Tuesday, August 8, 2017
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, 4th Estate
American writer Zinzi Clemmons’s debut novel is about haunting. In a series of fragmented meditations and vignettes, it tells the story of Thandi, who narrates the trajectory of her life in the context of her mother’s death – a loss so great that it overwhelms her. In overt and subtle ways, the novel sets out to do important work: to explore the contours of race, class and gender and the legacy of apartheid; and it succeeds best when exploring these ideas through the delicately drawn and profoundly moving portrait it offers of a relationship between mother and daughter.
Like Clemmons, Thandi is half “Coloured” (a distinct ethnic group in South Africa) and a half African American. She is, therefore, heir to the peculiar pain of all people who are half something and half another, caught between cultures and identities: the dilemma of inbetweeness, the struggle of almost belonging.
Thandi’s only home is her mother, the lodestar of her existence, a woman who teaches her daughter how to live in the world and whose instructions Thandi faithfully follows, trying to please her even when she is not there, in everything from how to wear her hair to roasting a chicken for a man in an attempt to seduce him. When her mother dies, Thandi is distraught. The voice of the book is thus one of stunned grief: a kind of anhedonic restlessness, disconnected and dislocated. The narrative never settles in one place, but rather, moving through Thandi’s early life, her mother’s illness and death, and then finally her own motherhood and divorce, alights from memory to memory and idea to idea, always circling back to the loss of her mother. “This was the paradox: how could 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.”
Clemmons is ambitious with her narrative form: the fragments of the novel make associative leaps from narrated scene to excerpts from academic studies, graphs of Thandi’s depression, song lyrics, and musings on subjects as diverse as the death of the photographer Kevin Carter and studies of cancer rates in communities of people of colour.
But the novel is best when it simply tells the story of Thandi’s mother’s struggle with cancer, and it is here that Clemmons’s restrained prose reaches its full potential. The matter-of-factness and plainness of the language heighten the emotional intensity of Thandi watching her mother die. As she sits in the hospital room where her mother is in a coma, she says: “I let the smell [of her mother’s infection] overwhelm me until I couldn’t smell it any more. The stench was nothing more than molecules moving in and out of my nostrils, the scene nothing more than light reflected off objects alive and inanimate, some dying.”
That “some dying” strikes the reader like a blow, and achieves the effect of Thandi’s own realisation that her mother is actually going to die, that this is really happening. In another scene, Thandi tries to care for her mother by healing her with food, stocking the fridge with fruit and vegetables, banishing the artificial and the unhealthy. But when family friends visit, they bring offerings of their love: big pots of comfort food, fatty and rich, and as Thandi makes way for a congealed pork roast, she weeps as she realises her powerlessness. She cannot stop her mother from dying – she cannot even dictate the contents of the salad drawer.
That sense of helpless in the face of illness is one of the book’s great achievements and in combining it with Thandi’s rootlessness, her puzzling of her identity, Clemmons skilfully marries the themes of the novel. When Thandi’s mother, delirious from illness and painkillers, says: “I want to go home”, Thandi’s inability to fulfill her mother wishes is also a painful testament to her own separation from “home”, South Africa, a place to which she has never really belonged.
The novel occasionally falters, in the more overt exploration of South African history and culture. When rooted in Thandi’s experiences, when she admits that she is frightened of the country, its violence and restlessness, despite never having actually been a victim of crime, her responses feel surprising and important: they undercut the “rainbow nation” narrative of a place still haunted by apartheid and still reeling in its aftermath.
But in other places the novel seems to engage with an idea only half way: at one point, there is an intriguing section about Winnie Mandela and the kidnapping and death of Stompie Moeketsi, but this – a subject of immense complexity and significance – seems only to result in an underexplored idea about women’s capacity for both violence and motherhood. At times, Clemmons’s restrained prose, so powerful when the narrative lens is up close on Thandi’s mother, distances us from characters the reader longs to know more about.
Yet What We Lose never strays too far from its central concern: the matter of how to live after loss, of how to be an orphan, of lost expectations, dreams that go unrealised, relationships that seem never fully in our grasp.