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V. V. Ganeshananthan

In stark prose, Clemmons’s narrator, Thandi, grieves the agonizing loss of her difficult and loving immigrant mother to cancer. Searing vignettes describe her life before and after her mother’s death. “Most of her friends (and she had many) spoke of her offending them shortly after they met,” Clemmons writes. The light-skinned black daughter of a woman born in South Africa and a man born in New York, Thandi navigates her student days as an inhabitant of liminal social spaces. Her constants are her family, some of whom live in South Africa, and her childhood best friend, Aminah. As Thandi becomes a lover, then a wife and then a mother herself, her own mother’s presence looms over her evolving consciousness.

The book takes its title from a hospice pamphlet for the soon-to-be bereaved. Thandi’s awareness of her own place in society is both informed by and in conversation with current events and history. She is a mourner and also a reader, and understands her own life and her mother’s death in relation to politics. When she thinks, for example, of maternal morality, she remembers Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, an iconic mother who was also accused of involvement in horrific murders: “Why are we surprised when a mother — a real mother, someone who takes care of her children and loves them — commits atrocious crimes?” She also notes her mother’s passing as part of a larger inj ...

In stark prose, Clemmons’s narrator, Thandi, grieves the agonizing loss of her difficult and loving immigrant mother to cancer. Searing vignettes describe her life before and after her mother’s death. “Most of her friends (and she had many) spoke of her offending them shortly after they met,” Clemmons writes. The light-skinned black daughter of a woman born in South Africa and a man born in New York, Thandi navigates her student days as an inhabitant of liminal social spaces. Her constants are her family, some of whom live in South Africa, and her childhood best friend, Aminah. As Thandi becomes a lover, then a wife and then a mother herself, her own mother’s presence looms over her evolving consciousness.

The book takes its title from a hospice pamphlet for the soon-to-be bereaved. Thandi’s awareness of her own place in society is both informed by and in conversation with current events and history. She is a mourner and also a reader, and understands her own life and her mother’s death in relation to politics. When she thinks, for example, of maternal morality, she remembers Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, an iconic mother who was also accused of involvement in horrific murders: “Why are we surprised when a mother — a real mother, someone who takes care of her children and loves them — commits atrocious crimes?” She also notes her mother’s passing as part of a larger injustice, as black Americans have shorter life expectancies than white Americans. The book’s distinctive form and voice give it an unusual capacity to show how individuals connect deep feeling to broad political understanding — an experience too rarely rendered in fiction.

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