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Janine Dove-Rumé
Michel Naumann
Tri Tran

III. Littérature nord-américaine

From Creation to Re-creation: Gender Metamorphosis in Audre Lorde’s Zami

Germain N’Guessan Kouadio


The problematic of this study is to show how Audre Lorde’s Zami (1982) deconstructs the politics of heterosexuality. It depicts how from a biological created Audre Lorde, the writer re-creates a transformed one (the lesbian) to posit homosexuality as a quest for sexual identity. In this gender metamorphosis, the novelist inspects otherness as essentially evolving from women’s struggle for the recognition of their sexual freedom. Finally, she portrays lesbianism as a forum where women can achieve sexual identity and free themselves from male domination.

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1Lesbian feminism (a branch of radical feminism) sprang from the controversies that arose within the women’s movement as far as female subordination is concerned. It views heterosexuality as another form of male domination over the woman. To be totally free then, women must have sex among themselves. This gender “metamorphosis” is explored in Audre Lorde’s Zami (1982) as a deconstruction of the politics of heterosexuality. To the biologically created Audre Lorde, the author-narrator opposes a “re-created” one (the lesbian), who stands for the other side of her personality. Her approach is therefore all the expression of an “otherness” that has difficulty asserting and identifying itself in established social, cultural and political canons according to which sexual relations must be between people from opposing sex. This paper examines Zami as a text wherein otherness is inspected as a quest for identity through love between women so that they can own and control their body and sexuality.

2Obviously, the adjective “new” in the title of the novel (Zami: A New Spelling of My Name) sheds light on the break the writer wants to mark with what already exists, the strong desire to be and act differently from her biological construction. This aspiration is early perceived in the novel when, during a class work, she unconsciously claims her independence, a new identity by refusing to follow the directions she is given as her teacher points out: “I see we have a young lady who does not want to do as she is told” (26). In fact, asked to write her name, she does it diagonally rather than in straight line like her other classmates:

3Though the novelist’s adolescence proves to be an excuse to her act, what is interesting to underline here is her manifest craving for self-assertion and independence in the sense that despite her teacher s threat to punish her, she does not follow her directions. But the most significant expression of otherness in the novel is offered by the author’s sexual orientation. In the prologue, she writes:

I have always wanted to be both man and woman, to incorporate the strongest and richest parts of my mother and father within/into me – to share valleys and mountains upon my body the way the earth does in hills and peaks. I would like to enter a woman the way any man can, and to be entered – to leave and to be left – to be hot and hard and soft all at the same time in the cause of our loving. I would like to drive forward and at other times to rest or be driven. (7, italic mine)

  • 1 I allude here to the biological construction of the reproductive organs and not to the thesis that (...)

4As a woman-born1, this dream to have both a phallus and a vagina seems quite surprising, even impossible with regard to what sexual relationships are expected to be. However, from the lesbian worldview, it mirrors a moment of self-identification, a conscious resistance to established norms and boundaries and also the author’s vision of women’s world and the necessity for them to use female erotic as a means to achieve their freedom. In this connection, she suggests:

As women, we need to examine the ways in which our world can be truly different. I am speaking here of the necessity for reassessing the quality of all the aspects of our lives and of our work, and of how we move toward and through them. The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects – born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives. (Lorde, 1984, 55)

5Interestingly, two important realities justify Audre Lorde’s “new spelling of her name.” They are all related to race and gender hierarchies in America. Indeed, through racism and sexism, this country has muted Black women for many years. As african descendants, they are culturally brought up in a community that apprehends sexuality as a taboo and where the sex/gender hierarchy functions only if sexual nonconformity is kept invisible. Moreover, they live in a country of western dominant culture. Consequently, their being silenced about lesbian relationships mainly results from the traditional treatment in Eurocentric thought of the lesbian as the ultimate “Other” (Collins, 1990, 195). The “other” being the woman whose sexual identity does not conform to society’s conception about sexuality and who therefore symbolizes a social outsider. Black lesbians are not white, male and heterosexual. As such, they become the standard by which other groups measure their normality. For them, homophobia represents a form of oppression that affects their lives with the same intensity as does race, class and gender oppression.

6Beside racism, sexism contributes to women’s oppression. Indeed, in electing the president of their class, the author realizes that she has been victim of sexism: “The boy chosen would be president, but the girl would only be vice-president. I thought this was monstrously unfair. Why not the other way around? Since we could not have two presidents?” (63). She further faces sexism when she is engaged as a commercial X-ray machine runner at Keystone Electronics in Stamford: “One day the men had hassled me all morning, saying I was not giving them their readings fast enough, and was holding up their cuttings” (128). Considering all this, Zami appears as a response to the silence that victimizes the Black woman.

