Audre Lorde grows up in Harlem, a child of Black West Indian parents. Legally blind as a child, she learns to read before going to school, thus stoking up wrath in the Nuns/teachers at her Catholic school. The family's landlord hangs himself for having to rent his flat to Black people; later they take a trip to Washington D.C., where they are refused ice-cream because of segregation laws. After getting her first period at age 15, she makes friends with a small number of non-Black girls, called "The Branded" at Hunter College High School. She is even elected literary editor of the school's arts magazine - she has started writing poetry. After graduation, she leaves home and shares a flat with friends of Jean's (one of The Branded). At the same time, she also goes out with Peter, a white boy who jilts her on New Year's Eve - she is pregnant and decides on an abortion. After some unhappy times at Hunter College, she moves to Stamford, Connecticut, to find work in a factory, where the working conditions prove atrocious. Following her father's death, she returns to NYC and starts a relationship with Bea, whose heart she ends up breaking when she decides to move to Mexico to get away from McCarthyism. There, she goes to university and works as a secretary in a hospital. In Cuernavaca, she meets a lot of independent women, mostly lesbians; she has a relationship with one of them, Eudora, and works in a library. Back in NYC, Audre explores the lesbian bar scene, moves in with lover Muriel, then another lesbian, Lynn, moves in with them and ends up leaving without warning and with their savings. Finally, Audre begins a relationship with a mother named Afrekete, who decides to leave to tend to her child. The book ends on a homage to Audre's mother.
Characters in "Zami: A New Spelling of My Name"
Audre Lorde, the author.
Linda Lorde, Audre's mother. She knows patois. She prepares lunch for the Dad. Each child is asked once or twice a year which dish they would like her to prepare for dinner. The Dad keeps his distance, unless the Mom is in anyway disrespected or talked back to, and then he will jump in. She is always longing for "home," the island community she emigrated from. She is able to obtain work as a cleaner, but only because she is light enough to pass as Spanish. When the employer finds out she is black, she is fired. She outlives her husband. She refuses the free milk given to poor families.
Phyllis and Helen, Audre's older sisters.
The Branded, Audre's friends at high school.
Maxine, Audre's Jewish friend at high school.
Gennie, a.k.a. Genevieve, Audre's closest friend in high school who takes dance classes and commits suicide. Possibly her first real love.
Louisa, Gennie's mother.
Philip Thompson, Gennie's father who left home early and comes back when she is 15.
Ella, Gennie's stepmother.
Peter, a white boy whom Audre dates whilst in NYC.
Ginger, Audre's work colleague from the factory at Stamford; Audre's first female lover. Audre later moved in with Ginger and her Mom, and paid rent for room and board.
Bea, Audre's lover, met in NYC. Only dated each other because of the mutual fact they were gay. No real connection. They were supposed to go to Mexico together, but Audre stood her up when she realized it would be a bad idea to go together. With Bea, Audre did all the work, and Bea wasn't that responsive. They commuted back and forth from Philadelphia to see each other.
Eudora, an older woman and Audre's lover in Mexico. She was a journalist and alcoholic. She was passionate about Mexican culture and history. She had a clothing shop with her ex in the Mexican town where they lived. She had lost a breast due to cancer.
Muriel, Audre's lover. Her first long-term committed relationship. Muriel moves in with Audre. Muriel has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has undergone electroshock therapy. Audre supports Muriel financially. Ginger introduced Muriel to Audre, as Muriel held the same job at the Stamford factory before Audre did.
Rhea, Audre's room-mate in New York after returning from Mexico. A straight white woman whose political work was jeopardized by living with a black lesbian, she leaves for Chicago in order to keep her job under the pretense of starting a new life after the demise of a relationship, but Audre does not know this at the time. Audre also lived with Rhea before going to Mexico. Rhea never has satisfying romantic relationships and wonders longingly at the love Muriel and Audre are experiencing at the beginning of their relationship.
Felicia, a.k.a. "Flee", a black lesbian who has a close but platonic relationship with Audre. Audre's honorary little sister.
Lynn, a lesbian who lives with Muriel and Audre for a while and is their mutual lover during this time.
Toni, Audre's old acquaintance from high school, who turns out a lesbian.
Gerri, a black lesbian from Queens. Gerri and her partner are known for their wonderful parties, which have abundant food, in contrast to the upper west side parties which don't have much food and are much more uptight.
Kitty, a.k.a. Afrekete, the last lover mentioned in the book, met through Gerri; she has a daughter and leaves abruptly back to Atlanta to visit her Mom and daughter. Lorde never sees her again, but mentions Kitty will always be part of her.