What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons [in Booklist]
Zinzi Clemmons’ spectacular debut is written in bursts, from single-sentence pages to sparse paragraphs, and combines photographs, diagrams, charts, articles, and blog posts to amplify an intimate story of personal loss into a larger narrative of identity, family, race, and socioeconomic access.
Thandi is the daughter of a New York-born mathematics-professor father and Johannesburg-born-nurse mother. She grows up privileged as a “light” African American in Philadelphia. Her lifelong best friend is Aminah, their bond cemented by their parents’ friendship, which resulted from their fathers being two of the only five African American faculty at their university. Thandi’s mother dies of cancer while Thandi is in college, leaving her with a gaping emotional void that only intensifies when she, too, becomes a mother.
Clemmons creates haunting authenticity by imbuing Thandi with autobiographical elements – parentage, life in Philadelphia, attending Columbia, her mother’s death – but through enhanced fiction, she pushes Thandi into global citizenry, shows her skin color to be a barometer of fraught relationships and race politics, explores mother-child bonds with brutal honesty, and even reveals cancer to be “a disease of privilege” elevated with ribbons and campaigns. Clemmons performs an exceptional sleight of hand that is both affecting and illuminating.