7It helps the writer speak the unspeakable and transform silence into language and action. In so doing, she questions the ideology of difference that organizes sexual relationships in a hierarchy and makes Black women invisible and vulnerable. By inspecting lesbianism, she transforms the silence in which they are confined into a language of protest and mobilization for the acknowledgment of their sexual orientation as she says: “It is not difference which mobilizes us, but silence” (1984, 44). For the writer then, only female erotic can free women from their bondage under male domination. Lesbianism therefore turns out to be self-assurance, self-assertion:

In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial. (1984, 58)

8Throughout the novel, Audre Lorde articulates this point leaning on her own experiences. Each love affair is lived intensely. Her different female partners are loved as part of herself and each relation is an expression of that part she has never been given the opportunity to love, as she acknowledges in her concluding chapter:

Every woman I have ever loved has left her print upon me, where I loved some invaluable piece of myself apart from me – so different that I had to stretch and grow in order to recognize her [...]. Their names, selves, faces feed me like corn before labor. I live each of them as a piece of me (Zami 255-256)

9By involving in a homosexual relation, she re-creates another personality for herself. Her will to be “other” gives substance to all her acts. For instance, from the bad experiences she had, namely her relation with her boyfriend Peter, and what she is told by the latter and other friends about male-female love, she becomes skeptical about the quintessence of heterosexuality: “I used to wonder why it wasn’t possible to just love each other and be warm and close and let the grunting go” (105).

10Almost all the female characters of the novel end up becoming lesbians after experiencing heterosexuality. For example, after failing in her union (162), Eudora resorts to living “her life as if it were a story” (169). Disappointed, she talks about sexual relationships as simple fantasies to be just forgotten once accomplished. Ginger is described as a divorced woman with two sons (137), Bea is portrayed as a girl who has broken up with a lover and now lives alone (150), etc. Audre Lorde also experiences the same situation. Her being raped by a young boy of her school when she was ten (75), and her abortion following a pregnancy at the age of eighteen (110), make her discover that women are locked up through heterosexuality. At this point, the text unfolds the ideology of radical feminism, precisely lesbianism that sees heterosexuality as a cause of women’s exploitation. Really, what prompts the writer in lesbianism are sexual frustrations and the sadness she suffers from after she aborts:

The abortion had left me with an additional sadness about which I could not speak [...]. That summer I decided that I was definitely going to have an affair with a woman – in just those words. How I was going to accomplish that, I had no idea, or even what I meant by an affair. (119)

11In the narrative, the theme of otherness must not be read simply as women’s right to own and control their body and sexuality, but most importantly, as a claim of an identity as a site of contest and revision. While having sex with female partners, women contest the ideological constructions defining femininity through male-female relationships and motherhood. They want the politics of heterosexuality to be revised so that female sex be no longer viewed as a substitute for male one or else, according to male norms, In this regard, their practice is to be distinguished from that of prostitutes for whom sexuality is a source of income. The particularity in the case of the women in Zami is that their act is illustrative of a category of women who think that heterosexuality smoothers their sexual identity. As such, they share a common vision of life and work for its recognition, as Audre Lorde accounts for: “The few lesbians I had known were women whom I had met within other existing contexts of my life. We shared some part of a world common to us both - school or work or poetry or some other interest beyond our sexual identity” (196).

12The setting of the story is of importance and needs scrutiny. It starts in Harlem (New York), moves to Mexico and comes back again to Harlem, but with the same atmosphere, the same tensions and story lines. This cyclical movement offers two possible interpretations. Firstly, in moving from New York to Mexico, the narrative posits lesbianism as a universal phenomenon. Secondly, by moving back to New York with lesbians obliged to live in self-enclosed groups, it indicates the obstacles that this practice faces to be accepted by the larger community. But when the two geographical spaces are combined, they strengthen the author’s rejection of homosexuality as a culturally exclusive privilege of western world. They also help deconstruct African-American cultural heritage that conceptualizes sexuality only within heterosexuality. Indeed, in African culture, it is through motherhood (strongly related to heterosexuality) that a woman is esteemed (Umeh, 1996, 190). Consequently, any sexual behavior that aims at putting this cultural order into question is banned and its author viewed as a social pariah. And as African heirs, this ideology prevents Audre Lorde’s black women from freely embracing homosexuality for fear that their community rejects them. The few of them who want to involve in this practice have to do it in secret as the narrator comments:

For both Flee and me, it seemed that loving women was something that other Black women just didn’t do. And if they did, then it was in some fashion and in some place that was totally inaccessible to us, because we could never find them. Except for Saturday nights in the Bagatelle, where neither Flee nor I was stylish enough to be noticed. (179-180)

