Zinzi Clemmons Opens Up About Loss, Race, Identity, And 'What We Lose'

Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose has gathered so much hype over the past month that Vogue deemed it “the debut novel of the year”! Zinzi’s debut novel is a stunning coming-of-age tale that dives into the deep rooted issues of race, sex, family, and country. The premise of What We Lose tells a story of a young African American woman, Thandie, coming to terms with the trials and tribulations of adulthood and losing her mother. 

As Thandie tries to process the hard truth about her mother’s passing, she expresses her raw emotion in a beautifully written quote by Clemmons, “She’s gone. But she’s here, I can feel her. I can see her that day they told us that everything was going to be all right. But she’s not here. But I can feel her arms around me. It feels like the breeze coming off the river…it smells like her breath.”

Zinzi explains how What We Lose weaves in and out of the past and present, from memories of Thandie's childhood to her pregnancy, love affairs, and visit to her mother’s childhood home in Johannesburg, South Africa. She also opens up about how What We Lose came to life after the death of her own mother. Passages she wrote about losing her mother to breast cancer eventually made it into the novel’s manuscript. Zinzi didn’t feel like the book was working well, until her agent called the pages compelling and raw. From there, Zinzi dived in and got writing! 

The book deals with a completely raw view on what it means to be black in America and being black in Johannesburg, where Thandie's mother is from. Zinzi sums up her thoughts with this stunning quote, "I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like a being a well-dressed person who is also homeless...you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe.” 

Zinzi truly values the feedback she gets from readers that have a personal connection to the material. Either in terms of identity, Zinzi specifies black women or other people who find themselves in between different identities, or people who have experienced a similar loss. Those two groups of people have very emotional responses to the book and say they see themselves in the pages, which are the most rewarding responses for the author. 

Zinzi also explains why she thought What We Lose would never get published, how her book isn’t autobiographical even though her and the main character were dealing with grief, and much more!

What We Lose grapples with a moving series of vignettes that combine life in South Africa, Main Line Philadelphia, telling the heartfelt story of a mixed-race girl just trying to fit in and find her way in life. The novel will have you hanging on the edge of your seat not wanting the raw display of emotions to end! 

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