Question: What do you do when your life’s story cannot be told within the confines of the autobiographical genre?
Answer: Its simple, you create a complete new genre to depict your life.
Genres are anyway just constructed categories to arbitrarily fit works of literature into water tight compartments leaving no room for them to be seen as fluid, independent works.
Audre Lorde did the exact same thing when she wrote, Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name. It is an autobiographical text. But she coined the term, ‘biomythography’ to describe the book. In an interview, Lorde herself defined the term as having, ‘the elements of biography and history of myth. In other words, it’s fiction built from many sources. This is one way of expanding our vision.’
Further, Ted Warburton defined it as, ‘the weaving together of myth, history and biography in epic narrative form, a style of composition that represents all the ways in which we perceive the world.’ These two definitions are the best ways to define the ‘genre’ of Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name.
In the book, Lorde examines her life with all its ups and downs by intertwining incidents of her life with elements of the world around her, talking about the historical aspects that had an impact on her life. It is not just a retelling of a life, but also a close examination of her life.
Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name tells the story of a young Lorde who is a child of hard working black immigrants from Granada, living in New York in the 1940s/50s. The earlier part of the book focuses on her childhood and teenage years. The book is not the usual run of the mill linear bildungsroman but rather a book that fuses the elements of poetry, fiction, autobiography, history and myth to tell an intricate story of her life in New York, in Harlem and later on when she moves to other places like Mexico.
Throughout the narrative, Lorde has juxtaposed the events in her life with significant events of American history such as the Great Depression, the World War II, the independence struggle of the British colonies, McCarthyism, the black freedom struggle etc. It gives you a sense of the larger world and teaches a history lesson as well. It enables the reader to put the time frame in perspective. Through the lens of the broader events, Lorde reflects on her life, rethinks her political awakening, her understanding and acceptance of her sexuality, her femininity and her position as a minority in America. Her marginalisation creates in her a political impulse, a need to confront the mainstream hegemony on her own terms. This is one reason why Lorde chronicles her relationship with her family, their growing ideological differences. The other facets of her life are also presented from her numerous relationships with various women, her life in poverty, her life of constant struggle and pain, her close knit group of friends to the bond of close sisterhood she developed as a student which enabled her to become more independent as a person.
Lorde admits in the book that is tough to be a coloured immigrant in Harlem, tougher to be a woman and even tougher to be a Black woman immigrant lesbian. She is a minority in all senses but throughout the book she never allows this to marginalise her further. She finds ways to deal with them and the best way is to accept her individuality. Instead of moping around about her minority status, Audre finds hope in many ways and one of the ways is through her community of female friends, companions, girlfriends, other politically like minded people etc. She never allows any of her pain to close herself to the world but rather reaches out to the world to find people like her and find solace and comfort which helps her to assuage her pain.
Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name is a tender yet tough look at the trials and tribulations Lorde faces as she grows up and comes into her own.
To read an e-version of the book, click here.