Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose provides a striking account of life after loss. “What We Lose: A Support Guide” is the title of the pamphlet that the narrator, Thandie, receives after her mother’s death from cancer.
In What We Lose Clemmons tackles race, sexuality, friendship, loss, grief and, to some extent, migration. The book is carefully compiled with graphs, pictures, song lyrics, and blog posts to provide a rich account of the narrator’s struggles, realizations, and growth. When she proclaims that Black people are more likely to die of cancer compared to their White counterparts, she presents statistics to support this claim. She goes on to suggest that though Black women are more likely to die from cancer, their experiences are not the focus of dominant narratives and campaigns.
Despite Clemmons’ creative use of vignettes, however, What We Lose is at times jerky, and some thoughts are surprisingly incomplete. I wonder if these asides were done to support the primary narrative of loss and grief or if they were intended to stand alone. I am not sure.
Thandie’s take on South Africa, Oscar Pistorius (the South African Olympian who’s trial made international headlines because he murdered his girlfriend…thinking she was an intruder), and Winnie Mandela offered an interesting picture of post-Apartheid South Africa. One particular section that stands out is her musing on her racial identity.
“To my [South African] cousins and me, American blacks were the epitome of American cool. Blacks were the stars of rap videos, big-name comedians, and actors with their own television shows and world tours…
We worshipped them, and my cousins, especially, looked to the freedom that these stars represented as aspirational. It was a freedom synonymous with democracy, with political freedom—with America itself. It was rarefied, powerful.
But when I called myself black, my cousins looked 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.
Though American blacks were cool, South African blacks were ordinary, yet dangerous. It was something they didn’t want to be.”
Although Clemmons explored her mixed race and national identities, I wanted more. The death of her mother signified a loss of the very thing that connected her to her South African roots. The desire for belonging and her need to be tethered to something — from which an identity can be formulated — deserved a more in-depth exploration.
Hence the question, what is left when the thing that links us to our heritage is lost?
I believe this “thing” can be forgetting to speak a language, or forgetting cultural practices (dances, poems, etc.). What We Lose is an appropriate title as it can refer to the loss of something physical (a death) or a loss of a former home (migration). Still, some losses cannot be quantified or touched, only felt.
What We Lose is a fictional memoir at best. I have read very few books like it and celebrate its unique style.
I am looking forward to many more novels by this author.
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