Book Chat :: with Zinzi Clemmons, author of forthcoming novel – ‘What We Lose’

Happy summer, everyone!

What books are on your radar this summer? I highly recommend you keep an eye out for debut novel – What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, which will be in stores July 11th!

Check out the synopsis below:

From an author of rare, haunting power, a stunning novel about a young African-American woman coming of age—a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, family, and country.

Raised in Pennsylvania, Thandi views the world of her mother’s childhood in Johannesburg as both impossibly distant and ever present. She is an outsider wherever she goes, caught between being black and white, American and not. She tries to connect these dislocated pieces of her life, and as her mother succumbs to cancer, Thandi searches for an anchor—someone, or something, to love.

In arresting and unsettling prose, we watch Thandi’s life unfold, from losing her mother and learning to live without the person who has most profoundly shaped her existence, to her own encounters with romance and unexpected motherhood. Through exquisite and emotional vignettes, Clemmons creates a stunning portrayal of what it means to choose to live, after loss. An elegiac distillation, at once intellectual and visceral, of a young woman’s understanding of absence and identity that spans continents and decades, What We Lose heralds the arrival of a virtuosic new voice in fiction.

Images via vogue.comzinziclemmons.com

Back in March of this year, Zinzi Clemmons and publishing team at Viking Books sent me an Advance Reading Copy of What We Lose and I devoured it over the weekend, on the week it was sent. The novel was a pleasantly intimate read and I just had to discuss various aspects of the book with Clemmons herself.

Zinzi Clemmons was gracious enough to have a book chat with me on her debut. We discussed various social and cultural issues that inundate this deeply moving work. (note – ‘ZC’ represents Zinzi Clemmons’s responses).


  1. Before we discuss your forthcoming novel, I want to commend you on your thorough and pretty fierce essay on literary criticism- featured in The James Franco Review. How long have you been writing and what are your views on book blogs in the literary criticism space?  

 

ZC: Thank you, I’m glad to hear you read that piece. The goal of that essay was to merge argument with practice—the essay itself is a continuation of discourse, which is what I was arguing for in the essay. To me, it’s very important to not shy away from tough discussions, to follow them all the way through to the end. That’s what I was attempting to do there.

I started writing in college, around the same time that I started becoming involved in publications. The first one was my college’s black literary journal, called the African Sun. It had been dormant for some time, and some friends and I helped revive it. In grad school, I founded a literary journal called Apogee, and I had a big hand in founding their blog. I love the experience of being in a room with a lot of smart, dedicated people, and arguing over every small editorial decision, every piece of paper, every illustration that goes into it. That atmosphere of collaboration and debate has always really inspired me.

So, first, I think that online publications allow people to do this who otherwise couldn’t afford it. They offer a great opportunity to people who like you who want to get their point of view out into the world. And, they are accessible to readers who otherwise couldn’t afford print journals, or who don’t have access to bookstores that carry them (increasingly a problem), or who otherwise just wouldn’t know where to look. I think they’re an increasingly important part of our media landscape, and they should be supported.


 

  1. In your forthcoming novel ‘What We Lose,’ Thandi – the heroine, is raised in Pennsylvania by her African-American father and South African mother – much like yourself. To what extent is this novel autobiographical and how long did it take you to write it?

 

ZC: The novel is based on my life, but it’s not my life. The biographical facts of Thandi’s life are very similar—not unusual for a novelist—but our personalities diverge. She is much more impulsive, whereas I take a long, long time to think over any decision I make. Some of that is indecision, some of it is that I’m just a very careful person. I’m in awe of people who can think in real-time on Twitter—it takes me a minimum of 30 minutes to think over any tweet, and I always end up regretting it. I like to say that whereas I would think about doing something, Thandi would just do it. It took me about 4 years from start to finish.


 

  1. The novel alternates between the United States and South Africa. I enjoyed the vignettes in South Africa where Thandi spends time with her carefree cousin, Lyndall. What’s your personal relationship to South Africa?

 

ZC: My mother, like Thandi’s, was South African, and her extended family (which is very large) lives over there. There are also family friends and others—altogether, I have a very extensive network over there. My mom was a schoolteacher with summers off, so from the time I was an infant until I graduated high school, whenever we could afford it, she would take my brother and I over there for the entire summer. I was born in 1985, so this means I saw a lot of pre-Independence and post-. I’m still very close with my family over there. My husband also lived in Cape Town briefly in 2013, and the first conversation we ever had was about South African politics and the EFF. It turned out we were there at the same time—in 2013, around the time Nelson Mandela died. We both love the country and hope to return as soon as we can, but of course, it’s a long way there from California, where we live.


 

  1. This powerful quote stood out to me –

Her disease only reinforced how the world saw us: not black or white, not American or African, not poor or rich. We were confined to the middle, and would always be. As hard as she tried to separate herself from the binds of apartheid, we were still within its grip. It had become the indelible truth of our lives, and nothing – not sickness, not suffering, not death – could change that. (pg. 82)

 

The commentary on post-apartheid race relations in South Africa are truly compelling in ‘What We Lose,’ especially being juxtaposed against American race relations. In your view, how are American and South African racial issues similar and/or different?

