Novel and Notable: What We Lose
Zinzi Clemmons’ debut novel, What We Lose, is one of the most powerful pieces of literature to hit the shelves in 2017. Within its slim 200 pages, Clemmons manages to tackle themes of love, loss, race, class, and gender. Her bare prosaic style coupled with her fresh dialogue mark her as a rising star in the literary sphere.
What We Lose is a book about the here and the there, what we have and what no longer is. It’s really about the space in between, that liminal place where loss, love, history and the present overlap and where they work to coexist. The novel is narrated by Thandi, a young woman that feels impossibly stuck in the liminal space in all areas of her life. Thandi was born to a black South African mother and a white American father. Her family resides in Pennsylvania but frequently goes to South Africa to visit her mother’s family. In both places she is forced to navigate the feelings of being at once an insider and an outsider. She feels trapped between the two countries and their realities and expectations.
In America, Thandi feels a sense of guilt that her family has more security than her extended family in South Africa post-apartheid. She also feels the effects of being a black woman in a country whose collective history was written by a majority of white men. Thandi's light skin prevents her from ever feeling fully accepted by the black American community, yet it is a community with which she feels a strong sense of solidarity. At school, a white girls says to her, “But you’re not, like, a real black person.” Thandi learns quickly that she doesn’t belong, a feeling only amplified by her outsider status in the South African community where her American nationality draws an invisible boundary between her and the other culture to which she belongs.
Thandi is once again forced to confront the repercussions of race when her mother develops breast cancer. Clemmons writes about the pervasive effects of racism in a country where black women continue to die from breast cancer at alarmingly higher rates than white women. The book charts the eventual loss of her mother, and Thandi’s own story is told through the context of her mother’s death. It’s a loss so permanent it surrounds every facet of her life. The name of Clemmons’ book comes from a hospice pamphlet Thandi and her father receive in the wake of her mother’s death. “What We Lose: a Support Guide” offers tips for what feels like the unconquerable.
Eventually, she and her father are able to move forward. Thandi finds love and motherhood, but even these moments of joy are enshrouded by loss and the emptiness of the people no longer present. Her wedding is a moment of celebration, but it is also a moment she plans meticulously in order to avoid pain: “Just as I designed. There’s no time to cry for who isn’t there.” There's even the caveat to the newness of her son, that his coming into being reminds her that birth also means death.
From Thandi’s multifaceted and deeply complex character emerges a human whose struggle for happiness and acceptance is all too relatable. She experiences loss and turmoil, but life continues to charge on through these moments. Thandi notes, “My theory is that loneliness creates the feeling of haunting.” Perhaps it’s because loneliness is a feeling all too near to the human spirit that Clemmons’ novel haunts the minds of the reader long after its read.
In a quasi-vignette style, Clemmons creates fragmented chapters that perfectly mirror the fraction in Thandi’s own life. They also parallel the stratification and struggle of her own. Clemmons’ novel is fiction, but it’s impossible to ignore the similarities between her and Thandi’s stories. Clemmons was raised in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania as the daughter of a South African mother and African American father. While studying for her MFA at Columbia, Clemmons own mother fell ill with breast cancer. The idea for this novel came from a few poignant passages in her MFA thesis, which her agent encouraged her to expand further into a meditation of grief. Clemmons’ attachment to the subject matter allows her striking access to these challenges of loss and personhood. Her style is fresh and poignant, all-together marking of an important voice of this generation. However, some of her sentences feel hollow and generic. Sometimes her lofty sentences work and sometimes they don’t. It’s a hard-won battle that with more time and development, she can dominate. Figuring out the balance and strategic use of these hollow moments will make her work even more extraordinary than it already is.
What We Lose is an important read for everyone, but especially for college students. Like Thandi, we're young and indecisive. Our existence in the now is bound irrevocably to our past histories. College is a liminal space, in and of itself, that can be at once trapping and freedom-filled. We all have a past and are constantly thinking about the future after our time on campus. Clemmons’ novel shows us is that there's a fine line between living in the past and letting it inform our present.
It often feels as if we have to resign ourselves to who we were, to what was, to what will never be. We forget how young we really are. We forget how much time we have to change the things about ourselves that feel broken. We forget that college is all about evolution. That like Thandi, we don’t have to have life figured out.
We're young, we’ll figure it out along the way.