The Freedom to Defy Expectations: An Interview with Zinzi Clemmons
The What We Lose Author on Mothers, Death, and Form
This interview originally appeared in Issue 09 of Apogee.
Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose (Viking, July 11, 2017) subverts our expectations of the novel, weaving autofiction, online media, hand-drawn graphics, and other forms into vignettes that are at once sensitive and sharp. The novel explores the complexities of loss, family, and identity through Thandi’s eyes—a woman who, like Clemmons, is confronted with the immense emotional and intellectual burden of coping with losing her mother to cancer. Apogee’s Executive Editor, Alexandra Watson, spoke with Zinzi Clemmons in April of 2017 about her writing process and how the themes in What We Lose reflect the author’s views on mourning, sex, motherhood, and the politics of illness and health care.
Alexandra Watson: I’ve never read a book like What We Lose. The short vignettes had an emotional potency: a distillation of feeling to its purest form. I’m curious about the drafting process: did these come to you as flashes, or was the writing process continuous?
Zinzi Clemmons: As you know, the book is autobiographical: it’s based on the time when my mom was very sick and I was living at home. At the time, I was working on a novel with more of a linear narrative. It turned out to be really bad. There were a few pages in there that were written in this vignette style. When I showed it to my agent, she was like, “Those pages right there. Write that book.” I was really devastated—I went home and had to throw out 100-some pages, but I just went back to work.
I realized that the reason that the original novel was so bad was because I was trying to avoid what was going on with my mom. I just kind of had to abandon that. So it ended up being in that style. It’s the result of notes I was taking at the time. When I was writing it, my mom was very, very sick. So I was taking care of her full time. The only time and energy I could muster resulted in that very short form. So I just ended up keeping those pieces and stitching them together, and a fictional narrative arose from those pieces. It made sense that it would happen like that for a few reasons: Number one, I had been writing in that fragmented, list-based style for quite a while since grad school, mostly as a result of being in Paul Beatty’s class, when he said to me: “Don’t write like this, write like that—you’ve really got something here.” That allowed me to focus on that style and embrace it.
Secondly, I had always written about my mom since college—because she was this really huge force, she was really powerful, she was incredibly stubborn, extremely funny, and well loved by many, many people. Our relationship was always very fraught, and it had the resonance of so many larger struggles: such as that between an immigrant parent and a new American child; between political divides—I was always very, very radical, and my mom, at the time that she had me, had become more conservative; she had been an activist when she was young in South Africa, but coming to America chilled that for her. Along with political orientation, we were always socially far apart. I was always pretty omnivorous in my tastes. Music was a really big thing. I would listen to pretty out there rock and roll, and it would scare the shit out of her. I’d always written about my mom as a way of exploring these things, and gender and sexuality, too.
AW: Some of my favorite sections came in the form of seemingly detached musings, often in the third person, like the woman mourning her “cat-ghost.” They maintained the thematic threads of mourning and the haunting that loneliness produces. What did these sections allow you to do that the first person narrative didn’t?
ZC: Those are the musings on death, and the mechanics of death, or the mechanics of loss. It was important to me that Thandi is a thinking woman. That’s mostly because I really wanted to write a narrator and a protagonist that feels like me, which I don’t usually see in literature. That’s somebody who is really analytical, really critical, sometimes scathing—and always deconstructing the world around her. Black women characters tend to be very passive in literature. There are many great exceptions, particularly in contemporary literature written by Black women. I felt like I wanted to expand on this, and offer my take on it, my corner of it. I did that not by hiding anything from the reader, not talking down to the reader, just presenting something like I see it. Those are the places where Thandi felt most like me.
AW: Then there were the blog posts, like the one from the visitor to South Africa from the “Nordic Africa Institute.” I laughed out loud at the footnote “In this text I use the grossly simplified race and national labels in the same ways as they are used locally.” It made me think of this sort of self-righteous imposition of political correctness on colonized or formerly colonized societies by Western imperial perspectives. Where did this material come from?
ZC: The blog post that’s about race is from an academic. It was pretty anthropological. Because there’s always a difference between what’s reported and what the experience is like in a place. I guess I wanted to leave room for different people’s experiences in South Africa. I know people through my family who live there who experience violence regularly, and then I know people who live very sheltered lives. And as a tourist, there’s a different experience too. I wanted to acknowledge that there is no one way to express place.