13On the other hand, the fact that all the scenes take place during the 1950s also calls for analysis and helps to comprehend the barriers obstructing lesbians to assume their sexual orientation. This alludes to the period of the Civil Rights Movements in America, a period characterized by minorities’ claim for more rights. If the social climate of that period was open to protest from minority groups, it is worth mentioning that American society was still reluctant to such practices as lesbianism, viewed as an offense to social and/or cultural mores. This resistance creates a climate of fear and distrust among lesbians since they cannot freely live their homosexuality. They are therefore obliged to live in self-enclosed groups, often cut from the larger community. In New York as well as in Mexico, they have to share their experience in such small groups. The writer experiences this situation in her relation with her girlfriend Muriel:

In those days gay-girls were usually not very sociable outside of their own little group. You never could tell who was who, and the protective paranoia of the McCarthy years was still everywhere outside of the mainstream of blissed-out suburban middle america. Besides, there were always rumors of plainclothes women circulating among us, looking for gay-girls with fewer than three pieces of female attire. That was enough to get arrested for transvestism, which was illegal. Or so the rumors went. Most of the women we knew were always careful to have on a bra, underpants, and some other feminine article. No sense playing with fire. (187)

14All the same, her relationship with Muriel contributes to her understanding that when truly lived regardless of personal profit, love provides assurance and confidence to both partners:

Each one of us had been starved for love for so long that we wanted to believe that love, once found, was all-powerful. We wanted to believe that it could give word to my inchoate pain and rages; that it could enable Muriel to face the world and get a job; that it could free our writings, cure racism, end homophobia and adolescent acne. We were like starving women who come to believe that food will cure all present pains, as well as heal all the deficiency sores of long standing. (209-210)

15This quotation highlights the feeding character behind love. In the same way food permits to maintain the physical balance of the individual, love nourishes lovers spiritually and morally when sincerely lived. And Audre Lorde thinks that this spiritual and moral balance can be achieved only through homosexuality since in this type of relationship, the different partners share the same involvement and commitment. Their belonging to the same sex prevents any gender hierarchy as in the case of heterosexuality. Clearly, for the writer, in lesbianism, both partners construct together a relationship in which satisfactions are mutual or similar. And if it happens that they must stop this relationship, the partner who leaves first is not necessarily the most injured or the most at fault (238).

16As stated earlier, the novel’s dealing with women having sex with other women is an expression of their refusal to be confined in heterosexuality. From Harlem to Mexico, and through her relation with Bea, Eudora, Felicia, Ginger, Marie, Muriel, Rhea, etc., Audre Lorde defends this position. Through the multiple female sexual partners, she demonstrates her freedom to control and use her body and sexuality as she pleases. Each of these female characters feeds her sexual hunger and helps her to contest male sexual domination and claim female identity outside forged social and cultural norms. They are also sites for the world she dreams of. She asserts: “Any world which did not have a place for me loving women was not a world in which I wanted to live, nor one which I could fight for” (197).

17Another element of the novel that deserves inspection is the language of the novelist. This one is linked to what Julia Kristeva terms “The Acquisition of Language” (1974), a thesis she develops from Lacan’s concept of “The Imaginary and the Symbolic Order.” Indeed, Lacan explains that the Imaginary corresponds to the pre-Oedipal period, that is to say when the child believes that it is part of the mother. In this phase, only identity and presence matter. The Oedipal crisis represents the entry into the Symbolic Order and this entry is also linked to the “acquisition of language.” In the Oedipal crisis, the father breaks the unity between mother and the mother’s body. The phallus, symbol of the law of the father, signifies separation and loss of the child. The loss suffered is that of the mother’s body and the desire for the mother or the imaginary unity with her must be repressed. Lacan calls this repression first repression. Its function becomes really evident when the child starts to utter its first language. Thus when it learns to say “I am”, to be distinguished from “you are” for instance, this implies that it has taken up its allotted place in the Symbolic Order and given up the claim to imaginary identity (Moi, 1985, 99).

18In Zami, the acquisition of language operates within lesbians’desire to assume their otherness through sexuality. Here, the pre-Oedipal period is when they believe that as full members of their community, they deserve to live as freely as any other member even sexually. The Oedipal crisis occurs when they realize that social power relationships construct them as muted subjects, hampering their unity with their desire. They acquire language (their entry into the Symbolic Order) through their protest against these imaginary social and cultural constructions to claim their identity. Though the personal pronoun “I” informs about the autobiographical character of the book and thus unfolds the writer’s personal experience, it expresses the new language the writer acquires through homosexuality. It may suggest an “I” subject saying: “I” who is muted, want to acquire language and speak about my oppression. Through lesbianism, sexuality is no longer a taboo, but like any other subject that can be discussed freely and without shame. Hence, they can talk about it without caring for what their neighborhood could think and say. They assert their specificity, their otherness that must be recognized and accepted. As such, their sexual orientation parallels Foucault’s idea that “all sexuality is constructed” (Umeh, 1996, 190). Through lesbianism, women construct a sexual identity that is not imposed on them, as it is the case with heterosexuality, but rather one that they can control.