 

ZC: I wrote an op-ed on this that will hopefully come out soon, where I basically say that each country offers insight on how the other deals with race. There are many parallels between America’s and South Africa’s racial legacies, but to kind of nutshell what that difference is: to me, American racism is most often disguised, whereas in South Africa, it’s more obvious and out in the open. Trevor Noah made this point recently: the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was a defining moment in that it acknowledged the pain and suffering of black people. America never did that; reparations here are still an incredibly hot-button issue. America’s racial legacy is one of denial and cognitive dissonance. We’ve perfected the art of brutalizing minorities while denying we’ve done anything wrong to them. In South Africa, things are not quite so. Of course, that goes on, but not to the degree we do it in America. Philando Castile’s murderer was just acquitted, when everyone could see that he was murdered, and that officer was reckless. But nothing happens, over and over. A lot of that has to do with the fact that America is a white-majority country, whereas SA is black-majority. But we see a lot of parallels around issues of affirmative action, social welfare, and LGBT issues.


 

  1. This novel is a unique hybrid with African and African-American socio-cultural elements embodied into Thandi’s persona. Some writers dislike being ‘pigeon-holed’ and labeled as ‘African writer’ or ‘African-American writer’ or ‘Black writer.’ How do you prefer to be identified as a writer?

 

ZC: For the most part, I don’t mind what people call me. I try not to focus on what I can’t control, and instead focus on what I can: improving myself as a writer and a thinker. The truth is, I am all of those things you name: I’m an African-American writer, a Black writer, a woman writer, a young writer. As far as what I call myself, I have a tough time describing myself as African, because I have not lived there for a long time, but rather been a long-term visitor. I don’t think there’s a word for my relationship to South Africa, but to call myself African as an identifier doesn’t feel quite right. I call myself an artist and a literary writer, and I try to interact with all those identities and the communities that come along with.


 

  1. Who are some of your favorite Black writers and influencers of your work? (where ‘Black’ is – African/ African-American/ Caribbean/ Black-British/ Afro-Latinx or simply writers of African descent).

 

ZC: It’s tough to pick from so many, as most of my favorite writers are Black, but I’ll try. Toni Morrison is a guiding light; Claudia Rankine, Paule Marshall, Audre Lorde, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon. Jesmyn Ward is a Southern American writer whose work is incredibly important—I’m not sure how popular her work is overseas, but it should be. She speaks from a very particular experience that you don’t encounter very often—she’s from a poor rural community on the Gulf Coast—and her writing is elegant and honest. I teach her work in my classes, and I think it will stand the test of time.


 

  1. Grief and illness play huge roles in this intimate novel. While Thandi and her mother had a complicated relationship, she’s nonetheless deeply affected by her mother’s passing. In these tumultuous times, ‘self-care’ has become more important for many of us Black millenials. What are some of the ways you preserve your mental health, especially in these times?

 

ZC: It’s a really tough thing to do, and I think the first thing to acknowledge is that everyone has a different role to play in these times—if we want to call it a struggle, so be it. I gave an interview the other day where someone asked what I think the role of the activist is nowadays, and I couldn’t give a concrete answer. I think that everyone should decide what they can handle—for some that means protesting, for others that’s writing articles or poetry or fundraising. There’s no one way to participate—your role can look different. But it’s important to remember that we all need rest. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so always think about what you need to do to keep yourself going. Whether that means shutting off the TV for a weekend, or changing your media diet. Do what you need to do to support the work you’re doing. That’s my motto in general, but it’s particularly applicable today.


 

  1. While reading, I often pictured this novel on the big screen: stellar cinematography sans excessive dialogue but with vivid imagery (as in the book) that reflect the meditative nature of the novel. Have you ever wondered who would play Thandi, if ‘What We Lose’ ever made it to the big screen?

 

ZC: I’ve always flirted with the idea of making a film, even before I published this novel. I’ve made some pretty amateur art videos myself, and from what you described they may be along the lines of what you envisioned. The film rights are actually being shopped now, so I hope this does come true! Lisa Bonet is sort of my celebrity doppelgänger, so from a pure verisimilitude angle, Zoe Kravitz would fit the bill. But, I’d also love to find a new up and coming actress and give her the spotlight.


 

  1. I was elated to see that ‘What We Lose’ will also be published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, in South Africa. When will the book be released in South Africa? Why have the book published and available in South Africa as well?

 

ZC: The book will be released shortly after the July 11 US pub date. It was very important to me for the book to be published over there, and I insisted on it when 4th Estate (my UK publisher who distributes in Commonwealth countries) offered to buy it. Two reasons: First, because the book is set there and I think South Africans will want to read it, and I’m interested in what they think of it. Second, and more personally, I have a big family over there and it meant a lot to me for them to be able to buy it in bookstores.


 

  1. Finally, why would you like for people to read your forthcoming novel, ‘What We Lose’?

 

ZC: I wrote this book to challenge ideas about literature, race, and motherhood. I hope that anyone who is interested in these ideas finds this book. I also wrote this book for black women, for young women like you and me, to offer a different representation than the ones we are used to. I wanted to create a narrator like me, who could to tell this story. This has always been a main goal of mine: to broaden peoples’ ideas of what blackness is, and who black women are. Solange has been a very influential cultural voice for me, so to borrow the title of her last album, I hope this book offers another seat at the table.


 

Zinzi Clemmons is a Philadelphia-raised writer and editor with South African and Trinidadian roots. She’s co-founder and former publisher of Apogee Journal, as well as a contributing editor to the Literary Hub. She has a great number of critical essays and short stories online and currently teaches literature & creative writing at The Colburn Conservatory and Occidental College.

(Image via zinziclemmons.com)

 

Pre-order What We Lose on Amazon 

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9 thoughts on “Book Chat :: with Zinzi Clemmons, author of forthcoming novel – ‘What We Lose’

  1. Hey Darkowaa! This is an excellent “Book Chat” – I’m so glad that you were able to give us another layer of anticipation for Zinzi Clemmons and her book. I’m rubbing my hands together!

    Liked by 1 person

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