A self-professed “strange in-betweener”, Thandi is a black woman of mixed-raced parents who has grown up in a predominantly white, middle class suburb in Philadelphia. Often mistaken for Hispanic or Asian, the colour of her skin sets her apart from her mother at a young age. Thandi’s mother – the axis around which this short but engrossing novel turns – is South African. She considers herself light-skinned but was “dark enough that we often encountered the uncomfortable pause of a white woman in my hometown trying to discern our relationship: mother/daughter or hired help/charge”.
Thandi excels at school, gets a scholarship to a sought-after college and a job with an NGO in New York upon graduating. Despite this, she feels estranged from her peers and colleagues, caught between two cultures – part American, part South African, full-time drifter.
Her role as an outsider takes on new meaning following her mother's death from cancer. What We Lose is a raw and thoughtful outpouring of loss and grief, identity and race, motherhood and relationships. An assortment of episodes that reflects Thandi's own identity crisis, it mixes autofiction with non-fiction, including rap lyrics, blog posts, photographs of women who have fallen in love with serial killers and extracts from the autobiographies of Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.
The outcome is a fragmented narrative that at times frustrates. A skilled fiction writer, Clemmons depicts her childhood, her relationship with her parents, seminal friendships, first loves, high school, college, and an unplanned pregnancy with current partner Peter in randomly dispersed paragraphs that will leave the reader wishing for more detail. Best friend Animah crops up frequently but impressionistically. Towards the end of the book, when we’re told that Animah is “her usual overbearing self”, there is little sense of the reader having witnessed this.
Clemmons hops from topics at random. Views on the culpability of Oscar Pistorius, how Winnie Mandela was implicated in a sexual abuse cover-up, the suicide of the first professional photographer to document a necklacing execution in South Africa are interspersed with Thandi's story. These dazzling snippets are linked thematically, with motherhood and loss emerging as the central focus.
The passages detailing how Thandi moves home to nurse her mother are tender and candid. At her height, the mother is a vibrant character, full of warmth and love, the kind of woman who “befriended people aggressively” and urged her daughter to brush up on her cooking skills if she wanted a husband: “Domesticity was harder to find in a partner now, because of feminism, and just like a job candidate who can code HTML, it was something that set you above the others.”
This heartfelt humour runs throughout, enlivening the narrative and hammering home the hole left in Thandi's life following her mother's death. In its preoccupation with maternal loss, What We Lose recalls Jamaica Kincaid's wonderful The Autobiography of My Mother, though the latter concerns a much earlier and life-defining loss. Brit Bennett's recent debut The Mothers also comes to mind. Clemmons and Bennett both offer intelligent perspectives on issues affecting black women in modern America. With its contemplations on race and its collage of genres, there are parallels with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, though What We Lose is in micro form by comparison.
This is not to disparage what Clemmons has achieved in her affecting novel. Although disjointed, it is a book brimming with ideas. Clemmons was raised in Philadelphia by a South African mother and an American father. Her writing has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, the Paris Review Daily and elsewhere. She is a co-founder of Apogee Journal and a contributing editor to Literary Hub.
The contrast of life in America, where hospice workers “had a phrase for what was happening to my mom – ‘the dying process’ – and they said the words like they should be followed by a TM”, and the violence and inequality of a supposedly post-apartheid South Africa comes through vividly. Thandi has a narrow escape from rape in a nightclub in Johannesburg that invokes her earlier warning: “In South Africa, the worst outcome often happens. Rarely are you overestimating your own safety.”
While its political commentary is interesting, What We Lose is most engaging on the personal. Clemmons puts the microscope on the ravages of cancer: "She went from a size 14 to a 12, to a 10, and then to my size, a healthy 6, before she was bedridden and we stopped counting. She was weaker, her skin more prone to bruising, her bones more fragile."
When the end comes, the description of grief is at once private and universal: “When I wake up and I think, ‘I have to call Mama to say hello’, I realised that that was how heartbreak occurred. Your heart wants something, but reality resists it. Death is inert and heavy, and it has no relation to your heart’s desires.”