Zinzi Clemmons: Haunting loneliness of death features in debut novel

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What We Lose, Penguin Random House, 2017

“My theory is that loneliness creates the feeling of haunting,” muses Thandi, a young woman coping with her mother’s death in Zinzi Clemmons’ debut novel What We Lose.

Like Clemmons, a graduate student in the fiction MFA program at Columbia University at the time, her character Thandi takes a leave of absence from school to care for her mother as she dies of cancer. In short, fragmented vignettes Clemmons beautifully captures the lucid moments in which Thandi reckons with the fresh reality of a dead mother amidst the befuddlement and dissociation that so often accompanies trauma, but it’s clear from the onset Clemmons was never interested in a highlights tour through only the most insightful or excruciating moments of her mourning period. In What We Lose, she’s showing what everyone who has mourned already knows: that it is tedious, unpredictable and exhausting; that it feels like limbo.

Clemmons’ debut is also about socioeconomic and racial identity, and the politics of belonging. Thandi remarks early in the novel that she’s “often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless.” The mourning protagonist reflects more than once on the disproportionate age expectancies between black and white Americans, and her shock at the number of black patients in the cancer treatment facility she visited with her mother.

Attend the keynote opening event featuring Zinzi Clemmons at Hanes Auditorium at Salem College at 7:30 p.m.

Blank spaces on the novel’s 200-some pages force the reader to visually confront absence just as Thandi confronts her mother’s physical absence from their family home, which is still full of her hand-picked treasures from her South African homeland. Clemmons’ experimental structure mirrors the ways in which processing grief is itself an ongoing creative feat. She includes hand-drawn charts, photos, hip-hop lyrics and blogposts amongst the vignettes. The disrupted chronology feels like coming in and out of a dissociative state or like the whiplash of bounding to and from Philadelphia, Johannesburg, Portland and New York, never quite feeling like she’s in the right place, aching for someone to anchor her. So then Clemmons’ debut also becomes a meditation on love and sexuality, on fear, on criminality and political resistance. What We Lose is about everything because nothing slows down for you when your mother dies. It’s about everything because she was everything.

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