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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 Clemmons‘ What 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 Philade ...

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 Clemmons‘ What 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 like herself, she comes to learn exactly where she falls on the social spectrum amongst her peers. In doing so, she learns of America’s tradition of affording safety and security to lighter-skinned Blacks or to those who appear to be racially ambiguous like 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 Thandi has yet come to grasp—the vestiges of post-apartheid violence in South Africa becomes a constant reminder of how such offenses can torment a nation with unspeakable crimes—though it doesn’t finally register until she starts to experience this new America for herself, both visceral and vicariously. This is demonstrated quite well in Part One, with first-hand encounters becoming essential to her own call to womanhood.

One brilliant example of this, I believe, was Clemmons’ way of unraveling her character’s connection with her redheaded sweetheart, whom we come to know as Peter, the soon-to-be father of her still unborn child. Despite her doubts of the circumstances of their relationship—resting more so on physical and intimate attraction than race, specifically—she speaks so confidently and highly of her lover and her love for him. Although Peter doesn’t emulate Thandi’s ideal image of a perfect man, and while she doesn’t spare him of his flaws, she, as all prepared lovers come to do, embraces the person she sees before her, just as Peter embraces her.

“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 begin to see Thandi’s revisiting her very contrite relationship with her mother, and her coming of age. Life gets to be incredibly difficult: she’s sworn to conceal her best friend’s abortion, grown exhausted about her wanton future, and, perhaps the largest pill to swallow, witnesses her mother’s atrophy. As she moves forward, health becomes more of a focal point in her life; mental, physical and emotional health start to play equal roles in her breakdown.

In spite of this, however, Clemmons is persistent on not holding anything back about Thandi’s backhanded relationship with her mother. I loved this. Too often are children made to sympathize with their dying parents, even in adulthood, and it’s that sort of obligatory sadness and forgiveness that makes the relationship dishonest. The fact that she ditches that sympathy, albeit gracefully, made me trust her as the story-teller. In fact, that’s one of her best traits: she’s always honest, even to a fault.

“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 is unforgiving and doesn’t bite her tongue. Yet, as most children coming to understand their parents, Thandi is incapable of deciphering the true intentions behind her mother’s tough love until it’s too late. Death is the brutal reckoning that maroons daughters into the perilous unknown, but it feels necessary to her transformation in What We Lose.

In her closing chapter, Clemmons brings her character’s journey around full circle with Thandi’s future with her husband, Peter, and their firstborn. After the passing of her mother, she starts to take her life much more seriously, so much so that she turns on Peter in ways unimaginable. This manifests tremendously once Mahpee (“M” for short) arrives, and their marriage starts to crumble under Thandi’s own heap of 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 Jesmyn Ward‘s Sing, Unburied, Sing and Jacqueline Woodson‘s Another Brooklyn. Ward for its beautiful depiction of love that transcends color and Woodson for Thandi’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.

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