Who do we become when we lose a parent? That transformation and the loss of identity and the security that surrounds it is at the heart of Zinzi Clemmons’ novel What We Lose. The main character Thandi struggles with the illness and death of her mother and her place in the world as the daughter of an African-American father and a mixed-race South African mother.
Thandi does not handle her mother’s death well, Clemmons says. “She internalizes a lot of it, but kind of puts a lid on it, and I think what you kind of see happening over time is this sort of dislocated grief kind of manifests in various different decisions that are maybe not the best for her future.”
On her relationship with her mother and the beginnings of her book
I had always written about my mother … some of the first stories I wrote were talking about different disagreements that we had. But what was important was the kind of larger struggles that were embodied in those arguments. … So I had always written about my mother as a way to write about these larger issues, about immigration and gender and motherhood.
And during the time that my mother’s health took a turn for the worse, I was a grad student at Columbia, in their MFA program, and actually, it was the last day of school, and we had our graduation ceremony. And I found out that my mom had a few months to live. So I pretty immediately, because I was done with school, packed my things up. I quit the job that I had and moved back to Philadelphia and basically spent the last six months with her.
It’s an around-the-clock job, it’s very draining, and at the end of the day, the only thing I had time to write were basically one-paragraph, or sometimes a sentence, reflections. And I just started collecting them in this folder, and I didn’t intend to do anything with them. But they all started to fit together in this…