what we lose zinzi clemmons book review

What We Lose, Zinzi Clemmons: Book Review

Viking / Nina Subin
What We Lose Book Cover What We Lose
Zinzi Clemmons
Adult Fiction, African-American Literature
Viking
July 11 2017
Hardcover
224

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.

Nothing pleases me more than reading brilliant new books by writers of colors. Nothing.

A manifesto on motherhood—both the vacancy and the sadness of it—Zinzi ClemmonsWhat We Lose is very much a matter of fact in its unwillingness to let go. Seamed handsomely through a trilogy of anecdotes and pointing observations on class before race, on the agency of relationships and their broken promises, Clemmons’ debut novel obliterates expectations from all sides.

On her own, Thandi is a very dimensional character to discern, which might speak more to her attachment to the author herself. Born to well-to-do parents—a college-educated African-American father and ostensibly “coloured” mother hailing from Botswana—she works tentatively to behold the culture shock that has spliced her respective upbringing in Philadelphia and South Africa.

Through curious exchanges with other Blacks, she comes to learn exactly where she falls on the social spectrum amongst her peers. In doing so, she starts to make observations of America’s promises of safety and security to lighter-skinned Blacks and those who appear racially ambiguous, like Thandi herself.

This is a dangerous fallacy, and her mother wastes little time in banishing the urban legend:

My mother cautioned that I would never have true relationships with darker-skinned women. These women would always be jealous of me, and their jealousy would always undermine our friendship. She told me to be careful if I ever went into the city, that the rough teenage ones would slash my face with a razor blade. When I fought with a friend, my mother would inquire about her complexion. If the friend was darker, she would nod her head, a look of “I told you so” on her brow.

I asked her how she could have such racist views of women. Weren’t we all sisters?

“That’s just how it is,” she told me blankly.

— excerpt from Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose

While race-related issues in America is a concept she’s learning to grasp—and the vestiges of post-apartheid violence in South Africa become more or less a constant reminder of how such division can plague a nation with crime—it doesn’t begin to register until she starts experiencing these new customs, both visceral and vicariously. That is demonstrated quite well in Part One, with first-hand encounters becoming as essential to her own call to adulthood.

One brilliant example of this, I though, was Clemmons’ way of unraveling her character’s connection with her white, redheaded sweetheart, whom we come to know as Peter, the soon-to-be father of her unborn child. Even in her moments of doubt about the certainty of this new relationship—resting more so on physical and intimate attraction than race, specifically—she speaks so confidently and highly of her lover and of her love for him. While Peter doesn’t emulate Thandi’s image, nor her family’s, of the perfect man—though I cannot confidently say whether race plays a part in that—and though she does not absolve Peter of his flaws, she, as all lovers are prepared to do, embraces the man before her, just as Peter learns to embrace her.

Their connection called to mind that of Michael and Leonie’s in Sing, Unburied, Sing, and I will always stand for representations of interracial love that don’t rely on spelling out the differences of a relationship that fails to fit the status quo. Clemmons, much like Jesmyn Ward, develops her lovers with a conscious understanding of the way the world views cross-cultural relationships, and Thandi turns a blind eye to those wayward glances, because she loves her man, and he loves her. And that is something I can envy.

“His face is smooth, like a baby’s; he doesn’t grow much facial hair, only a dusting of blond on his upper lip and a spot underneath the lower. He says it caused him a lot of shame in high school and college in combination with his lanky frame. The other boys called him Twiggy…”

“He is interested in my background, in love with my skin, but not too in love. There is a casualness bred from familiarity that makes me at ease around him, that drew me to him in the first place.”

— excerpt from Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose

In Part Two, we witness Thandi’s decidedly contrite relationship with her mother, and also her coming into her independence. Her life becomes exponentially difficult: she’s sworn to conceal her best friend’s abortion, grown exhausted about her fleeting future, and, suffers the hardest pill to swallow: her mother’s atrophy. As she moves forward, health is the new focal point of her life: mental, physical and emotional issues play equal parts in the breakdown approaching her mother’s death.

