day before her first book tour, Zinzi Clemmons almost
locked herself out.
was, I admit, partially my fault: she left the building
to meet me and the door shut behind her. Her husband,
the poet and translator André Naffis-Sahely, was in
London touring his own first collection, so she buzzed a
guard to let her back into the complex in Culver City,
shaded by sycamores, eucalyptus and pines. Luckily, she’d
left her own front door open. Clemmons exhaled with
relief as we walked inside.
debut novel, "What We Lose," is about a young
woman enduring the loss of her mother. Structured
innovatively in precise vignettes, it stares down
questions of emotional inheritance, belonging, grief and
race. "To be as sharp and critical as possible —
and rigorous — that is extremely important to me, in
everything I do," she said, and then laughed,
"except, like, getting locked out of my
moved to Los Angeles with her husband two years ago,
after a six-month stint in the Catskills. (He had
previously lived in London, Clemmons in New York.) The
apartment had belonged to her paternal grandfather, a
skycap at LAX. "When André and I moved in here we
found some of his books, and it’s a great snapshot …
James Baldwin, ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ and
the Marquis de Sade," she said, amused all over
again by the trifecta.
opened a sliding patio door to let the breeze in and
settled into a chair; she listens with intense focus to
questions, ready to meet you halfway there, but
expecting the half you provide to be worthwhile. "I
try not to leave anything uninterrogated," she
spent a year ordering the pieces of the collage-like
novel. ‘I was working from these little kernels of
really intense experience.’ "
her protagonist, Thandi, a second-generation, mixed-race
South African American who straddles cultures,
identities and worlds, Clemmons grew up in the suburbs
of Philadelphia and spent summers in South Africa with
family, where her mother was born and raised.
something that I wanted to be part of the book, to
represent that experience specifically of being outside
and being an observer," she said. "That’s
been a natural state of being for me from the
beginning." It’s also a question of audience.
"Often this conversation about diversity reverts to
what will be better for the white populace and how they’ll
be enlightened by learning about all these different
brown people. That’s never been part of the question
for me. It’s about people like me who are reading my
who have experienced loss are another important audience
for "What We Lose," which takes its name from
a grief manual. After grad school at Columbia, Clemmons
returned home to help care for her mother, who was dying
kinda bottomed out for me at that point," she said,
although despite the painful circumstances, Clemmons
kept a journal at the time of her mother’s illness and
passing. "I needed to just externalize, and so I
wrote it down." A novel she’d been working on
took a back seat to recording her present experience.
"When I started this book about my Mom, because I
realized I couldn’t not write it, I started looking at
some of those things."
things include the healthcare system, motherhood and
apartheid. Clemmons spent a year ordering the pieces of
the collage-like novel. "I was working from these
little kernels of really intense experience" while
compiling the book, she said.
is a fearless chapter on treatment centers — "I
never told my mother that, until then, I had thought of
cancer as a disease of privilege" — as well as
frank depictions of sex. Her prose is stripped to its
most affecting: "I’ve often thought that being a
light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed
person who is also homeless."
very hard for [people] to say ‘this person writes as a
black woman, writes about identity and is also
a founder of Apogee Journal, an online literary magazine
dedicated to art that engages with identity, published a
widely discussed piece, "Where Is Our Black Avant
Garde?," at another online journal, LitHub. "I’m
not the most out there, avant-garde person, that’s not
who I want to be either, but I do write in that
tradition and I did want people to recognize that I was
being experimental. I felt the need to put it out there
in a polemic," she said. "It’s very hard for
[people] to say ‘this person writes as a black woman,
writes about identity and is also experimental.’
" This, she says, is "part of the unnuanced
thought that people bring to race. It has to be one or
the other, but not both."
sense of experimentation in "What We Lose"
includes excerpts from other writers and a number of
illustrations: "I started making a name for myself
writing essays for the Internet, and it’s a very
different form than writing for print, and so that
visual language was always a part of how I wrote,"
nontraditional structure of the book, which is not
chronological but thematic, mimics loss itself — the
fragmentation and persistence of memory in the face of
what comes next, like having a child or falling in love.
(In the novel, a wedding ceremony is kept brief so that
"there’s no time to cry for who isn’t
there," one of many passages that inflict a sting
of recognition.) I asked if, as her book is about to
debut, Clemmons had been thinking of her mother. The
sound of cars rushing past on Jefferson Boulevard grew
louder as a new space entered our conversation; it was
unspoken, but that space contained people we miss and
the parts of our lives that they’re missing. "I
don’t know," said Clemmons. "The more
complicated and fraught the relationship is in
life," she offered, "the more complicated it
will be after they die. For women especially, with their
mothers it’s really important to acknowledge that.
Things were maybe not perfect … and that’s OK."
is OK. That next night marked the launch of Clemmons’
book tour. At Eso Won Books, before the reading began,
owner James Fugate had already sold seven copies of
"What We Lose," whose poster hung in the
window. I noticed a copy of "A Jean Toomer
Reader," one of the authors cited in Clemmons’
essay about the black avant-garde, on a shelf display to
her right. Eso Won was the first bookstore that Clemmons
visited after moving to L.A., and she told the small
crowd how proud she was to be launching at a black
arrived with her grandparents that night, who beamed
from the front row. Clemmons read, and when she turned
it over to the audience for questions, a hand shot up.
"Are you working on another novel?" the woman
asked. "Grandma," Clemmons laughed, "that’s
supposed to be the last question, the hardest