It’s anthropological—it’s very strange to think about your experience somewhere in those terms, but many people are invested in doing that. To give him credit, he did it in a straight way, where he was like, I’m going to go in and be scientific, but scientific language has the effect of being alienated. I wanted to, because it’s part of my style, present different textures of language. To give a more scientific voice, because I also like that, I enjoy reading it.
AW: Cecca Ochoa [Apogee’s Managing Editor] described the tone of your book as feeling and sharp. That’s really not something we get enough of, the intensely emotional alongside the analytical/critical thinking about health, and death, and the inconceivability of death. You use the motif of the asymptote, which manifests in a graph, an explanation of the principal, and quotes like these: “Death and pleasure we experience asymptotically—most people only sometimes approach the lines of pure pleasure or death, close enough to touch.” The fact that “Nirvana . . . is the reality that goes beyond ideas” seems connected to the incomprehensibility of loss: “How can she be there [in a grave] when she is still here, inside me?” The attempt to intellectualize/conceive of death can only come so close.
ZC: I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the sublime, which is a pleasure beyond words, an experience that is so pleasurable that words are inadequate and fail you. I’ve always been intellectually interested in that idea since college, because I studied critical theory. When this happened, I just saw some form of that play out in my life. Because the hardest part, as anybody knows, of losing somebody is thinking about where they go. When you love that person, you want to take care of them and know where they are forever, and not being able to know if they’re okay is hard. If you’re not religious, you don’t believe. Knowing that you don’t know what happens to them is the worst part. And having to reconcile your belief or lack of belief with your loss of a loved one was irreconcilable to me. So all I could think to do about it was write. And explore some other ideas about it, which helped me.
AW: I was really struck by the way that the social context around illness was conveyed, especially in the scene where Thandi and Aminah are talking about the fact that none of their white friends’ parents have died. I think about that a lot, especially as someone who has both black and white family, and starting to see it now with parents in their 60s. There’s such racial disparity in life expectancy—how much more profound can racial disparity get? But then this character has some degree of socio-economic privilege.
This understanding seems to be particularly unsettling for Thandi, who reflects on the “moneyed-ness” of her mother’s treatment for cancer, calling it “a disease of privilege” “elevated above and beyond all other diseases.” Can you talk about the importance of this social/political understanding of illness, alongside the intensely personal?
ZC: Because this book sprang from that experience, those observations came from what I saw around me. The way that I tend to deconstruct and categorize different experiences, mostly in a structural way, it was natural that those observations would lean in that direction. When I went to the hospital, we didn’t have any problems with treatments. We didn’t have to worry about being able to afford something. My mom had excellent insurance as a schoolteacher, and finally an administrator of the school district in Philadelphia. I thought continually about what I would do if we didn’t have that, and what I and my family would not be able to do, and how hard the choices are that many people have to make because they don’t have privilege.
The other observations that I made about cancer, and how it’s portrayed or thought of in a popular context, I started making those when I was very young, and I had several discussions with friends in college about how cancer has such an extensive fundraising mechanism behind it—it has a lot of marketing behind it. And cancer treatment is marketed as smiling white ladies with hats on. But because of systemic issues, Black people are overrepresented in hospitals in cancer wards.
AW: Were the images—the graphs and charts—were those things that you drew?
ZC: The ones that look hand drawn, I drew. Obviously photographs are found. And then the graphs that look like they’re done on a computer are found. I have done my own graphics in the past. The story that this is based on had a lot of graphs and charts. They were really similar to the life expectancy chart, which is found. I actually had a chart where it compared the deaths of different people that I know—it sounds so crazy to talk about now. I went in Powerpoint and made a chart, and I did it a few different ways. And this magazine somehow wanted to publish it.
AW: I don’t think I have seen the inclusion of images that the author themselves produced. Were there models of that you’d seen before?
ZC: There are a few, including Jonathan Safran Foer. They don’t tend to be hand drawn, they’re mostly line drawings and illustrations. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen has photos. Writers like Kamau Brathwaite and Douglas Kearney play with typography in their work, and are thus visual as well. I’ve always been visually oriented, and I’ve done graphic design here and there. Working on Apogee, I was always involved in layout and working with designers. I’m a visual person. And a control freak. I really care about how the words look on the page and what the overall reading experience is.
When I was working at Apogee, I was really thinking about what format it should have, if it should be tall or squat, and how the pages should feel, and what the density of the type should be. I love all of that; being able to control the reader’s experience of a book. I was just telling my husband yesterday that the thing that really surprised me the most when I sold this book was that my editor agreed to publish it as is, with a paragraph or sometime a sentence on a page. I never thought a publisher would let me do this. I thought, Oh this is a joke, my publisher is never going to let this happen. But she liked it and took it. I’m really happy and surprised.
