Raised in Philadelphia, with roots in South Africa and Trinidad, Zinzi Clemmons is a non-fiction writer, editor and creative writing teacher. Her debut novel What We Lose (4th Estate, £8.99) is slim, semi-autobiographical and aesthetically unconventional. It follows Thandi, a black woman often mistaken for Hispanic or Asian, in a tale of grief, sex and identity.
Your book is part of a long tradition in writing about grief. Why does the literature of loss resonate so strongly with readers?
A couple of reasons, I think. First, loss is something that everyone must deal with, so everyone will care at some point in their life. At the same time, it represents an extreme of human emotion, so there’s also an aspect of fascination with tragedy. It’s both interesting and universal –
I think that’s why it’s so appealing.
Does Thandi’s mother’s death exacerbate her feelings of rootlessness and why?
In the book, I quote a passage from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk To Freedom, where he reflects on his father’s death when he was a boy. He says that he felt “cut adrift” in reaction. Losing a parent is an unmooring, because your parents are the most physical embodiment of genetic roots you have in this world. To lose one or both is to have your roots cut, in some way. In the case of Thandi, her mother was also her connection to South Africa, to her family there, to a tenuous racial identity. All these things together – you’re right – absolutely exacerbate one’s feeling of not belonging in the world.
To what extent is What We Lose an autobiographical novel?
It’s obviously autobiographical, but I also think that’s the least interesting aspect of it. If you read this book and focus on to what degree my life matches with Thandi’s, you’re neither enjoying nor gaining anything from it. My life – as is true of most writers – is extremely boring. I like it that way. We write to make ourselves more interesting.
Is it hard to find good cultural representations of biracial issues and was it a challenge to find a publisher for your work?
First, I’m not biracial, though I find it very interesting that I’ve been described so often in the press that way. I’ve noticed that when people (not just white people!) see a person of ambiguous race, they usually assume they are biracial, and that one parent must be white. It has to do with the very limited way we conceive of race in society, and also to the centrality of whiteness to this thinking. Both of my parents are thoroughly multiracial, but I’ve always called myself black, because I am culturally black. That matters to me, but as far as obsessing over what percentage of what ethnicity I happen to be, I find that foolish and bigoted. It doesn’t matter to me, and I don’t want it to. So this is the first time I’ve corrected the record on that one, but I’m sure it won’t be my last.
I’ve never had an easy time publishing my fiction. As far as I can tell, that’s for several reasons that you can all sort of lump under my general nonconformity. I don’t approach many aspects of literature in a traditional way – part of that is my avoidance of easy categorisation of identity (of race, but also gender and sexuality), but also because I am highly political and aesthetically experimental. None of those things equal profitability and consensus, which are the most important things to publishers. I hope for the success of my book because I want to help change that. There are plenty of people who think like me and write like me, and they also deserve to be published and their voices heard, much more than some of the uninteresting squares who sell like hot cakes.
Tell us about the structure of the book – you have vignettes among longer passages, pictures, quotes, extracts from blogs and diagrams. What purpose do these devices serve?
That’s just how I write. I always consider the form of any text as much as the words that compose it. I’m a conceptual, visual thinker. And, in this book in particular, it was very important that the narrator interacted with the world in the same way. I wanted Thandi to be like me in this way – very engaged with the world, with media, with literature and with ideas. I wanted to show a young black woman who was critical, creative, constantly deconstructing the world around her. Toni Morrison said that she wrote the books she wanted to read; I wrote the point of view that I wanted to see in the world.
In Trump’s America what is the role of a writer who is concerned with social justice?
I try not to tell other people what they should do. What do I know? I hesitate to say that everyone should be an activist, although many people will. First, you should know that marginalised people in America are terrified right now. There are actual mortal dangers that have increased since 8 November. Some people can’t do anything because they are just trying to survive. I can’t tell anyone how to be an activist. It’s inordinately difficult to speak up at this time, no matter if you’re a soccer mom who protests at your congressman’s office or if you’re a political writer like me. All I can say is have courage, stay positive, and thank you for what you are doing. It will eventually pay off. I do believe that.
Has the idealism of black liberation in South African gone sour with concerns of corruption in the government?
South Africa has emerged from its post-independence honeymoon period and entered the very tricky time when many nations fall back into totalitarianism and strife. I think that most people are aware of this and know how fragile a time it is, but I see that people are still fighting very hard, and that means they must have hope. People have been on the streets protesting, organising, and speaking out. The situation, as far as I can tell, is very similar to how it is in the States right now. People are disappointed and worried, but I don’t think the problems are so deep that they’ve given up. Perhaps that post-independence afterglow has dimmed a bit and reality has set in, but I think there is also the knowledge that the country has overcome much, much worse. Zuma – much like Trump – has motivated a lot of people to political action. In the end, that’s a good thing, and the country will be stronger for it.
You have a second book lined up for publishing – can you tell us about it?
It will probably be an essay collection. I write a lot of non-fiction, and I’m looking forward to switching over to that mode of writing.