Audre Lorde’s Zami is so rich with story that even its dedication could stand on its own. The book is a biomythography — a word and genre invented by Lorde to convey a mix of biography and personal myth. Of course, as a listener you get so thoroughly immersed in Lorde’s story, life, and worldview that it’s impossible to tell where biography ends and myth begins.
Robin Miles contributes beautifully to this sense of immersion by echoing the rich texture that exists naturally in the prose. She manages to fully inhabit the narrative and the spaces described; the worn but soulful apartment that Lorde grew up in, the foreign colors of her sojourn in Mexico, and later, life on the fringes of mainstream society in the oldest gay neighborhood in New York City. Miles’ voice stays calm and reflective, almost possessed by an older Lorde recounting her younger, crazier days.
What’s most interesting about Zami is the way we are allowed to peek into the past through a rare lens we’re not often privy to. Lorde was black, queer, and utterly radical for her time (she was born in 1934, died in 1992), but this marginalization and separateness gave her a particularly clear vantage point from which to observe and critique society. At one point she writes, “Rather than the idyllic picture created by false nostalgia, the ‘50s were really straight white America's cooling off period of 'Let's pretend we're happy and that this is the best of all possible worlds. And we'll blow those nasty commies to hell if they dare to say otherwise.' The Rosenbergs had been executed. The transistor radio had been invented. And frontal lobotomy was the standard solution for persistent deviation.”
When Lorde describes trying to find a backroom abortion, the execution of the Rosenbergs, and impossibly cheap New York City rents, it’s incredible to realize how much has changed since the 1940s and ‘50s in America. But, of course, it’s also fascinating to see what has stayed the same. Issues like teen suicide and the marginalization of uneducated minorities persist today in many of the same ways as they are described in Zami.
Lorde’s voice, as embodied by Miles, is so honest, engaging, and unique. Why she hasn’t become more known or readily regarded as one of the great American authors of the 20th century is a mystery. Zami is an eye-opener, a heartfelt portal to another time and place. —Gina Pensiero