Book Review: What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

I had many things I wanted to say. Some sleepless nights ago, I’d made a list of all the things I needed to apologize for, all the things I needed to tell her I forgave her for. But as I stood there with those mathematics in hand, the weight of the moment on me, I said nothing. And when I tried to speak, only tears came. The pain was exponential. Because as much as I cried, she could not comfort me, and this fact only multiplied my pain. I realized that this would be life; to figure out how to live without her hand on my back; her soft, accented English telling me, everything will be all right, Thandi. This was the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me? The question was so enormous that I could see only my entire life, everything I know, filling it.

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons is a brief but sweeping and enveloping tale of race and femininity, illness and death, love, both romantic and familial, and loss. Reading like the pages of a journal- the intimacy of the narrative shines like a prism of emotion, you will feel every sentiment deeply.

Thandi is a paradox as her light-skinned Black appearance ousts her from acceptance by either race, Black or White, in this instance. Growing up first in newly post-apartheid South Africa and then later on the East coast of America, she struggles to navigate the tricky labels of race which is further complicated by her family’s prosperity and class standing.

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.

When her family relocates to Philadelphia, Thandi relishes in the opportunity to shed the fear she so secretly harbored for her birthplace- the constant bumping-up-against of the poor to the wealthy left her petrified of the possible outcomes.

This situation— the close proximity and daily interaction of the ever stratifying classes— has led to the country’s new postapartheid violence.

With slightly renewed optimism brought on by the new environment, Thandi seeks refuge in the groups of Blacks she and her peers so idolized in South Africa. Yet again, she discovers that her skin-color and social status leave her rigidly balancing on a fine line unable to find somewhere to settle.

American blacks were my precarious homeland— because of my light skin and foreign roots, I was never fully accepted by any race. Plus my family had money, and all the black kids in my town came from the poorer areas. I was friends with the kids who lived on my block and were in my honors classes— white kids. I was a strange in-betweener.

As she grows she slowly begins to uncover the truth and indelible nature of her situation and with this precious knowledge she is able to take some level of ownership of it.

I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman 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. Even while you’re out in public, feeling fine and free, inside you cannot shake the feeling of rootlessness. Others may even envy you, but this masks the fact that at night, there is nowhere safe for you, no place to call your own.

Paired with this narrative is the illness that slowly wrings her mother of her vitality and spirit. Weaved together, these two stories balance one another to create a 360 degree view of Thandi and all that composes her. At the forefront of it all is the fact that her mother is dying from cancer which is complicated by the obscured fact that Black people often receive sub-par care resulting in a higher mortality rate.

What I felt was extremely uncomfortable, and she would have resented me for it; as much as she has suffered, many other people were suffering worse. Her disease only reinforced how the world saw us: not black or white, not American or African, not poor or rich. We were confined to the middle, and would always be. As hard as she tried to separate herself from the binds of apartheid, we were still within its grip. It had become the indelible truth of our lives, and nothing- not sickness, not suffering, not death- could change that.

When the inevitable occurs, Thandi is propelled into the unknown world of grief and endeavors to trudge through the haze of loss. In an attempt to renew feeling, she throws herself into a veritable trade of experiences each one leaving her simultaneously broken and healed.

With Peter, at least some part of me is attempting to parse these experiences, to separate the liminal from mundane, from my baseline. I need an anchor so that I’m not living so close to death anymore. I need to believe in life again. Sex is kicking death in the ass while singing. I don’t sleep for two nights. Instead I am wide awake and tossing. Each day I feel less like the person I was the day before, my body hurtling so fast in one direction that my mind cannot keep pace. I can scarcely remember who I was before my body became like this.

Slowly, she digs her way out from under the crushing weight of grief. Like a phoenix from the ashes she must now learn how to tackle life and all that it is prepared to throw at her from the position where she now resides.

I didn’t know how to place this new mother, my dead mother, with the mother who was alive. When I look at her grave, I feel it the most. How can she be there when she is still here, inside me? My mother is dead. But I still see her. But I can still feel her. I can still hear her voice, even right now as I am speaking to you. But she is dead.

What We Lose is much larger than its limited page count alludes to. Drawing from personal insight, Clemmons crafts an exacting, philosophical, and profound tale of the consuming nature of loss, whether it be that of an ideal, a culture, or a loved one.

I thought about how every place on earth contained its tragedies, love stories, people surviving and others falling, and for this reason, from far enough of a distance and under enough darkness, they were all essentially the same.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Viking Books via Netgalley

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