LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Who do we become when we lose a parent? That transformation is at the heart of Zinzi Clemmons' novel "What We Lose." The central character, Thandi, grapples with the loss of her mother to cancer, a woman she revered but often fought with as well. Thandi is mixed race, and her feelings of being an outsider in her community take on renewed meaning after her mom's death.
This book could have been a memoir. Clemmons, like Thandi, is the daughter of a South African mother and an American father, and she lost her mother to breast cancer in 2012. But she made it a book of fiction, she says, in order to move the story past her own personal one.
ZINZI CLEMMONS: I had always written about my mother. I started writing in college in a creative writing class. And some of the first stories I wrote were talking about different disagreements that we had. But what was important was the kind of larger struggles that were embodied in those arguments. I just published an essay about the conception of this book, and I talk about the issue of hair and how the struggle of hair between black mothers and black daughters is fraught with all of these racial tensions that are basically absorbed from the larger culture.
So I had always written about my mother as a way to write about these larger issues and about immigration and gender and motherhood. And during the time that my mother's health took a turn for the worse, I was a grad student at Columbia in their MFA program. And actually, it was the last day of school. And we had our graduation ceremony. And I found out that my mom was, you know, had a few months to live.
So I pretty immediately - because I was done with school - packed my things up. I quit the job that I had and moved back to Philadelphia and basically spent the last six months with her. It was, you know, it's an around-the-clock job. It's very draining. And at the end of the day, the only thing I had time to write were basically one paragraph or sometimes a sentence - reflections. And I just started collecting them in this folder. And I didn't tend to do anything with them, but they all started to fit together in this large story.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to have you read from one of those vignettes, Page 31.
CLEMMONS: (Reading) 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.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me a little bit about what that passage means to you. What were you trying to say?
CLEMMONS: I think it comes across - it's just sort of a deep loneliness. It always is like I've never had this or maybe never felt that I've had a group that I could belong to without any question to it. And even though that statement is absolutely true and being someone like me feels lonely, I do also want to say that loneliness is very different from being harassed or being dismissed or abused because of the color of your skin.
And I think what I would also like people to take away from this book - because I have passages like that, and then I also have passages where I talk about the struggle of black people over time in Africa and here - that I don't mean to ever engage in oppression Olympics. And I think that that has unfortunately been the conversation when we talk about colorism in black communities. So it's just a statement of, you know, what that feels like, but it's not in an effort to sort of place it above anyone else's struggle.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it harder to define yourself after a parent is gone?
CLEMMONS: I think that the loss of a parent does sort of force that definition - right? - because your parents are almost like a physical embodiment of your genetics and all of your roots. At the same time, it's very hard when you have a really long relationship with your parents to see them from the outside and to see them as people. And so I think when you have a parent pass away, you bookend their life. And you're able to see them from a different perspective and to separate yourself from those visible roots.
And it's also something that you are forced to do because, you know, as a woman especially, you know, I've sort of found out in my own life that especially when it comes to questions of family and of whether I want to become a mother myself, all of those things are things that I would have loved to be able to talk to my mother about, but I have to figure them out on my own. So I do have to define myself much more strongly now because I don't have another choice, really.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The novel is called "What We Lose" by Zinzi Clemmons. Thank you so much for joining us today.
CLEMMONS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMOCK'S, "LOSING TO YOU")