was the very house of difference rather than the security of any one particular difference.” – 226
Overall Score: 10. A clean and solid 10.