I hope the month of October is treating everyone well. Over the weeks and months, I’ve been consuming some great literature finds and gems online. Below is a compilation of some of the LIT links I highly recommend you indulge in:
This Land is My Land is a Kickstarter project by three students from Macalester College (Saint Paul, Minnesota) who are publishing a children’s book to build empathy. I really love the unique illustrations (I especially love that the characters are dark-skinned with kinky/ tightly coiled hair!) and strong premise around a necessary character trait everyone must strive to embody – empathy.
I think adults could learn a lot from this children’s book as well. The ways of the world have become quite disheartening and we could all learn to have more empathy with one another. Check out their website and donate to the kickstarter if you can, so they can meet their goal of $7,500 by November 2nd! #WeAreWithAmina
Book bloggers are real readers via The Irish Times. Tunrayo of the blog Tunrayo’s Thoughts tweeted this AMAZING article to me some months ago. I’ve shared this article before in the last LIT Links Mélange, but I just have to share it again. The article articulates and defends the role of book bloggers and the influence we hold. Golden!
Pa Gya! Literary Festival in Accra this weekend!! I always feel like I’m missing out whenever there are book festivals in other parts of the continent and in the US when I’m not there. I’m thrilled that Writer’s Project Ghana will be hosting this 3-day literary festival, starting this Friday! Check out the packed schedule and start planning which events you’ll attend, if you’re in Accra :).
Writing Between Countries and Across BordersviaThe Lit Hub via Issue 20 of PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers is a brilliant conversation between authors – Kwame Anthony Appiah, Marlon James, Jamaica Kincaid, Valeria Luiselli, and Colum McCann. They speak about their creative processes, identity, the concept of home, immigration, their writing careers and more! I wish Jamaica Kincaid spoke more in this conversation, but here are two quotes I LOVED from this conversation, by Jamaica Kincaid –
We are on a powerful continent, and this powerful continent produces so much disturbance that the citizens of the continent would like, when they sit down to read a book, for that book to offer some solace about the human condition. I insist on offering none.
When I’m writing, I am only true to the thing I’m writing. I find the contemporary obsession with the consideration of others in writing really disturbing, and I almost can’t respect a readership that would expect me to please them.
If you haven’t read any of Jamaica Kincaid’s work yet, I hope these quotes and my book reviews of her work pique your interest! Enjoy this conversations and gain wisdom from these geniuses!
I love that she tries to encourage African writers to do away with appealing to foreign/white readers by setting their stories abroad and watering down their texts to accommodate the white gaze. But this article seems to give ‘African literature’ a specific criteria; it also suggests that being ‘African’ or an ‘African writer’ is monolithic and frowns heavily on Afropolitanism. It’s always problematic and divisive when people impose their rigid standards of identity onto others. I have so many thoughts on this article! If you don’t have time to read any of the links in this post, I strongly recommend you indulge in this excellent, yet polarizing article, so we can discuss in the comments!
Edwidge Danticat on Memory and MigrationviaThe New Yorker. I like to believe Haitian writer – Edwidge Danticat, is known for her beautiful, melancholic writing which really speak to the heart. Enjoy this interview where Danticat talks about Alzheimer’s, family, and hanging on to the past even through heartbreak. (Her short story collection – Krik? Krak!, has been reviewed on this platform. I’m yet to find the words to review her beautifully painful novel – Breath, Eyes, Memory soon)
The Elma Lewis Center (of Emerson College in Boston, MA) has blessed us with the The Hidden Figures Syllabus! The syllabus was launched on September 15th, on what would have been Elma Lewis’ 96th birthday.
In honor of Lewis, and in gratitude for the powerful legacy she has left, this syllabus was carefully curated with lists of texts and other resources by and about Black women and femmes from around the African diaspora. This is a resource I will be referring to often, especially when I want to find my next read and raise my awareness on Black literature & culture.
