The plot of Zinzi Clemmons's What We Lose
(Viking) is simple: Thandi, a college student born and raised in Philadelphia by a South African mother and an American father, watches as her firecracker mother slowly dies of cancer. But this is no straightforward story of illness and loss. Thandi's recitation juxtaposes narrative with stream-of-consciousness observations about race, class, and colorism: "I've often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless," she muses.
With these adept commentaries on what it means to be multicultural, Clemmons places Thandi's coming-of-age in a broad social context, offering choice lines from a famous rap song, an excerpt from Barack Obama's memoir, graphs illustrating the trajectory of her emotions through the stages of her mother's dying, and even photographs of notorious serial killers' wives. And as Thandi sifts through these disparate elements, her grief-induced fragility takes on a hard edge: "In the weeks after my mother died, my sex drive was merciless."
Contrasting what it means to be black in America with being black in Johannesburg, where her mother's relatives still live, Clemmons presents a brutally honest yet nuanced view of contemporary identity: "When I called myself black, my [South African] cousins looked at me askance...calling myself black was wrong to them...it was something they didn't want to be." Raw and ravishing, this novel pulses with vulnerability and shimmering anger.