“I was called to the office at school on the day of the appointment,” read Zinzi Clemmons from her critically acclaimed novel “What We Lose.” “I was almost relieved to learn what it was even though it was the worst possible outcome, because it ended this period of not knowing.”
Clemmons took to Midtown Scholar’s stage on Wednesday night to read passages from her freshman novel, a coming-of-age story that depicts the life of Thandi as she struggles with race and identity, losing her mother to cancer, falling in love and eventually creating a family of her own.
The novel, which an audience member referred to as “beautifully all over the place,” is told through terse passages, photography, articles, passages from memoirs from Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, one-sentence pages, and even lyrics from the Notorious B.I.G.
“I think it’s wonderful that people have talked about the book in terms of form, in terms of questions about race and gender and all of these things,” Clemmons said. “I really was pleasantly surprised by that.”
“What We Lose” flips between fiction, nonfiction and memoir, with Thandi and Clemmons sharing links between their lives. Like Thandi, Clemmons’s mother is South African and her father is American, raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where the novel is based. Since an infant, Clemmons switched between her life in the states and her summers in South Africa.
“The best thing has been that people have connected to the book because of their own experience in some way,” she said. “That has been, more often than not, people who have lost parents, people who identify with some of the things I talk about in terms of identity, women and black women especially.”
Clemmons started writing the novel while she was home with her mother, who was suffering from cancer. She put her grad school education on pause and returned home to be with her in her final stages. As she watched her mother dissolve, she wrote down her experiences and practiced what she called “anticipatory grief,” writing as if her mother were already gone.
“Some of them were in the finished book pretty much unchanged,” Clemmons said. “I didn’t intend to publish them at the time—it was just a journal entry. But, some of those notes started to creep up in the manuscript, so I decided it was important to focus on them.”
Writing about the loss of Thandi’s mother was therapeutic for Clemmons, though she admitted that, if the novel were a complete memoir, she wasn’t sure she would be able to read it in front of an audience.
“Part of loss is acceptance,” she said. “You see what happens to people who can’t accept loss. Writing this, and writing from my mother point of view, helped me accept it.”
Another early portion of the novel focuses on crime and anti-blackness in South Africa. The novel dipped into creative non-fiction as Clemmons used found articles and photos from photojournalist Kevin Carter of a vulture stalking a visibly weak child and another of a person running toward a cloud of smoke.
“All of the ugliest parts: anti-blackness, the colorism, homophobia, gender bias, those things,” Clemmons said. “The first step is to acknowledge that they are there.”
She insisted that “What We Lose” be sold in South Africa.
“I wanted [my family] to read it and see it in the bookstore,” she said.
Clemmons also wanted South African citizens to see their neighborhood from the outside.
“Crime and anti-blackness in South Africa may not be something everyone wants to talk about, but it’s important,” she said.
Currently, Clemmons lives in L.A. with her husband. She teaches and is a contributing writer to Literary Hub, a website for contemporary literature. For her next novel, she plans to switch gears and return to nonfiction. In the meantime, she hopes her readers who also are struggling with grief will find acceptance through Thandi’s story.
“Externalizing as much as possible, especially for black women and other women who find themselves because of culture mainly, they have a duty to hold it all together and put on a strong face,” she said.
Clemmons recommended writing, talking to friends, and strongly encouraged therapy.
“The times that I really struggled were the times that I was just trying to be strong,” she said. “And that’s never the answer.”
To read more of Clemmons’s work, visit her website Zinziclemmons.com.
Author: Yaasmeen Piper