AW: There are certain characters who have a firm footing in the narrative, like Peter and Aminah. Friends and lovers—from Dean to Devonne—flicker in and out of the narrative. At times, Thandi glosses over the endings of these fleeting romances or friendships, even when they result in heartbreak.
ZC: At least part of the reason that those are in there is because I’m obsessed with failure. I’m really obsessed with my relationships that didn’t work out. Sorry to anyone who is implicated in that! I just always think about them a lot. I categorize them, I use them to make me feel bad about myself—like, look at all these things that I fucked up. So it’s partly from that impulse, but it’s also part of my interest in list making. I just like the cleanliness, how tidy a list looks, and how powerful it is to display things alongside each other and let them speak for themselves. I’ve always played around with it.
The second story I published, in Zoetrope, was a list I made of my different body parts. I had this idea to go through and scan every part of my body and tell a little story about it, so I did my hair, my hands . . . usually, it was something that I didn’t like about it or something that was politicized in some way. Then I wove in stories from a fictional character. It’s five pages long. I like the power of it, and I’ve always played around with it as a form. So that’s in the listing of failed relationships, lovers especially, because that comes from not being afraid as a woman to display yourself as sexual, especially as a Black woman, and to not feel shame about it, and just to let it be.
AW: People talk about how sex is hard to write about, and it’s hard to write about it elegantly. I think it’s done beautifully here. It’s powerful that the eroticism is not this dainty, precious thing—that it has this force that’s parallel to death. I would love to hear more about that connection.
ZC: The way I grew up, I wasn’t taught that much about sex, and a lot of it was because of religion—my family wasn’t that religious, but religious enough, and uncomfortable. So as a result I was extremely curious—it totally backfired. Just like the kid who’s been kept from the cookie jar. More importantly, going through the process of shame and then coming out of shame, and being really angry with all the time you spent ashamed of your sexual self. It’s something I’m angry about and don’t want to happen to other people. I don’t blame my parents for it, they are who they are, and part of it is just their personalities. But I do think people should be open about what they do in the bedroom, and that they should see it as a part of life. That said, I think sex is also a mysterious process. And the feelings that you go through during sex border naturally on pain. The way that you experience orgasm is on the edge of pain, it’s called the little death. It’s this experience you have daily or almost daily that takes you out of your everyday state. I’ve been fascinated with it for many reasons.
AW: There are so many roles that sex can play at different moments. At times it seems like a release or an escape from grief. Sometimes it seems like a way to confront grief—like with this line: “Sex is kicking death in the ass while singing.” When you think about that transcendent moment, it can be an escape. And that was one of those lines that was on one page, by itself.
ZC: When I read it, it was presented as a quote from Bukowski. But when I searched for it later, and my publisher tells me, it seems like it’s not actually attributed anywhere to any of his books. But it could be the mutation that happens as a result of memory. When I saw it, I latched onto it; I’m not sure if it’s real or not.
AW: Well, we’ll attribute it to you. Then there’s the theme of motherhood, which also resists romanticization in the book. While motherhood is a powerful force, the narrator resists romanticizing it, both through the straightforward descriptions of her own pregnancy and motherhood, and through the shocking inclusion of Mrs. Mandela’s involvement in the kidnapping and beating of four young men in Soweto. Thandi writes, “Motherhood is stained with blood,” and then, “I do not see the mother with her child as either more morally credible or more morally capable than any other woman. A child can be used as a symbolic credential, a sentimental object, a badge of self-righteousness.” Do you feel that literature, in general, has a tendency to romanticize motherhood?
ZC: I’d say, if anything, literature is the place where it’s not romanticized, or at least that’s where I’ve found the closest approximations. In that passage with Winnie Mandela, there are two quotes. One is Adrienne Rich, the other one is from a book by two feminist scholars. The Adrienne Rich quote is from a book she wrote on motherhood. I did a lot of reading, mostly nonfiction, mostly written by women of color feminists, like Audre Lorde and Angela Davis, where they reflect on motherhood, and their goal is always to complicate it. Toni Morrison has done a lot of work complicating black parenthood in general. Her work has been very instructive for me in that respect. And there are other representations in literature that I’ve always liked. Especially when it’s written by women. It’s kind of a lost cause with men. That’s where I sought refuge.
