Well, What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons is a novel that reads like nonfiction—but I mean that as a compliment!
Thanks to the first-person narration, the interspersed photos, and the very real history, this book read like a memoir to me in the best possible way.
The excellent first-person narration is the star of Clemmons’ show. Protagonist Thandi has been raised in Philadelphia by a South African mother, who is a nurse, and American father, who is a professor and administrator at a private college. They are close with Thandi’s mother’s family in South Africa and they own a vacation home there.
Due to her light skin, and being raised in a suburban neighborhood, attending schools with mostly upper-middle-class white kids, Thandi walks a cultural tightrope, feeling neither here nor there when it comes to race.
In high school, a white classmate tells her she’s “not like a real black person,” meaning it as a compliment. And, when Thandi gets into a prestigious college, another sneers “affirmative action.”
Meanwhile, we learn how apartheid South Africa has shaped her mother’s world view and Thandi grapples with her mother’s opinions and big personality, coupled with grief now that she is dying of cancer.
Clemmons hits you with this grief from the first scene of the novel, where Thandi and her father are sharing a meal together, her mother’s absence a paradoxical presence between them.
Interspersed throughout the story are historical discussions that range from apartheid to women who marry serial killers, often complemented by black and white photos. There are also pages with just one poetic sentence, like “Sex is kicking death in the ass while singing.” Surprising, but totally relevant within the context of the story. Both ugly and beautiful at the same time.
The whole arrangement of parts gives a sort of “collage” feel to the book and you really do have to read the entire thing, viewing it as a single body, if that makes sense, to appreciate it.
Clemmons is an immensely talented writer and she makes it work. I read it in an evening and I’m glad I did.