Ever had that feeling of déjà vu when reading a review or a blurb about a must-read book? I recently did, when every publication worth its weight in the United States was recommending Zinzi Clemmons’s What We Lose, a coming of age story about a young woman of mixed race grappling with her mother’s death from cancer. It had an eerie familiarity to it. After much scouring on the internet, I discovered I had read an essay by Clemmons in 2013 in the online literary publication The Common, titled ‘A Geography of Hurt’ in which she wrote about losing her mother to cancer. That it stayed with me all these years is testament to the essay’s impact, though I admit it resonated because it spoke about a mother’s death — a subject I’m familiar with. “I’ve learned that love and pain come hand in hand,” Clemmons wrote in the essay. “In order to hang on to my good memories of my mother, I have to accept this pain as well. These places and this pain are what I have left of her.”
But Clemmons had more to say about the loss and I’m grateful she did with What We Lose, a collection of vignettes in unstructured form about Thandi, the daughter of a coloured South African and light-skinned African American professor, who navigates her life in a wealthy East Coast suburb, reflecting on privilege, race, love and grief. She describes herself as “a strange in-betweener”, not dark-skinned enough to be considered black by her South African cousins, nor black enough for her American friends. She writes: “American blacks were my precarious homeland — because of my light skin and foreign roots, I was never fully accepted by any face.”
A word about this novel’s form: as aforementioned, it is unstructured in that there is no linear arc to its narrative, which is why I chose to describe it as vignettes. But by no means is this off-putting for a reader used to linear narratives or wary of experimental literature. Its form gives the story its strength; it is not its weakness by any means. Sometimes the form takes the shape of an image, an email, a few sentences on a page, a news article and the more conventional chapters — all told by Thandi. It helps to know Clemmons’s advocacy of the experimental form in fiction. She wrote an essay for Lit Hub in January 2016 asking where was the avant-garde writing from black and other minorities.
An experimental novel about race, belonging and the loss of a mother
“As a writer, do you really want to be categorised — as avant-garde often is — as dense, indecipherable, elitist, and perpetually unappreciated,” she wrote in the Lit Hub piece. “Maybe not. But if we take avant-garde at its most basic definition — that is, innovative — it becomes a serious problem: to be denied status as an innovator based on race is terrifying.”
After writing her draft of What We Lose, Clemmons is said to have laid it out on the floor and rearranged the order, creating the collage of a novel, if you will. The disorder leaves as much an impact as the story of the complicated relationship Thandi has with her mother and how she views her life as she prepares for parenthood herself.
Thandi shares this “in between-ness” with her mother who, as a coloured (mixed race) South African, had a different experience in apartheid South Africa and contends with a different racial dynamic in America — perspectives we don’t often hear. “To my cousins and me, American blacks were the epitome of American cool. Blacks were the stars of rap videos, big-name comedians and actors with their own television shows and world tours ... We worshipped them, and my cousins, especially, looked to the freedom that these stars represented as aspirational ... But when I called myself black, my cousins looked at me askance ... I looked just like my relatives, but calling myself black was wrong to them. Though American blacks were cool, South African blacks were ordinary, yet dangerous. It was something they didn’t want to be.”
The comparisons between the two countries’ racial dynamics also play out in the relationship between the mother and daughter; they even come forward during the mother’s illness where Thandi reflects how they are viewed in American hospitals, for example: not white or black. “[The binds of apartheid] had become the indelible truth of our lives, and nothing — not sickness, not suffering, not death — could change that.”
I struggled to identify this novel as one essentially about loss because I associate loss with sadness, but it is not a sad read. As Clemmons writes so eloquently: “Loss is a straightforward equation: 2-1=1. A person is there, then she is not. But a loss is beyond numbers, as well as sadness, and depression, and guilt, and ecstasy, and hope, and nostalgia — all those emotions that experts tell us come along with death. Minus one person equals all of these, in unpredictable combinations.”
This highly recommended novel grapples with issues such as social inequity, loss and a desire to belong so beautifully that it is no wonder it earned the praise it did. Ultimately it is a novel about a young woman coming to peace with who her mother was, and who she herself is.
The reviewer is a graduate student of journalism at Northwestern University, USA
What We Lose
By Zinzi Clemmons
Fourth Estate, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 5th, 2017