It’s mostly a reaction to how motherhood is represented in our culture. It leaves very little room for the extremes that happen and will continue to happen—like women who suffer from postpartum depression, and are so ashamed that they make themselves unhealthy to the point where they harm their children or themselves. I think that if we allowed more room to think of motherhood as something a little bit ugly, we would probably have less of those cases. And even just between mothers and daughters, if we allowed ourselves to be imperfect, we might stop pressuring ourselves to be so perfect all the time, and the bad behaviors that come from that might lessen.
AW: Not having the experience personally, but knowing young mothers who express the feeling of, “Is it okay that I’m really pissed off right now?” It doesn’t seem like it is okay. It seems like it should all be flowers and heart emoji. What was it like for you writing about motherhood from the perspective of a mother?
ZC: Really, really hard. That was the hardest part of the book. Initially, the passages that had to do with motherhood were even sparser—it’s done pretty lightly. That was the only way I could approach it, to acknowledge gaps in my knowledge. I chose different times that made sense to me, different moments. A lot came from reading other stories. I did research and read women’s accounts of how they felt when they were pregnant before they knew that they were pregnant, observing the ways their bodies were changing and how they realized that their bodies felt different. I imagined how I would feel as a woman taking care of a child, and being extremely frustrated, feeling like I’m at my wit’s end. It took a long time for those to come; I let it happen naturally in the same way the rest of the book did—I would read about it, think about it, and at some point the voice would just come to me.
AW: Did you know this was the direction the book was going in when you decided to switch to this form, or did it evolve as you went?
ZC: It evolved, and took a few different directions. Like I said, I started with these notes I took when my mom was sick. I combined it with the experiences that happened in the original story that this was based off of. I blended those characters together. To go from that to taking Thandi’s life into the future was a big step for me. I had her ending up single, married, and then at first she was married with Peter happily ever after. And I was like, No, that’s crap. I extended it, they get divorced, I was thinking about motherhood myself because my mom had just died, and I was getting close to 30, so it was something that kept coming up. I was at a residency in Nebraska when I start writing those passages. It wasn’t an easy or simple process at all.
AW: Then there’s Aminah’s choice to have an abortion—which raises a lot more complex questions about the nature of loss. Given the decision today to allow states to defund Planned Parenthood, it seems like a good time to talk about that.
ZC: That wasn’t an intentional decision, to present different alternatives to motherhood, it just came across naturally. The child narrative came later, I wrote the abortion scene earlier. That has more to do with my philosophical interest and intellectual interest. I was thinking more about unknowability and religion, and the question of abortion has always begged more questions than I was willing to acknowledge, because of my politics. I do absolutely believe that everyone should have access to abortion as a right, and it should not be viewed as a tragic event. That is the moral and scientific side of me. At the same time, I have a personal experience that makes me question everything, and all I can say is that I’m glad, through luck, that I have not had to make that decision.
AW: Somewhere in here and throughout this book is a reflection on the reductive nature of race. Thandi describes her “hometown, where white was right and everything black was wrong, stupid, and ugly (I was a non-entity).” I’m curious what identity politics means to you, and perhaps the importance of framing conversations of identity around intersectionality and solidarity.
ZC: It’s such a big part of who I am and how I’ve experienced the world, that I don’t have any kind of fixed racial identity? I say that with a question because I still don’t even fucking know. You can identify with this! It’s not just that I am technically mixed race, which is a term I don’t even really agree with, because we’re all mixed race, and I don’t like to fetishize people like us who happen to have parents of different races. So I like to kind of complicate that idea—how our identity is deployed, all the time. Not just because I look different than what people think of when they think of black people, but because people also think black people act a certain way and live in certain places and speak a certain way, and I’ve never fit within that. I’m not American, I’m also not African, I’m also not Caribbean. And socioeconomically, my family was always middle class. And most people expect black people to be working class or poor.
I’ve always been greeted with this degree of surprise and confusion by people. I’ve sometimes described it as—when people first speak to me, there’s this moment when I can see wonder in their eyes, because I’m an intelligent, well-spoken black woman. I think it’s kind of like, for them, a dog walking on hind legs. I’m also very confident and assertive, and people don’t expect that in a woman, especially a woman that looks very young. I have thankfully always been raised by parents who allowed me to be myself, and to be strong, and weird to a certain extent. It’s always been my experience that I have been very aware of the fact that I don’t fit into other people’s ideas of what I should be. So, seeing around and being a bit removed from the experience of having a fixed identity is my natural point of view.