Click image to download the Hidden Figures Syllabus below:
bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward has been re-released by Penguin Books! I read and reviewed the poetry collection last year, from the self-published edition. This Penguin edition is just as good as the self-published edition but better, as it has new breathtaking poems full of Daley-Ward’s raw, healing writing. If you love poetry by Black women poets, I highly recommend this collection!
Diriye Osman has launched his new website! In case you’re wondering who Diriye Osman is, he’s the British-Somali author, visual artist, critic and essayist whose short story collection – Fairytales For Lost Children, was my favorite book last year! The collection follows characters who desire to live their lives free from hate, criticism, and scrutiny, while trying to understand the intersectionalities of their identities. Fairytales For Lost Children is probably the best LGBTQ-themed African fiction out there.
The new website looks wonderfully Afro-futuristic and is a compilation of all of Osman’s work – fiction, interviews, essays and reviews of other works. Enjoy!
Are you a member of a book club? If you haven’t found the right book club or you haven’t had time to seek one out where ever you are in the world, I introduce to you a super rich and engaging DIGITAL book club, in the form of a podcast – The Sankofa Book Club.
I stumbled upon The Sankofa Book Club when I was participating in a book chat (on Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi) on Twitter, last year. I resonated with some of the responses the co-founder – Akua, was tweeting and decided to check out the podcast via iTunes. The Sankofa Book Club is a digital book club with a focus on African literature. The co-hosts are of Ghanaian descent who engage in intelligent and honest conversations around books I adore. The podcast is currently 10 episodes deep and my favorite episodes so far have been their discussions on Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Everyday is for the Thief by Teju Cole.
Enjoy the conversation I had with The Sankofa Book Club team where we discuss their origin story, their favorite writers of African descent, favorite snacks to indulge in while reading and more!
What’s the story behind the book club’s name – The ‘Sankofa’ Book Club?
Sankofa is an Adinkra symbol – Adinkra is a collection of symbols from the Akan tradition in Ghana. You can see the symbol incorporated in our logo. The term “sankofa” translates from Twi as “return and get it” and it symbolizes the importance of learning from your past. As we were thinking about what to call the book club, this just seemed so apt. The co-founders are both Ghanaian and we want this book club to be a platform for people to learn about Africa – especially those of us Africans born and raised outside of Africa.
Who’s behind the scenes of The Sankofa Book Club? Briefly tell us about the team members and co-hosts.
We’re a small team of three. Akua and Mel are co-hosts of the podcast and co-founders of the book club. We focus on producing the podcast and growing our community. Sam is our curator – she researches the books and allocates them every month. However, we are looking to grow, so get in touch if you’re interested!
What was the inspiration for starting a digital book club in podcast form? Will there be book club meet-ups in the future where the team is based?
The inspiration was several different thoughts popping up in my head in no particular order:
I (Akua) worked on podcasts through work in digital marketing.
It was an exciting new media but like most things in this world, it was whitewashed.
Mel and I have thought-provoking conversation anyway.
I really like African lit and wished I could join a book club like that.
I don’t live in London, don’t have the time or energy to do that in London.
Why are we limiting ourselves to London?
Let’s do a podcast on African lit.
It may as well be a book club.
We love that we’re digital and interacting with people all over the world and we don’t want to lose that. However, a live recording in London will definitely be happening in the near future.
How do you decide on which books to read? Why focus on African Literature?
Sam does research into the themes, what people are currently reading and uses that choose a book each month. It helps us stay relevant and prevents us from being repetitive.
Africa is more than the world’s charity case, and who better to tell the true story of Africa than Africans. That’s why we focus on African literature. We want to hear a different narrative. We want to be a different narrative.
Who is your target audience? How has the reception been, after the 10 episodes (and counting) that are available?
Anyone interested in Africa, literature and/or both! What we’d really love is for people who don’t feel connected to the continent to use this as a relaxed and fun way to learn, or just read something different. There’s loads of brilliant African literature out there getting very little attention. We want to change that.
