The Woman Behind the Curtain Pulling the Levers: Talking with Zinzi Clemmons

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When I first read the synopsis of What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, I knew I had to read it. We overlapped in Columbia University’s MFA program, and although she was Fiction and I was Nonfiction, I knew who she was, mainly because of Apogee Journal, of which she was a co-founder. Apogee promotes underrepresented voices, particularly artists and writers of color. I’d read snippets of her writing and knew how powerful it was.

Thandi, What We Lose’s narrator, is a biracial woman, born to a South African mother and an American father. Told in nonlinear pieces, this is a story about watching a parent become ill and die; about reconciling family history with the present; finding love and wallowing in its glorious, miserable mess; and untangling threads of identity and belonging (or not). It is a story about origins and futures, immigrants and community. The prose is carefully measured, clear and sparkling, creating a vivid picture of Thandi’s life, immersing the reader in her experiences.

Clemmons was gracious enough to do an interview via email, where we discussed life’s influences on writing, what it means to be an artist in today’s world, and representations of blackness.

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The Rumpus: You talked about the book being based on your own experiences—why did you decide to write it as a novel, and not as a memoir? Were there challenges in fictionalizing your experiences?

Zinzi Clemmons: My personal story encompassed many topics I wanted to explore: race/racism, how we treat illness, how mothers and daughters interact, how different generations of immigrants interact. I decided that the best way to do this was to write it as a novel. Fiction just allowed more flexibility for me to explore the topics I’m interested in in the way I wanted.

I’ve been asked this question in every interview I’ve done (so please don’t think I’m singling you out), and I want to take this opportunity to address it in more broad terms.

Every fiction writer draws on their own life in their work. I hope that the reason this question keeps coming up is because the book feels authentic and resonates strongly with people. However, I can’t help but think there is something else to it; that it has to do with peoples’ expectations of what I, as a young black woman, can or should write.

I write and think a lot about hip-hop—not just the music itself, but its place in society. For almost as long as it’s existed, white listeners have been unable to distinguish between a rapper’s persona and who they are. So, particularly in the 90s, there was an assumed connection between violent lyrics and violent behavior, where people assumed that if someone rapped about it, they had done it. This led to the condemnation and censorship of many artists who, oftentimes, were simply performing personas concocted by record companies to sell copies. But, because the public thinks of black people as inherently violent and less capable of complex thought, they also falsely assumed rappers were incapable of the kind of sleight of hand that it takes to construct and play a convincing persona. It’s as if the public thought: I don’t believe you could have made this up, so it must be real.

I think readers should ask themselves why they are interested in the truth behind this story. If it serves to interpret or appreciate the story, that’s a productive question, but if it’s to satisfy curiosity about me, it’s not really useful. I also won’t ever fully distinguish what’s true and what’s not; that’s the liberty I’m granted by calling it a novel.

Readers should assume that—just as is the case with any other novel—there is a lot of sleight of hand involved. I’m the author, not the protagonist, and at the end of the day, it’s what’s on the page that matters. I’m merely the woman behind the curtain pulling the levers.

Rumpus: I really enjoyed the format—how it wasn’t a traditional, linear, chapter-by-chapter format. You also include photographs and graphics. Why did you decide to write it this way, and how do you think it impacted the novel?

Clemmons: I’ve always written in this style. It represents how I think people see and interact with the world. People don’t just sit down and dictate stories from beginning to end—they allude, they pause, they deceive, they ask, they gesture, they reference. The fragmented nature of the story also reflects the reality of memory and trauma, which causes us to recall in little bits, and to travel from one topic to the next associatively. In that way, the style reflects the subject matter of loss, but everything else is just how I write.

Rumpus: The concept of belonging is woven throughout the book, and especially today, politically and socially, it seems that people are so quick to place labels on us and want to put us in one box or another. As if our identity is static and not able to be fluid at all, lest it cause anyone discomfort or challenge “safe” ideas. How has the concept of belonging/outsider-ness influenced your work (if you think it has), and how do you think writers/artists can utilize this part of themselves—particularly now, since Trump was elected?

Clemmons: This is a huge part of my perspective as a human being and as a writer. My nature, as a person, is to stand outside and question. I am very uncomfortable with any kind of group membership, and I tend to just flit from one to another in a kind of rebellious, confused, lonely way. Again, that’s just how I see things, and I naturally bring it to my writing.

As far as the current political moment, I see a lot of problems emanating from that conflict, and it’s drawn mainly along generational lines. The younger generations are very resistant to categorization, which makes older (particularly white, but not only) generations feel very threatened. I think that’s part of why Obama and bathrooms have become flash points: because, in addition to being a black man, Obama represents an integrated, multiracial society, and the acceptance of blackness; bathrooms represent the demolition of the gender binary. Younger people see both gender and race as fluid, and many people find that scary. We are finding very little common ground between the two, and it’s exacerbated by economic problems. We’ve locked antlers. In the end, I think the young will win, but it’s going to be a hard fight.

In terms of how to deal with it, I say double down! History is on our side. My dad is a centrist who supported Hillary Clinton, and I am very much to the left of him. My parents—as is true of most black people of their generation, supported Clinton before Obama. They thought I was crazy for supporting him early, but he turned out to be one of America’s best presidents. I recently reminded my dad that, basically, I was right! It’s time they listened to us.

Rumpus: You write, “Our heroes tend to be orphans. Hercules, Batman, even Harry Potter… Or do we simply view the loss of parents as the most tragic of situations, so that a person who overcomes such a circumstance is necessarily imbued with some aspect of heroism?” This struck me especially hard, because it is something I’ve often wondered with fairy tales—in so many Disney movies, for example, even Finding Nemo!—the mother dies, or there are no parents. Though your book deals with the loss of Thandi’s mother, you manage to avoid tired tropes or stereotypes. Were you conscious of this when writing the book, and if so, how did you sidestep that?

Clemmons: Thank you, I take that as a compliment! This ties into my previous answer. I constantly question accepted knowledge: how a protagonist should be, how blackness is portrayed, how a novel should be written. That passage is a riff on the hero archetype, and what I’m doing there is attempting to pull it apart and lay the pieces bare.

In an earlier version of the manuscript, I had written a much happier ending in the central relationship (I won’t get more specific so as not to spoil). I stepped away from the manuscript for a little while, and it kept niggling at me—it felt clichéd, too rom com-y. I love rom-coms, but that wasn’t what I wanted this book to be. So I changed it and made it darker, more unresolved. After I did that, my soul felt right. Because—even after tragedy—things don’t end up happily ever after, and I try not to lie to readers about matters as important as that.

Rumpus: What are you reading now, and what five books would you recommend to others as “must-reads?”

Clemmons: This is a bit of a shameless plug, though an honest one: I’m currently reading a manuscript that was translated by my husband from the Italian, which will be published in a few months. It’s an eleven-cycle epic about Libyan colonialism called The Confines of the Shadow by Alessandro Spina (a pen name). It’s one of the few works of literature on that period, and it’s tough to read, but extremely important.

I’m going to recommend my five of my all-time favorites, that anyone who’s interested in my book should also pick up: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich, Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, and The Cancer Journals by Audre Lord.


Jaime Herndon is a writer and editor living in New York. She graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University in 2014, and her book Taking Back Birth is forthcoming in 2016 from Microcosm Publishing. More from this author →