And I think that’s really a gift; I think that’s something that more people should have, and so I always try to incorporate it into my writing. There are the things that people call us and then there is what we are, and it’s very important to hold those separately and to be very critical of the things that people call us, because they’ve always only served to control and subjugate us. So I always try to look at race and different categorizations with a degree of remove.
AW: That desire to pin down someone’s identity can come from multiple angles. You have the white girl in the high school saying, “But you’re not, like, a real black person” and then there’s also Thandi’s mother’s caution that she will never have relationships with darker skinned women.
ZC: Throughout history, whenever people have tried to transcend race, or as we’re seeing now, transcend gender, they’ve been met with pretty swift oppression. One person who I’m really fascinated with is Jean Toomer, who I admire very much for his experimentation with form. At some point, he declared himself not black, that he was beyond race, and he basically never had a career after that. That’s part of the reason why he only published Cane, that was his only book.
We see that throughout history, in the ways that people try to transcend history. Actually, a film that explores this very, very well is the recent O.J. Simpson documentary, and the ways that what’s happened to him now is basically a punishment from white America, for at some point having transcended race and marrying a beautiful white woman. That almost always happens. There’s a sense of flying too close to the sun—it will burn you, and you will go under. So I think it’s very important to explore those ideas, because they have been so dangerous—to perhaps make them less dangerous, and to figure out why people are still so threatened by this notion that they will suppress people at any cost. Foucault said that we think of our society as being extremely prudish, and that is an indication that we are obsessed with sex, because we punish people who dare to express themselves, and to declare their sexuality. The fact that we have that mechanism to punish people for it means that we are obsessed with it.
AW: I struggle with the tension between wanting to have solidarity with marginalized groups I’m a part of and acknowledging the complexity of the situation.
ZC: That is a tension that I really feel as someone who cares very much about social issues and politics, and the experience of people who are struggling. I see the need to affirm each other, and try to lift each other up and care for each other. At the same time, I feel like that impulse really needs to be policed, because we end up reinforcing bad behaviors out of a good natured attempt to care for people, and that results in such things as excusing sexual abuse and exploitation, and it generally happens to whatever group within that group is most vulnerable—women, gay people, trans people. It’s out of responsibility to each other that people should remain critical of their love. It is not completely unconditional. There always needs to be somebody standing a little outside of whatever group you’re a part of who says, “No, we have to stop. We have to be critical of what we’re doing.” If people were more effective doing that within whiteness, where would we be? We have to do the same thing as blackness, and whatever other group we’re a part of.
AW: I wanted to ask about how your editorial experience informs your writing, or vice versa.
ZC: My process of working with this form of collage or vignettes is that I write these pieces separately, then I assemble them together. The process of getting the order down for this book lasted a year—rearranging the pieces. When I put it in Microsoft Word, I would switch the pages so much that Word would glitch, and it would break the file, because the formatting was so overwhelmed. So I used Scrivener, and put one vignette on each page, and switched them out. This was most of what I was doing at MacDowell in 2014. Then, at a residency I did in Morocco, we were living in a villa in this resort in Marrakesh as part of a residency hosted by the resort owners. They gave me what used to be a living room, and it had no window glass, it was amazing and airy. I printed out all the pages of the manuscript and put them on the floor and moved them around for a long time, and that was what I did to figure out the order. That whole process was an editorial process. I was constantly moving it around to see if things worked best this way or that way. I eventually arrived at this order, and it’s pretty unchanged since manuscript phase. That whole process is what you do when you put together a magazine or curate a show. I’ve always really liked doing that with my own work.
AW: Are you working on anything new?
ZC: I will be soon. This semester I’m teaching three courses, and it’s still really new to me, so I’ve had to focus a lot of energy on making sure I’m doing a good job on that. I’m also working on this publishing course at USC in conjunction with the LA Review of Books, to help introduce underrepresented people to the field of publishing.
Viking bought another book of mine, they’ve left it open whether it will be fiction or nonfiction. It’s probably going to be nonfiction, because I write quite a bit of nonfiction. The last two years of my life have been really unsettled, in a good way, but I haven’t had really a sense of rootedness, so I’m just trying to put down roots. Honestly, I look forward to taking a bit of a break, because it feels like it’s been Go for quite some time, but I do think I need some time to think about what I’m going to do next, and let some ideas take shape.
AW: Do you have any book events planned on the East Coast?
ZC: I’ll be at the Free Library of Philadelphia on July 13, and at Word Bookstore in Brooklyn on July 19.
See Clemmons’ full events schedule, and read more about the author, at www.zinziclemmons.com.