The reception of SBC has been really positive. It’s interesting to see that a lot of our audience is actually in Africa, who just appreciate the discussion.
6. Random Bookish Facts:
a) How do you like your books – Hardcovers, paperbacks, audiobooks or e-books?
Akua – Paperback.
Mel – Paperback mostly, hardback if it’s affordable; not a fan of audiobooks.
Sam – Paperback until quite recently. E-books are more handy and make my commute less boring and bulky.
b) Do you usually read – New books, used books, borrowed/stolen books (from friends) or library books?
Akua – A brand new book from Waterstones.
Mel – Usually brand new books but I’m also a lover of borrowed/stolen books.
Sam – Definitely new books (I do steal a lot of book lists though).
c) What is/are your favorite book genre(s)? (Poetry, thrillers, romance, short stories, literary fiction, non-fiction etc.)
Akua – Poetry. It’s simple but deep.
Mel – Thrillers. I enjoy the suspense and drama.
Sam – Historical Fiction! I love a good mystery too.
d) Favorite snacks/beverages to indulge in while reading?
Akua – Biscuits or cake.
Mel – Peppermint tea all day everyday.
Sam – Potato Chips and chocolate. There’s something about the crunch that keeps me going.
Who are your top three favorite African writers, and why?
Akua – Her Majesty Queen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe and Afua Hirsch. The first two are authors of my favourite books so by default my favourite writers. Afua Hirsch is a journalist, half English, half Ghanaian. When I see a cutting edge, non-conformist article on current affairs, I just know she wrote it. Such an intelligible Black British voice! I so appreciate her. She has a book coming out in January 2018.
Mel – Chimamanda Ngozi and Chigozie Obioma. I’m still on the hunt for my third favourite African author. Chimamanda is amazing for her attention to detail and empowering me as a women and an individual of African descent. Chigozie is special for his gift of reflecting his literary influences in his novels. He also has a knack for eloquently describing a mere moment, allowing the reader to see it from an in-depth perspective.
Sam – I’m pretty old school so I’m going to say Ama Ata Aidoo because of her style and her pioneering work in African Literature with regards to female independence and empowerment. Wole Soyinka next because I love his sense of humour and the wisdom in his writing. I will have to concede that more recently I too have developed a soft spot for Chimamanda Ngozi. She just embodies everything. She is intelligent, eloquent and still relatable. She has a way of dissecting literally all things that matter to young black women so plainly yet extremely intuitive.
Finally, what can listeners and readers look forward to in the future for The Sankofa Book Club?
Akua – Amazing guests on the podcast and more interaction with our book club members! We know we have a consistent audience out there, we see you and we love you!
Mel – I’d like to echo what Akua has said and add that listeners can also expect that we will continue to encourage their inner book worm.
How do you feel about literature from the Caribbean? Who are some of your favorite writers of Caribbean descent? 2 months ago, I sent out a Tweet asking for recommendations of book bloggers & blogs that focus on Caribbean literature/culture. I received a good number of responses, with most of them having a focus on Caribbean Kid Lit & Mommy blogs.
(click image to see responses via Twitter)
As I was receiving recommendations, I realized that I had been following writer Joanne C. Hillhouse’s websiteand blog for almost 2 years now. For those who don’t know, Joanne C. Hillhouse is a writer of Antiguan descent, based in Antigua. She’s the founder of Wadadli Youth Pen Prize (founded in 2004), which is ‘an annual writing challenge, guiding young Creatives toward culturally relevant literary expression, and nurturing and showcasing their best efforts.’ Hillhouse’s website and blog have been staples of mine when it comes to getting my Caribbean literature fix, as she often gives lots of recommendations and shares her experiences reading various books from the Islands.