In spite of this, however, Clemmons keeps a firm hold on illustrating this backhanded mother-daughter relationship. I loved this. Too often are we force-fed the fantasy shared between children and their burdened relationships with their parents, even in death, even in adulthood, it’s that sort of obligatory sadness and forgiveness that makes the relationship feel more dishonest. The fact that Thandi ditches that sympathy, albeit gracefully and mournfully so, made me trust her as a story-teller. It’s a hard fact to face, and although Thandi is very much broken by the sudden passing of her mother, the healer of all things in Thandi’s life, she doesn’t allow herself to forget how she became broken in the first place. Of course, her pain is not attributed only to her mother, but Clemmons’ clever approach to making that pain known in such a vulnerable moment was too real for me. But damn was it cathartic.

“The pain was exponential. Because as much as I cried, she could not comfort me, and this fact only multiplied my pain. I realized that this would be life; to figure out how to live without her hand on my back; her soft, accented English telling me Everything will be all right, Thandi. This was 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.”

— excerpt from Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose

Much like her daughter, the mother in this book is equally unforgiving and does not bridle her speech. She is strong and resilient-seeming, and Thandi knows this but she also knows her mother is mortal. And as most children who come to understand their parents, Thandi, too, is as incapable as any of us trying to decipher the true intentions behind our parents’ tough love until it is too late. Death is the brutal reckoning that maroons children into the perilous unknown, but it felt so necessary for Thandi’s transformation.

In her closing chapter, Part Three, Clemmons brings her character’s journey around full circle: Thandi marries Peter, and their firstborn, Mahpee (“M” for short), arrives. After the passing of her mother, Thandi reaches her crisis point, so much so that she turns on Peter in ways that would seem unimaginable to most. This manifestation is tremendous, and her foundation starts to collapse under the weight of her guilt. Her father finds a new lover of whom Thadi is unaccepting, and things go downhill from there.

As a reader, I really did not enjoy reading those final scenes of Thandi’s bitterness and regret. As honest as they may have been, I felt as though they were uncalled for, misguided, and unpredicted at times. Perhaps that speaks to Clemmons’ ability to render a character helpless to the changing world around her and the side effects of maternal longing. I don’t know. Either which way, I resented her for the way she disposed of Peter.

As biased as I may be, I love Clemmons’ portrait of womanhood, of love and heartbreak, and the flawed yet honest rationale she bestows to her characters. This book reminded me so much of Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and Jacqueline Woodson‘s Another Brooklyn. Ward for Clemmons’ exceptional depiction of a love that transcends color and Woodson for her protagonist’s conspicuous relation to August.

With that, What We Lose is another that makes my list as one of the best books of the year.

“A manifesto on motherhood—both the vacancy and the sadness of it—@zinziclemmons’ ‘What We Lose’ is very much a matter of fact in its unwillingness to let go. Seamed handsomely through a string of anecdotes and pointing observations on class before race, on the agency of relationships and their broken promises, Clemmons' debut novel obliterates expectations from all sides.” (via @vikingbooks) . 4.5 Stars: Damn, Zinzi, dis was beautiful. Recommend to: Those who enjoyed #JacquelineWoodson's #AnotherBrooklyn or #JesmynWard's #SalvagetheBones. (Also, errbody.) . Busy at work on a more comprehensive review at @paperbackparis . . . . #whatwelose #zinziclemmons #blackreads #blackwriters #blackauthors #africanamericanliterature #books #bookstagram #wellreadblackgirl #booksofinstagram #allthebooks #bookworm #bookblogger #reader #booklover #bibliophile #blackwomenwriters #africanamerican #blackreads #vikingbooks

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Editor-in-chief at Paperback Paris. Saving myself for Andy Cohen. Give me Gillian Flynn, or give me death.