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What We Lose

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From an author of rare, haunting power, a stunning novel about a young African-American woman coming of age—a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, family, and country

Raised in Pennsylvania, Thandi views the world of her mother’s childhood in Johannesburg as both impossibly distant and ever present. She is an outsider wherever she goes, caught between being black and white, American and not. She tries to connect these dislocated pieces of her life, and as her mother succumbs to cancer, Thandi searches for an anchor—someone, or something, to love.

In arresting and unsettling prose, we watch Thandi’s life unfold, from losing her mother and learning to live without the person who has most profoundly shaped her existence, to her own encounters with romance and unexpected motherhood. Through exquisite and emotional vignettes, Clemmons creates a stunning portrayal of what it means to choose to live, after loss. An elegiac distillation, at once intellectual and visceral, of a young woman’s understanding of absence and identity that spans continents and decades, What We Lose heralds the arrival of a virtuosic new voice in fiction.

213 pages, Hardcover

First published July 11, 2017

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About the author

Zinzi Clemmons

3 books506 followers
Zinzi Clemmons was raised in Philadelphia by a South African mother and an American father. A graduate of Brown and Columbia, her writing has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, The Paris Review Daily, Transition, and The Common.

She is a co-founder and former publisher of Apogee Journal, a contributing editor to Literary Hub, and deputy editor for Phoneme Media.

She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction.

Clemmons lives in Los Angeles with her husband.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,661 reviews
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,990 reviews298k followers
September 23, 2017
I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe. Even while you’re out in public, feeling fine and free, inside you cannot shake the feeling of rootlessness. Others may envy you, but this masks the fact that at night, there is nowhere safe for you, no place to call your own.

This is a tiny book - I don't know the word count, but it is surely barely more than a novella - and it contains short, punchy chapters that cover a broad range of issues, disjointed narration, and strange jumps in time. But, despite its size, it hit me really hard.

It's difficult to know which aspect to start with. Clemmons covers so many themes, including but not limited to love, marriage, race (particularly being mixed race), motherhood, apartheid in South Africa, modern day Johannesburg, and abortion. Thandi leads us through all these things, both with her personal experiences and secondhand observations.

What We Lose is the complete opposite of a slow, gradual book that leads up to a bigger picture. Every chapter hits fast and hard, leaving a lasting impression. The writing is succinct and powerful, offering tidbits filled with truth on human nature in almost every sentence.

But I have not talked about the main story, really, behind everything else I've mentioned. At its heart, this novel is about the kind of deep grief that pervades every part of your life. Thandi is so lost without her mother that her grief becomes a part of everything. The effect of filling a novel about grief with so many important themes - as noted: race, marriage, apartheid, etc. - is the realisation of grief's all-encompassing nature. Not only is it forever in the background of Thandi's personal life; it is forever in the background of everything.

I especially love this quote:
“Oftentimes I find myself, when we are fighting over the bills, or when he chews his food too loudly or laughs at the wrong time during a film, asking not whether I am happy, but whether my mother would approve of him.”

What We Lose broke my heart several times. It's a powerful book about many important things but, of course, what affected me most was the loss of someone who is so vital to a person's life. How do you go on when your anchor, your constant, isn't there anymore? I don't know. I dread the day when I find out.

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Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews596 followers
January 17, 2018
Sometimes there is no reason to write a review.....( so it feels) - to me.

I mean if you finished a book - that you are somewhat neutral about - appreciate it - aware it’s thought provoking - has depth - deals with loss of a mother - and a father who emotionally distances himself - add struggling with racial/ cultural identity for a young African-American.....
you notice over 500 people on Goodreads have ‘already’ written a review —
You look.....
.....at a few reviews and discover...... GREAT - varied - REVIEWS FROM MANY OTHER MEMBERS.....so why spin the wheel?
.....when one person wrote a couple of lines that fits YOUR experience?/!

Jenny (Reading Envy).....wrote a couple sentences in her review that speaks to how I felt. She said:
“But I felt like an outsider the entire time. There is something about the way the internal aspects of the story are presented that don’t welcome you, rather they leave you wanting to turn away”.

