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.
In arresting and unsettling prose, we watch Thandi’s life unfold, from losing her mother and learning to live without the person who has most profoundly shaped her existence, to her own encounters with romance and unexpected motherhood. Through exquisite and emotional vignettes, Clemmons creates a stunning portrayal of what it means to choose to live, after loss. An elegiac distillation, at once intellectual and visceral, of a young woman’s understanding of absence and identity that spans continents and decades, What We Lose heralds the arrival of a virtuosic new voice in fiction. – Goodreads
Throughout my life, coming-of-age novels peppered themselves onto bookshelves whenever I ventured. In these novels, heartbreak, love, loss, and joys scattered their footprints, asking me to grasp the main character’s journey by finding similarity.
Most of the time, they failed as they offered two hundred and more pages of a life I witnessed on television and movie matinees. Bottled in blonde ponytails and bouncy curl drenched in Prell shampoo, any hardships described on the page felt sweeter than my actual life. Their attempts at connection rang hollow, because as a black girl (woman), what should have united us (e.g. girlhood, womanhood) ignored vital intersections that rendered their stories “cute” and not to be taken seriously. No, Becky with the good hair, we could be friends, but you’ll never understand me, even if you tried.
Via intimate, unsettling, and pining vignettes, Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose gifted me one of the few options of a coming-of-age novel that rang more true than I anticipated. Race, family, loss, sex, and identity cultivated this novel. Despite the fifteen years or so, separating me from the author, her heroine, Thandi, the daughter of a South African “colored” woman and a light-skinned black American man, mirrored experiences founding my life’s walls. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she navigated her life with privileges her multicultural background granted, while trying to interpret her carbon footprint in society. When not pulled between worlds – black and white, American and South African, she hashes rich and middle-class by realizing the gumbo her life created and how those outside do not benefit.
“But when I call myself black, my cousins look at me askance. They are what is called coloured in South Africa—mixed race—and my father is light-skinned black. I looked just like my relatives, but calling myself black was wrong to them…. American blacks were my precarious homeland—because of my light skin and foreign roots, I was never fully accepted by any face.”
She’s in, but she’s not. She’s a “strange in-betweener”, cognizant of her need to belong, but, with her family and friends as anchors, she’s not the tragic mulatto, as in Nella Larson’s stories, which sweetened the pot. Strangely, this novel read as a memoir, which Clemmons’ denied. Believing the author’s hard, after reading her background. Each vignette felt like a private and provocative diary passage, except time’s chartered, not in actual dates, but in Thandi’s external actions. She fell and rose, fell and rose, until she settled her feet on the rocky pavement by story’s end.
As mentioned before, family played a major role. Her mother – the rock of her small family (She had no siblings) – taught her key elements of living in her body and how to strengthen her mind, body, and soul, in a society not welcoming. Johannesburg, her mother’s birthplace, received contemplative moments. Its class and racial system. Her family’s belief system. Its violence. They shaped her mother. They shaped her.
Unfortunately, her mother’s diagnosed with cancer, providing her another basis for identity. She noted the disease as one where one’s privilege determined treatment and survival. Upon her mother’s passing, a void’s unleashed, and throughout her grief cycle, what’s unleashed afterwards defined the marker her continuous journey finds her. Anyone who lost a parent will understand her descriptions of grief and bereavement. Her discussion felt real and complex, never shallow. Having lost an aunt to cancer, I cried, purging some feelings I hid to preserve my sanity.
Furthermore, I loved following Thandi on her journey, which never feels like a destination. Her journey continued, even when I finished the story. While not a free spirit or wanderer, she’ll never fit in a societal box and she finds comfort in that notion. Also, I enjoyed the in-depth look at South Africa. I knew some things, but she offered me morsels that filled my curiosity.
The vignettes piqued my interest. At times, I yearned for longer chapters. But, feeling as though I knew Thandi, she gave me what she thought I deserved, not what I wanted. Her examination of another corner of the diverse black psyche paved honesty, creativity, and the discomfort we, as readers, required.
Bring tissues and a cup (pot, actually) of tea for her soul cleansing.
Verdict: 4/5 Trips to Philly (I loved the snippets of my hometown described. I traveled with her, remarking each site with clarity and fondness)