Joanne C. Hillhouse was gracious enough to chat with me via email on Caribbean literature, the reading culture in Antigua, her favorite writers/Caribbean (book) blogs and the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize. Get your TBRs ready, because they will definitely grow after you indulge in this wholesome book chat, with writer Joanne C. Hillhouse. (note – ‘JH’ represents Joanne C. Hillhouse’s responses).
At what age did you read your first novel by a Caribbean writer? How was that experience?
JH: I can’t remember. My introduction to Caribbean literature, the way I remember it, was primarily through the oral tradition (jumbie stories, folk stories, Anansi stories, even calypso the more narrative of which I still sometimes use in workshops) and through short stories used in school. I remember short stories like the one about Millicent with her prideful nature and her organdy dress, by Merle Hodge, though I’m not sure I registered who the author was at the time as this was primary school or at highest first form of secondary school, and Millicent and her classroom tyranny was what resonated.
I remember excerpts of Michael Anthony’s The Year in San Fernando standing out as well. Actually, this is unlocking a memory of what might, emphasis on might, have been the first Caribbean book I read, Miguel Street by V. S. Naipual. My brother was in secondary school and I believe it was one of his, but I read it, recognized it, loved it.
I also remember reading Sam Selvon’s A Brighter Sun, I think it was A Brighter Sun, in secondary school over the summer in third form maybe, and then by the time term started it had been dropped from the reading list; I remember that because I remember being disappointed. It didn’t help that I didn’t fall in love with the Caribbean book I ultimately did have to study – no further comment on that.
A book that stands out though, though this would have been later teens, is Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, which hit close to home in many ways, not least of which because I, too, was a girl from Antigua and I recognized the physical, socio-cultural, and emotional landscape of the book. I mark this as one of the books that opened up a portal of possibility for me in terms of me becoming a writer.
What’s the reading culture like in Antigua and Barbuda? Is Caribbean literature required reading in the school system?
JH: Most of the reading of Caribbean literature that happens, I would say, happens in school and even there it’s limited, though I can’t speak specifically to what’s required reading or what isn’t and how much it’s changed since my school days. I’ve been fortunate to have some of my books read in the schools, including The Boy from Willow Bend which has been on the schools reading list here in Antigua and in Anguilla for years. I have been fortunate, as well, to meet some of the young people who did have to read my books in school and they didn’t seem to hate it the way we tend to things we’re obligated to do, which is always the danger. They seem to like them actually.
But the reality is that outside of school, Caribbean books are not widely read, though it’s perhaps better than it was. I grew up reading more books from England and the U.S. –they were just more readily available (and weren’t school books) and I don’t think that has changed as much as I’d like to wish. I would distinguish though between reading and storytelling, and though one of our leaders, reportedly, once said that we’re not a reading public, I would venture to say that we have always been a storytelling public – stories handed down have sustained our culture from the time when we didn’t have agency over our own lives (slavery) to present (post-Independence), and I think people appreciate seeing some of our stories written down.
How prevalent is African literature in Antigua? Are books by African writers sold in bookshops and/or read & raved about among book lovers on the Island?
JH: Not very. Some are sold, yes, but honestly perhaps more so those who’ve been embraced in Western culture – like a Chimamanda Adichie.
You’ve successfully published six books and I plan on getting my hands on your recent novel – Oh Gad!, especially after Trinidadian-American writer Elizabeth Nunez recommended it on NPR’s Weekend Reads. How long have you been a writer? Do labels like ‘Antiguan writer’ or ‘Caribbean writer’ limit how you identify as a writer?
JH: How long have I been a writer… I remember going to see Chariots of Fire on a class trip in primary school and not really getting it but liking the theme music and making up lyrics, that I still sort of remember, to that theme music. There are probably other moments like that, but that’s one I remember. Then I remember journaling and attempting my first story in a black and white note book my Tanty used to own and write in, when she died. Her death was very traumatic, and that notebook and the silver bracelets I still wear were things of hers that I held on to. Then, in my teens, probably earlier, entering school essay competitions – around tourism and Independence themes; won a trip to another Caribbean island once and my mom sent my big sister with me, I imagine because I was too young to travel alone though she is only a year and change older than me.
