When Zinzi Clemmons was a graduate student at Columbia, at work on her MFA, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Clemmons had been writing a novel with a more or less linear narrative structure. She moved back home to Philadelphia and kept writing, but differently now, taking notes and collecting fragments of text as she cared for her mother. “The only time and energy I could muster resulted in that very short form,” she said recently. “I just ended up keeping those pieces and stitching them together, and a fictional narrative arose.” The novel she had been working on no longer felt worth her while; she’d been trying to use it, she said, to “avoid what was going on with my mom.”
The new novel that emerged, What We Lose, is a startling, poignant debut, released to no shortage of fanfare (Vogue called it “the debut novel of the year”). It tells a story based loosely on the author’s own. The protagonist is Thandi, who, like Clemmons herself, is the daughter of a “coloured” South African mother and an African American father. Thandi, like Clemmons, was raised in a wealthy, mostly white suburb of Philadelphia. Thandi’s self-proclaimed status as a “strange in-betweener”—she has “light skin and foreign roots,” and feels neither fully black American nor fully African—is a defining preoccupation of her young adulthood. Her relationship with her mother is loving but difficult. And in the wake of her death, as Thandi unexpectedly confronts the possibility of becoming a parent herself, she struggles to come to terms with what her mother’s life was, and what hers should be.
The arc sounds conventional enough, distinctive though the specifics may be. The book’s force comes as much from its form as from its content. Clemmons has been an outspoken proponent of experimental fiction and a critic of the ways in which the category is often presented as distinct from “black writing.” “To be denied status as an innovator based on race is terrifying,” Clemmons wrote in a 2016 essay entitled “Where Is Our Black Avant Garde?” Her own experiment, an exercise in autofiction, is anything but linear. Instead, it’s composed of fragments: single paragraphs and sentences, as well as more conventional chapters, of first-person narration by Thandi; photos of public figures; academic blog posts; rap lyrics; an email. After writing a draft, Clemmons printed the manuscript, then laid all its pages out on the floor and rearranged them, disrupting continuity and chronological order.
The resulting collage pulls you in and propels you onward, if not always forward, inviting you into Thandi’s world and her mind, which are both somewhat perplexing places. “In the weeks after my mother died,” she says, “my sex drive was merciless.” She occasionally thinks in mathematical terms and includes hand-drawn graphs charting emotion as a function of time. (“Death and pleasure we experience asymptotically,” she muses.) She dreams of her mother often, not always happily.
Her mother’s own complex in-betweenness collided with Thandi’s well before she fell ill. Unashamed of her origins in a family of “middle-to upper-class coloureds—mixed race, not black” and condescending toward American blacks, she infuriated a daughter unafraid to challenge her. “Weren’t we all sisters?” Thandi wondered in the face of her mother’s “racist views” of darker-skinned women. Her mother had no time for such alliances. “That’s just how it is,” she replied. Her imminent death, and then absence, adds urgency to Thandi’s need to think for herself about race, family, and suffering—and the limits of sisterhood and solidarity.
Even as she watches her mother deteriorate and does her best to care for her, Thandi also looks away, trying to make sense of a bigger picture. She feels conflicted about what she sees as cancer’s aura of privilege: “Dirty and inconvenient, AIDS was a disease of the people, I thought. Cancer, to me, was the opposite. Its cause was endorsed and healthily sponsored.” The notion makes her “extremely uncomfortable,” Thandi says. She can’t shake the feeling, as her mother’s health declines, that “As much as she suffered, many other people were suffering worse.” Here, and elsewhere, Clemmons leaves readers to puzzle over the guilt that lies at the heart of Thandi’s search for self.
Thandi is trying to answer a big question that has become familiar to readers of a certain kind of fiction in recent years. Sheila Heti put it most clearly in the title of her memoiristic 2010 novel, How Should a Person Be? Clemmons’s novel features another in a line of mostly young women for whom the quest for identity presents itself as a dilemma of authenticity, a challenge to make meaning in the face of existential drift and pain. How should a mother be?, this novel asks. How should a daughter be? How should a person mourn? How should a South-African-American woman honor her inheritance, and transcend it?
Clemmons’s collage offers a prismatic portrait of that search for authenticity. Thandi thinks about Kevin Carter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer known for his “Starving Child and Vulture.” “Haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain,” he wrote, Carter took his own life. She reflects on the allegations of fraud and murder surrounding Winnie Mandela, who “bore a strong physical resemblance to my mother.” Ann Dunham, Barack Obama’s late mother, makes an appearance, too, in a scene in which Thandi pictures her responding to his victory in 2008. Dunham is “looking on from whatever heaven she’s chosen, utterly surprised, satisfied beyond comprehension. This is the orphan’s ultimate fantasy.”
The sentiment verges on the maudlin, and some of the fragments have a too predictably iconic feel about them. Yet Thandi herself is well aware that no fantasy awaits her, that her tour of public reckonings yields no clear lessons. Clemmons’s unusual exploration of filial grief occasionally feels like an evasion of grief. At the same time, Thandi’s odyssey is shot through with genuine sadness. Mourning evades prescriptions, this book reminds us. “I have only persisted,” Thandi says. She manages to do that not because she thinks she should, but because she finds she can.