What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
Wow. This is Clemmons’ debut novel, and if this is her just getting started, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her. Told through a series of short vignettes, this story is aptly titled. I felt the entire time that I was reading that I had been dropped into the middle of something, and that something important had been left out. I don’t mean this in a negative sense, rather, it adds to the overall emotion of the book. Thandi, the main character, loses her mother to cancer, and we are taken with her as she struggles with the depth of that loss. Grief is a tricky thing, and her grieving process is long and ever-changing. She finds herself in an precarious situation with Peter, her “lover,” as she introduces him in the text, and the outcomes of that relationship are forever marked by it and their response to it. After the death of her mother, her relationships with friends and family are different; her life goals and drive are called into question. Throughout the novel,Thandi also grapples with questions of identity and belonging. She identifies one way in America and another in South Africa where her mother is from. She’s really the same thing — a light skinned black woman — in either place but that carries a different social and cultural weight in South Africa than it does in the US. In this book, Zinzi Clemmons challenges us to consider: What do we lose when we lose a loved one? It’s more than simply that person’s physical presence in our lives… it’s everything as we had come to know it.
Reading and Discussion Guide
- Consider your own experiences with loss. What does loss feel like? How do process grief? Do you relate to Thandi’s reaction to the loss of her mother?
- Storytelling is an art. Clemmons’ choice to unfold this one via vignettes that span time without always clueing the reader in to as when they take place was a particularly potent one. Some vignettes are only a single line and almost as if they were lines from Thandi’s journal; others are longer tellings of a trip back to South Africa or how she met Peter. Sometimes there are pictures and graphs or diagrams. What was that experience like for you? I found it to be destablizing much like the way that a major loss is destabalizing so it worked for me.
- While this book might seem slim and unassuming at first glance, as we read, we find that Clemmons wraps a great deal around the central question of loss: friendship, racial identity, racism, family, community, love and relationships, and pregnancy to name a few. Were you able to follow the many threads of the story? Or did you feel that you were left unable to connect the threads into one continuous story?
- Thandi poses this question:
“But why do ‘African’ and ‘contemporary’ have to be incomensurate? Why (and to whom) is it appealing to think you are in another city besides the one, in Africa, that you are in?” (pg. 131)
How would you answer this? I think about the way in which the only image that still to many Americans have of Africa is that of naked people living in huts. But I also wonder how colonization and the encroaching of Western ideals on the continent has impacted the way in which countries like South Africa have tried to advance.
- Racial identity is a large concept that that Thandi wrestles with throughout the story. Light-skinnedness is to esteemed in South Africa; her cousins tell her not to call herself “black.” Her school friends don’t think of her as a “real” black person. Her mother warns her that dark-skinned black women will always be jealous of her. Thandi says:
“I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black owman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe.” (pg. 31).
I’ve never considered this as an idea. It seems to not take into account the way that colorism has functioned in the US for centuries now. Even today, as dark-skinned black women have made some inroads to being seen as equally beautiful and desirable, the damage has already been done and will take many years of intentional work to repair. What do you think of Thandi’s statement? Does this align with your own lived experiences if you are a light-skinned black woman?
I hope you find this guide helpful in taking in What We Lose. Grab a friend and talk about it! I really enjoyed this book, and I hope you will too! Let me know what you think in the comments below!