What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons is a novel written in first person. Thandi, the narrator, talks to us of the pain of being who she is, as the daughter of a Coloured South African mother and an African American father, as a black girl growing up in a mostly white suburb in the United States, and as a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. We sense in Thandi a rootlessness. She feels she doesn’t belong in any of the groups she’s supposed to belong to, and she says that “being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless.”
The novel’s structure is unique: it consists of short bursts of prose, a page or two. These sections aren’t always sequential either. Sometimes they are about popular culture, sometimes reminisces, sometimes graphs that depict differences in life expectancies between white, Hispanic and black people. There is even a vignette in there about the terrible photograph that came to define Africa. I found this structure exciting – you never know what’s coming next. There are some parts that I wish had been explored better. I did not quite grasp the point being made about Winnie Mandela and her involvement in gruesome murders. Maybe it was a cautionary tale about idealizing women as being nurturers, incapable of cruelty; maybe it was an example of violence in South Africa.
In What We Lose, the author delicately examines many things. But what I liked most was her exploration of loss. Told simply and effectively, we sense Thandi’s pain and helplessness. We realize that Thandi’s mother isn’t portrayed as a saint, as death sometimes encourages us to do. She is presented to us as a flawed character, with some politically incorrect views. At one point, she says Thandi can never form true friendships with darker skinned women. But she is the center of gravity for this family, and without her, the family disintegrates into nothingness.
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