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 large story.
On writing about her feeling of rootlessness as a light-skinned black woman
I've never had, or maybe never felt that I've had, a group that I could belong to without question to it. And even though that statement is absolutely true, and being someone like me feels lonely, I do want to say that loneliness is very different from being harassed or being dismissed or abused because of the color of your skin.
And I think what I would like people to take away from this book ... [is] that I don't ever mean to engage in oppression Olympics. But I think that that has unfortunately been the conversation when we talk about colorism in black communities — so it's just a statement of what that feels like, but it's not an effort to place it above anyone else's struggle.
On defining yourself after a parent has gone
I think that the loss of a parent sort of forced that definition, right? Because your parents are almost like a physical embodiment of your genetics and all of your roots. At the same time, it's very hard, when you have a really long relationship with your parents, to see them from the outside and to see them as people. And so I think when you have a parent pass away, you bookend their life, and you're able to see them from a different perspective, and to separate yourself from those visible roots.
And it's also something that you're forced to do, because as a woman, especially, I've sort of found out in my own life that, especially when it comes to questions of family, and of whether I want to become a mother myself ... all of those things are things that I would have loved to be able to talk to my mother about, but I have to figure them out on my own. So I do have to define myself much more strongly now, because I don't have another choice, really.
Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited the audio of this interview. Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.