Date Read: March 18th 2017
Published: July 11th 2017
Publisher: Viking Books
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.
Review – ★★★★ (4 stars)
Laden with meditative, intimate and at times unsettling vignettes, What We Lose will leave you in a pensive state. Thandi – the heroine of this novel, is the only child of her mother (a coloured South African) and father (a light skinned African American) who is very aware of her privileges & multicultural background. Readers follow Thandi on her journey from childhood to adulthood as she navigates what it means to be a black woman in America and South Africa, dealing with the loss of a loved one, motherhood and love.
What We Lose is based on Zinzi Clemmons’s life, BUT it isn’t her life. If you’ve been following Clemmons’s work online, especially her 2013 piece – A Geography of Hurt, you’d find the subject matter in this novel familiar. While there isn’t a clear-cut plot to this novel, Clemmons successfully portrays Thandi’s life through short vignettes. The vignettes reflect Thandi’s complex thoughts – private, absorbing and heartfelt thoughts, that one probably wouldn’t even share with their closest partner. Some bits of the text feel philosophical which was confusing at times, but appreciated. I love how pictures and graphs and random news articles are scattered throughout the book, as it gave the storytelling an unconventional feel.
Johannesburg, South Africa plays a vital role in this novel. The world is so absorbed in American politics (aka: Trump) that we forget about the intense and ever present racism in post-apartheid South Africa. Thandi and her family are coloureds and wealthy, so readers experience a different account of racial dynamics in South Africa through their lens, which is refreshing. It was intriguing to see how American racial relations and South African racial relations were juxtaposed and how they impacted Thandi’s life and even play a role in her grieving process and the important decisions she makes in her life.
Anyone whose lost a parent will deeply resonate with this novel. I initially thought this novel would be morbid and sorrowful, but I was glad to find that it reads more as a visceral novel – deep feelings and black psyche are articulated so aptly!
Quotes that made me think about blackness and grief:
To my cousins and me, American blacks were the epitome of American cool. Blacks were the stars of rap videos, big-name comedians, and actors with their own television shows and world tours. Notorious B.I.G, Puff Daddy, Janet Jackson. Martin Lawrence… We worshipped them, and my cousins, especially, looked to the freedom that these stars represented as aspirational… But when I called myself black, my cousins looked at me askance… I looked just like my relatives, but calling myself black was wrong to them. Though American blacks were cool, South African blacks were ordinary, yet dangerous. It was something they didn’t want to be. (pg. 26)
I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe. (pg. 31)
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)
This is the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me? The question was so enormous that I could see only my entire life, everything I know, filling it. (pg. 95)
I’m not sure how this book is being marketed to the public; but for me, What We Lose tackles so much more than the issue of race. This coming-of-age novel reminds you that we are all human. We are all dealing with our personal struggles. We are all trying to thrive and heal and survive. Illness, love, race, mental health, motherhood, sisterhood and social class dynamics are wonderfully weaved into the overall themes of grief and the quest to belong.
Read the book chat I had with Zinzi Clemmons on What We Lose, her favorite black writers, her relationship to South Africa, self-care tips, who’d play Thandi if the novel ever made it to the big screen and more.
Special thanks again to Zinzi Clemmons and the team at Viking Books for the ARC!
★★★★ (4 stars) – Great book. Highly recommend!
Purchase What We Lose on Amazon