Zinzi Clemmons Reads from Debut Novel at the Midtown Scholar
Zinzi Clemmons gave a poignant reading from her debut novel What We Lose at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore on the evening of August 9th. A native of Swarthmore, she writes in part from her life experience, with nods to historical events, and a line of narrative that unfolds the complexities of loss and grief. Clemmons’ novel is a series of genre-bending vignettes seamed together non-linearly, that focus on exploring the depth and texture of her narrator and the relevant topics she addresses in her writing. She paints a portrait of a young woman caught in periods of identity limbo—between losing and finding herself—that surround the death of her mother.
This narrative becomes complicated by issues of the body displayed in the central character, Thandi, a young woman in college who struggles with her sense of self and faces the stigma attached to immigrant parentage, colorism, and cultural authenticity. It would be unwise to assume too much of the novel is lightly veiled memoir, despite the similarities Zinzi might share with Thandi. But, Clemmons clearly writes material that is close to home, drawing from her own experience as a mixed-race American from suburban Philadelphia with South African roots.
While some passages feel like intimate insight into the author, it’s important to note that the author did not wish to confine the story to her individual experience and created a fictive storyline to release the narrative from such a narrow reading. This is not a work of creative non-fiction, despite the fact that some of the most affecting passages are clearly draw from Clemmons’ life. Thandi’s struggle goes beyond the experiences of the author to explore convoluted romances and unexpected pregnancies that give the reader a wider view of the human experience. Clemmons made a very intentional decision to write a novel, and it should be read as such.
Clemmons has a background in editing and publishing and has predominantly published essays and nonfiction articles in the past. This becomes obvious in the way she adeptly combines images and information related to post-apartheid South Africa within What We Lose. She also has a background experimenting with visual collage, and stated during her post-reading Q&A session that there was a likely connection between that practice and her decision to take visual elements and historical documents and weave them in with her narrative. A less practiced hand may not have pulled off a structural tapestry woven from so many distinctly different genres, but Clemmons pieced her work together wise a skill and grace.
I can say, as a daughter who has experienced supporting my own mother during a battle with cancer, that Clemmons perfectly captures the hollowing sadness and profound grief one feels as they confront the mortality of the person who is responsible for their very existence. Twenty-something feels too young to face the thought of being untethered from that person who anchors you to your life. The transition into adulthood is hard enough, but the loss of a parent compounds the problem. Reading the story of Thandi, you come to understand just how far the loss of a mother shakes a daughter. Clemmons spoke candidly about journaling through her grief as her mother was dying of cancer. She scrapped the novel she had been working on to build What We Lose from those journals. It’s easy to try and read catharsis into the choice to write this novel, but as Clemmons makes clear through her narrator, we are never fully released from our emotional ties to our parents.
This novel is incredibly affecting and hard to put down—I read it in a single afternoon. Thandi handles difficult events in such an authentically human way that I never doubt her character. Her losses are heartfelt, and what she gains throughout the novel always complicates her life further. Sex is never just sex, a shared experience with a friend or relative defines both characters more clearly, and by the end of the novel you feel a real return on your emotional investment. Clemmons crafted a beautiful story capturing some of the most profound human experiences in a fresh way.
I recommend this book for many reasons and to many kinds of readers. If you love authors like Zadie Smith, who handle issues of racial identity in the post-colonial world, then you should read this novel. If you have lost someone you love, be it a parent to cancer or anyone else in your life, then you should read this novel. If you are a human being interested in complicated histories and a cultural anthropologic view through the lens of a single narrator, then you should read this novel. What We Lose creates a reading experience that is expertly curated by Clemmons to give a reader insight into our complicated world through a singular perspective, and it is a debut that should not be missed.