What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

There’s a glaring paradox in Zinzi Clemmons’ semi-autobiographical first novel, What We Lose. It’s structured like a mishmash smattering of photographs, hand-sketched graphs and short chapters of half-formed thoughts, yet it carries the thematic weight and import of a well-steeped and fully realized work of art.

Let me explain. The novel loosely circles around a straightforward story. When Thandi is in college, her mother is diagnosed with incurable cancer. Derailed by the news, Thandi takes a leave of absence from school and moves back home to take care of her, watches her mother suffer, slowly disintegrate and die.

Her support system upended, Thandi flails as her workaholic father disengages. Later, she pushes back as he finds a new partner. She masturbates; has random, callous sex to staunch her loneliness; and makes rash decisions in her love life, including an unplanned pregnancy and a hasty marriage to the soon-to-be baby’s father.

Lest you get the wrong idea, this isn’t a fully formed treatise on how cancer shatters families or rips apart coping mechanisms. It is on one level, of course. Clemmons shows restraint yet writes boldly and beautifully about grief: “My mother is dead. But I still see her. … Parts of her will live on in the trees and the streams and the birds of tomorrow. She is the water and the plants and the bits of dust I see swirl in columns of light. But she is dead.”

Instead, what Clemmons offers up is a novel full of honest, bracing questions about how to actively love someone who is permanently gone, how to adjust to your new reality in the face of absence and how to gracefully — and sometimes not so gracefully — shut down and give up when it becomes necessary to do so.

The book covers so much other ground too, and none of it — save (maybe) for a discussion about Winnie Mandela’s potential transgressions in the late 1980s or the occasional rap lyric on its own page — feels out of place.

Take race, for instance. Part of the complexity of What We Lose stems from the fact that Thandi, like Clemmons, is light-skinned and hails from a diverse heritage. Her mother, like Clemmons’ late mother, was born and raised in South Africa to “middle-to-upper-class coloureds — mixed-race, not black” — during the tail end of apartheid. Her father, like Clemmons’, is black and was born and raised in New York.

As with Clemmons’ parents, Thandi’s mother and father met in South Africa when Thandi’s father was volunteering abroad after college. They move to an affluent, predominantly white suburb of Philadelphia to raise a family. During summers, they spend a few weeks visiting relatives and relaxing at their vacation home in Sandton, an enclave outside of Johannesburg referred to as the “richest square kilometer in Africa.” Similar to such playgrounds for the wealthy in the United States, Sandton is 40 minutes from one of the poorest areas in the region.

It’s no secret that there’s a massive, deeply entrenched racial and class divide in both South Africa and the United States, nor should it come as a shock to find out that many (many) people have it wrong when it comes to their attitudes and behavior concerning matters of race. In one of many poignant vignettes in the book, Clemmons throws a harsh light on white privilege and the insidious racism that exists in America when, after Thandi remarks at being the only black person at a high school party, one of her white classmates responds with, “But you’re not, like, a real black person.”

Right. That problem.

What becomes clear is that Thandi, like Clemmons, is a “strange in-betweener.” As a second-generation, mixed-race woman, she doesn’t fit in completely in white culture, nor does she find true kinship and recognition with blacks — in either country. That daily reality and cognitive dissonance is discomfiting. In another on-point way of explaining it, Thandi says: “I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society … but in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe.”

Aside from Thandi’s never-cloying struggles with identity, Clemmons (via Thandi) broaches other topics too — like motherhood, gun ownership and violence in South Africa, gender inequality, and why women internalize oppression. She also touches on the “moneyed-ness” of cancer as a First World disease of privilege, especially when juxtaposed with HIV/AIDS, a “dirty and inconvenient” epidemic most often associated — at least in the current day — with “Africans who [live] in huts and [play] with elephants.”

As you can see, there’s a lot simmering in this small little package. It succeeds because throughout What We Lose, Clemmons writes with her eyes wide open, her brain fully engaged. She poses provocative theories and makes shrewd observations instead of doling out pat answers.

In 2012, while she was still in graduate school at Columbia University pursuing an MFA, Clemmons moved home to take care of her mother who was dying of breast cancer. She was also working on her thesis, a manuscript involving a woman suffering from AIDS.

After she graduated, Clemmons’ agent advised her to put that novel aside to, instead, expand upon a thread that involved coping with loss. Clemmons later cut the new manuscript apart and reordered it on the floor into what would eventually become What We Lose.

Without having read the original work or judged its merit, it’s safe to say that her decision to follow her agent’s advice was a good one — if only to get this giant of a novel into the light.


Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (November 26, 2017)

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