Lots of writing activity in my teens, poetry, short fiction, song lyrics, including one that I worked out with my guitar teacher and submitted it with the youth choir I was then a part of to a sub-regional radio Christmas carol competition; I still have that prize plaque. I remember taking my stories to show to one of my English teachers when I started the Antigua State College, one of the first times I sought critical feedback. Then at the College, between age 16 and 18, I would write plays, soapy melodramas in retrospect, that were performed by the College drama group; on to the University of the West Indies where I was both taught (fiction) and mentored by Mervyn Morris, who then recommended me for my first fiction writing workshop, the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute facilitated by Olive Senior at the University of Miami. It was there that I started work on what would become my first book.
I’m not a fan of labels and I try not to think in terms of limitations, though I’m certainly aware of and have encountered the obstacles in the path of a writer from a small place – first within the wider Caribbean and then internationally. The world of publishing is paradoxically both crowded and vast. But as far as the writing goes… every writer comes from somewhere, right? New Orleans pulses in the writings of Anne Rice and Ireland was richly rendered by Maeve Binchy, Mario Puzo embedded his readers in a particular part of the Italian-American experience, Junot Diaz provides a window to the Dominican-American experience and Edwidge Danticat to the Haitian experience; their locales/cultures enriched the work rather than limiting them. Antigua and the Caribbean are in my skin, on my tongue, and in my writing. I embrace that. One of my favourite reviews – plural because it’s been said more than once, about more than one piece of writing – has come from readers, Antiguan or otherwise, who have described my writing as unapologetically Antiguan/Caribbean. My stories are particular, and, I like to hope, potentially universal not in spite of but because of that.
You’re the founder and coordinator of the amazing Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, which promotes the literary arts among young people in Antigua and Barbuda. What inspired you to start this writing program and how has the reception been since its launch in 2004?
JH: I was at a luncheon in Canada, the Caribbean-Canadian literary expo, maybe the first off-island literary event I was invited to as a published author, in 2003; and the featured speaker at the luncheon was a Guyanese writer of my generation (Ruel Johnson) who spoke of the lack of nurseries for potential or emerging writers in the region. As I had felt that lack keenly coming of age in Antigua, I foolishly resolved to do something about it, and when I got home I fired off a proposal to my first two partners without fully understanding the commitment I was making or the work involved.
It has experienced peaks and valleys in terms of the response; this was our best year numerically and also our most challenging because of those high numbers. It’s hard for me to assess its reception; I’m too deep in it. I only know that it has come to mean as much to me as anything I’ve written, I’ve seen people who’ve come through it go on to do things creatively, I believe that it is now part of the cultural landscape and at the same time something that still has a lot of growing to do…and that it’s been something like a labour of love that has got to become more institutionalized if it is to survive me (or my ability to do it), and I want that.
I enjoy visiting Wadadli Pen, as well as your personal website Jhohadli as there’s always fresh content on the literary happenings in the Caribbean! Do you frequent other websites or book blogs that focus on Caribbean literature? If so, please recommend your top 3 favorite websites/blogs.
JH: I follow many book, arts, and cultural blogs Caribbean and not Caribbean. Top three Caribbean? I’m much too indecisive to ever have a definitive top 3 but the Caribbean(ish) blogs I have most recently interacted with are Island Editions by a Canadian author who divides her time between Canada and Bequia and blogs on publishing and writing mostly; Repeating Islands which curates Caribbean themed content from different sources; and Random Michelle, an Antiguan blogger who regularly posts photo prompts to which I like to challenge myself to respond. So, I’ll mention those with a shout out to the Paper-Basedbook blog, the blog of a Trinidad based bookshop, written by poet and reviewer Shivanee Ramlochan, who also reviews books for the Caribbean Beat magazine and at her personal blog Novel Niche: A Place for Books and who recently published her debut collection – the blog reviews Caribbean books, including my own Musical Youth and a blog, Jamaican Woman Tongue, run by one of my favourite former professors from the University of the West Indies, Carolyn Cooper.