Thank You for that quote Jenny!!! I borrowed it without asking.

Profile Image for Alienor ✘ French Frowner ✘.
850 reviews3,880 followers
February 15, 2021

Albeit smart, intimate and well-written, these qualities aren't why I'll remember this novel : no, I'll remember What We Lose for its relatable depiction of grief, no matter how often I've wanted to stop reading. In this area of essays and important novels, when the representation of minorities in fiction is still so criminally inexistent, I love that this book exists, but looking back, that's not what I'll recall. The intense sense of dread I feel when I read about the loss of a parent, that I will.

"Yes, there is that dark, terrifying loneliness that scares me, but I am acquainted with fear. If I stay inside long enough, root my heels in deeper, it doesn't feel scary anymore. It feels like home."

See, I can see readers being confused by the numerous times Zinzi Clemmons skips from one subject to another, or by the disjointed narration and the multiples jumps in time : I wasn't. The construction is solid in my opinion and I was interested in her slices of life, both in South Africa and in the United States, on what it means to be a black woman in nowadays America ; on the everyday racism, that does not need to wear a white robe to be insufferable and unacceptable, this racism that tells black girls that they should straighten their hair, accept what they have and stop resisting. The denunciation of that racism is needed, and welcomed.

Yet I don't know how What We Lose is marketed, but it's very much a coming-of-age, getting past a loss novel, above everything else. It reads like a memoir, a memoir in which I could see me.

The way Zinzi Clemmons depicts grief is not spectacular, and it made me so, so happy. I don't know why most authors handles this subject with loud bangs, forever dramatic, and forget that the worst thing about grief is the intrinsic, hollow boredom we feel when the funerals are over. Everyone can go on with their lives, and here we are, stopped. Everything in this novels feels so accurate.

"Lose is a straightforward equation : 2 - 1 = 1. A person is there, then she is not. But a loss is beyond numbers, as well as sadness, and depression, and guilt, and ecstasy, and hope, and nostalgia - all those emotions that expert tell us come along with death. Minus one person equals all of these, in unpredictable combinations. It is a sunny day that feels completely gray, and laughter in the midst of sadness. It is utter confusion. It makes no sense."

The thing is, when you lose your mum or your dad, everyone on Earth expects you to follow a certain pattern of behavior, and when you don't, you feel lesser than dirt. My dad died four years ago, and no, I don't remember his voice. My dad died four years ago, and no, I don't believe in heaven ; I don't think he's looking after me ; I don't talk to him ; I don't go on his grave because I don't think he's there ; My dad died four years ago and I think he's nowhere. I miss him so much, but I think he's nowhere. Even now, I want to hit something when people tells me that he's somewhere, smiling in the sky, and - as Zinzi Clemmons perfectly summed it up - that I need to acknowledge him, like this cliché of the persistent orphan who's really living her life to make her lost parent proud. I refuse. God, knowing my dad, he would have laughed out loud at these antics. Most "orphan novels" rely on this pattern, and every time, it makes me feel so, so inexistent. What We Lose does, too, but contrary to most novels, it doesn't stop there. It shows us that there's no such thing as one way to deal with loss, and for that I'm grateful.

I also liked Zinzi Clemmons's reflection about motherhood and the way our society puts maternity above everything else. As a woman who probably won't have any children, and whose work revolves around giving children more chances, I appreciated her nuanced take on this subject, and the doubts she expressed :

"I do not see the mother with a 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. I question the implicit belief that only "mothers" with "children of their own" have a real stake in the future of humanity."

What We Lose's ultimate simplicity is probably going to cause it to lose some readers, but that's what kept me. Many readers won't understand what's the point, and that's okay. Even if I'll never reread it, I'm glad it exists somewhere. I'm glad, and it's as simple as that.
"... and I think, 'I have to call Mama to say hello.'"
I realized that that was how heartbreak occurred. Your heart wants something, but reality resists it. Death is inert and heavy, and it has no relation to your heart's desires."

[Flower credit]

For more of my reviews, please visit:
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,114 followers
September 12, 2017
I jumped on this one for a buddy read in the Newest Literary Fiction group.

