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?