I’ve enjoyed works by Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat and Austin Clarke and I hope to indulge in more novels from the Islands, including yours. For those who are new to literature from the Caribbean, which books and/or authors do you highly recommend?
JH: Some of my favourite Caribbean books of fiction would be:
The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Sevlon
Fear of Stones by Kei Miller
Gone to Drift by Diana McCaulay
The Book of Night Woman by Marlon James
Waiting in Vain by Colin Channer
White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey
Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo
A good introductory read to contemporary Caribbean fiction, meanwhile, would be Pepperpot: Best New Storiesfrom the Caribbean.
Finally, do you have any new books or projects in the works for readers and writers to look forward to in the near future?
JH: Works in progress, at least three, one of which is a sequel to Musical Youth, the first book was a finalist for the Burt Award; one of which is a novel with two main women characters from very different worlds; and one of which I can best describe as character vignettes in a moving space. I have been trying to get funding or a residency or something that would allow me to just sit and work on digging in to these for a long uninterrupted while, but short of that I continue incrementally and have been for some time. Bills have to be paid, you know, and I freelance as a writer, editor, workshop facilitator, and writing coach, I love it but the hustle can be draining. But those three that I mentioned, which is more than I’ve said publicly before, more than I like to say at all about works in progress, but maybe saying it will push things along, lol, those three are the works in progress that may be books someday. But there are various works, non-fiction to short fiction to poetry, in various stages of progress. I try to write a bit every day, so I’m always working on something.
Coming soon, a re-issue with new art of my first picture book Fish Outta Water, so look out for that, totally new aesthetic, and I have to note that still new, so I’m still in promotion mode on that, is With Grace, my second picture book, a Caribbean fairytale which debuted in December; and I’m still hoping more people will discover the previous books all of which are listed on my website.
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.
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).
Before we discuss your forthcoming novel, I want to commend you on your thorough and pretty fierce essay on literary criticism- featured inThe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Africa Center – which is based in New York, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, multidisciplinary institution, provides a gateway for engagement with contemporary Africa. They’ve started a Bloggers Spotlight series that features African bloggers who have caught their eye. African Book Addict! is the first feature of the series.
Click the image below to check out the interview where I speak with Evelyn Owen about African Book Addict!, literature by writers of African descent, the literary scene in Accra and more:
Special thanks to Evelyn Owen and the team over at The Africa Center for the feature. I’m super grateful 🙂
Other interesting LIT links to indulge in:
Chigozie Obioma: who should I write for – Nigerians, Africans, or everyone? via The Guardian. I know a couple of Nigerians who weren’t crazy about Obioma’s debut – The Fishermen. They simply weren’t blown away by the storyline and some felt the text was laden with petty details – details that seem commonplace to the average Nigerian. I absolutely loved Obioma’s debut, but hearing a couple of readers’ complaints made me question his target audience. In this article, Obioma eloquently asserts that his writing is for everyone as he believes the best literature is accessibly to all.
Book bloggers are real readers via The Irish Times. Tunrayo of the blog Tunrayo’s Thoughts tweeted this AMAZING article to me last week. The article articulates and basically defends the role of book bloggers and the influence we hold. I loved it!
We Can Be Heroes via Lenny Letter. In this very timely piece (Black History Month, duh!), black women writers pay homage to the women who’ve inspired them most. Featured writers include Zinzi Clemmons, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Jazmine Hughes and more!
I hope Black History Month 2017 has been inspiring so far! If you’re active on social media (Twitter & Instagram), definitely follow the annual #ReadSoulLit photo challenge (curated by Didi of Brown Girl Reading) to engage with other book lovers of African-American literature and discover many recommendations of books written by Black authors!