I have to admit I haven’t read in a while. Can you imagine how draining that is to a Bibliophile’s spirit? How could I have produced an entire web series about book lovers when I haven’t picked up a book in months, MONTHS?! Well, the short answer is, life happens and sometimes even the things you love have to be put on pause to deal with it. But I am proud to say the drought is over and I couldn’t have chosen a better book to get me back in the reading game.
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons looks at the complicated mother-daughter relationship and how the self-image of the latter is defined through the reflection of the former. Thandi is an undergraduate student when she suffers the loss of her mother. It is an experience that, understandably, erupts the world she once knew and catapults her into grief’s stratosphere. There we find her grappling with identity, love, loss, and life.
What we Lose is a story told in a fascinating intertextual way that rebukes traditional form and convention. Clemmons uses Biggie Smalls lyrics, pop cultural references, historical artifacts, and cultural footnotes to shape the international, intercultural, interracial reality of a young black girl straddling culture, society, and countries. Thandi’s evolution is paired alongside the evolution of her mother’s land of South Africa. Her relationship, affection, and memory of the country directly relate to her relationship with her mother through life and death. What we find is an intimate, diary-esque stream-of-conscious journey of a woman trying to remember her mother, trying to make sense of the disease that killed her, and trying to make sense of her own self in the face of life’s traumas.
I found myself gripped immediately at the depth of Clemson’s succinct writing. Like a true millennial, she perfected the ability to convey such breadth in so few words. The impact is direct; her words hit you in all the vulnerable places one often shies from visiting. The novel’s structure is a sign of careful storytelling that is idiosyncratic yet so universal. While we may not all be able to relate to losing a mother, we surely can understand how omnipotent our mother’s presence is. We are often shaping ourselves from our hair to our morals in direct accordance with or rebellion of our mother’s. As daughters we are always seeking her approval yet turning askance at her judgement trying to hard to discover our individual selves while still aiming to be someone she can be proud of. These truths are never made more clear until the day we no longer have her voice to reassure as or her arms to comfort us, or her chastisement to guide us. I would argue that What We Lose is a meditation on that. It is a reflection of how we never stop needing our mothers, even when life takes her from us.
Clemmons takes us to that bridge we will all have to cross someday, with What We Lose she shows us what it is like to step into the land of lasting grief and how it will rock one to the core. What we learn is that life and death, gain and loss, happiness and sadness are all natural occurrences in this journey we’re traveling and while we lean on our parents to guide us through many of the dark times, there will come a day when we will have to learn to stand on our own.
Like the work of Lorraine Hansberry’s autobiography and Jean Toomer’s Cane, Clemmons blends genre, text, and discourse to bring us something greater than a story, she has delivered an irrevocable, life-altering experience.