19The writer’s language is also characterized by its directness. This too contributes to her acquisition of language. Each scene is depicted straightforwardly, without any cant. Any details unlikely to create decency or anything likely to hurt the common sense and sensibilities are inspected without reserve. As an instance, in describing her making love with Kitty, she writes:

We bought red delicious pippins, the size of French cashew apples. There were green plantains, which we half-peeled and then planted, fruit-deep, in each other’s bodies until the petals of skin lay like tendrils of broad green fire upon the curly darkness between our upspread thighs. There were ripe red finger bananas, stubby and sweet, with which I parted your lips gently, to insert the peeled fruit into your grape-purple flower. I held you, lay between your brown legs, slowly playing my tongue through your familiar forests, slowly licking and swallowing as the deep undulations and tidal motions of your strong body slowly smashed ripe banana into a beige cream that mixed with the juices of your electric flesh. Our bodies met again, each surface touched with each other’s flame, from the tips of our curled toes to our tongues, and locked into our own the wild rhythms, we rode each other across the thundering space, dripped like light from the peak of each other’s tongue. We were of us both together. Then we were apart, and sweat sheened our bodies like sweet oil. (249)

20If the text essentially focuses on sexual relationships between black women, it nevertheless demonstrates that lesbianism is a practice crossing color line. It is rather a terrain where women feel true sisterhood. As such, it helps solve racial problem that arose within the women’s movement giving birth to feminist branches as Marxist, Socialist, African American, etc. The novelist reveals: “Lesbians were probably the only Black and white women in New York City in the fifties who where making any real attempt to communicate with each other; we learned lessons from each other” (179). Beyond its dealing with women’s aspiration to be free from male sexual domination, Zami proves to be a progressive text through the various scenes and the setting. Instead of focalizing only on racial tensions opposing Black and White in America during the 1950s or on misogyny, it offers ways by which all American women regardless of color can join to fight their common discrimination. Consequently, their cohabitation seems to be a source of protest for social change. Lesbianism therefore may appear as a pressure group in the same way as the “Affirmative Actions” that took a great part in the fight for the social integration of minorities during the Civil Rights Movements. The book alludes to this historical period and these pressure groups. After returning from her father’s funerals, Audre succeeds in finding another job thanks to the assistance of the union she belongs to (144).

21In brief, Zami tackles the problem of lesbianism in all its social, political and cultural dimensions. In a revolutionary and progressive dynamism, this text breaks with the conformism of heterosexuality and places homosexuality at the core of women’s quest for sexual freedom and identity. Straightforwardly, the writer demonstrates that heterosexuality imprisons women sexually and that to control their sexuality and their body, they have to involve in homosexuality. This approach proves to be the expression of an otherness that is defined not simply in terms of behaving differently from stereotypes and established norms, but mainly as a claim and protest to be considered and accepted. Finally, what is interesting to note is the writer’s conviction that lesbianism is a true forum where racial tensions in America can be solved.



BARRY Peter, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002.

CASTRO Ginette, Radioscopie du féminisme américain, Paris, Presses de la fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1984.

COLE Johnnetta Betsch and Beverly GUY-SHEFTALL, Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities, New York, The Ballantine Books, 2003.

COLLINS Patricia Hill, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, New York, Rout ledge, 1990.

KEMP Sandra and Judith SQUIRES, eds., Feminisms, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.

LORDE Audre, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, U. S. A., The Crossing Press, 1982.

—, Sister Outsider, U.S.A., The Crossing Press, 1984.

MOI Toril, Sexual Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, New York, Routledge, 1985.

UMEH Marie, ed., Emerging Perspective on Buchi Emecheta, New Jersey, Africa World Press, Inc., 1996.


1 I allude here to the biological construction of the reproductive organs and not to the thesis that one is not born a woman; it is rather “throughout history, [that] women have been reduced to objects for men” and that the “‘woman’ has been constructed as man’s Other, denied the right to her own subjectivity and to responsibility for her own actions,” (in Moi, 1985, 92). By wishing to be both a man and a woman then, Audre Lorde tries to deconstruct this historical construction.

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