This was a quick read but a confusing one. I feel like the description led me to expect a pretty straight forward novel about a South African childhood and loss. Instead it reads like a braided essay in longform, a memoir of sorts, with attempts to pull in other information. But it also feels unfinished, with several more revisions needed to really make the transitions work, to bring the emotion in balance with the events, to flesh out a better level of detail of the actual events making up the "novel." It reads more like a summary much of the time, an overview, rather than a series of events that come together for an actual story.

I respond to emotion in writing, when it is presented in a way that brings me into the story. I expected this to have incredible resonance since I recently lost a parent to cancer. But I felt like an outsider the entire time. There is something about the way that the internal aspects of the story are presented that don't welcome you, rather they leave you wanting to turn away.

I think if you are looking for a narrative to explain a South African childhood, I can better recommend Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood.

This was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Liz.
191 reviews57 followers
September 8, 2017
When I read something like this my first thought is that it’s trying way too hard. Some chapters were a single line. Some were a picture or a chart. Some chapters were news articles of actual events in South Africa. Some were beautiful, some were bizarre, and some were just deliberately crude. I’m not saying that these things in themselves aren’t interesting or valuable, I’m just saying that they don’t belong together within a single 200-page book, let alone one with the word “NOVEL” printed boldly on the cover. Clemmons can surely write, and I know she has experience and insight to share, but her delivery left me frustrated.

I didn’t feel that I knew Thandi any better by the end of the book than in the beginning. Of course, how could I when it’s clear she doesn’t even know herself any better? I wanted to understand her feelings on losing her mother in such a tragically painful way, how she coped in the years after this loss, but it becomes clear that such an un-self aware character would have little of that to share. The result is that there is very little obvious growth in her character at all.

And I realize I am raking this one over the coals a bit, so I’m going to share some passages that I did find to be beautiful and enlightening. These are the reason that I know Clemmons has talent.

“I’ve often thought that beng a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe.”


“Every time I touch him I think, how can something be this soft? It is impossible, this feeling of his newness against my coarse fingers. His every bone and skin cell is in a state of formation. He is coming into being before my eyes.”


“She’s gone.
But she’s here, I can feel her. I can see her that day they told us that everything was going to be all right.
But she’s not here.
But I can feel her arms around me. It feels like the breeze coming off the river. It enwraps me with its warmth. It comforts me. It smells like her breath.
But she’s long gone.”

Another reviewer said it very well, by pointing out that it is not enough to have these deep and insightful thoughts, an author should also be able to organize them better than this. Put them together in a meaningful way to maximize their impact.
Profile Image for Darkowaa.
167 reviews373 followers
July 11, 2017
!!! Book blog review: https://africanbookaddict.com/2017/07...
Laden with meditative, intimate and at times unsettling vignettes, What We Lose will leave you in a pensive state. Thandi – the heroine of this novel, is the only child of her mother (a coloured South African) and father (a light skinned African American) who is very aware of her privileges & multicultural background. Readers follow Thandi on her journey from childhood to adulthood as she navigates what it means to be a black woman in America and South Africa, dealing with the loss of a loved one, motherhood and love.

What We Lose is based on Zinzi Clemmons’s life, BUT it isn’t her life. If you’ve been following Clemmons’s work online, especially her 2013 piece – A Geography of Hurt, you’d find the subject matter in this novel familiar. While there isn’t a clear-cut plot to this novel, Clemmons successfully portrays Thandi’s life through short vignettes. The vignettes reflect Thandi’s complex thoughts – private, absorbing and heartfelt thoughts, that one probably wouldn’t even share with their closest partner. Some bits of the text feel philosophical which was confusing at times, but appreciated. I love how pictures and graphs and random news articles are scattered throughout the book, as it gave the storytelling an unconventional feel.

Johannesburg, South Africa plays a vital role in this novel. The world is so absorbed in American politics (aka: Trump) that we forget about the intense and ever present racism in post-apartheid South Africa. Thandi and her family are coloureds and wealthy, so readers experience a different account of racial dynamics in South Africa through their lens, which is refreshing. It was intriguing to see how American racial relations and South African racial relations were juxtaposed and how they impacted Thandi’s life and even play a role in her grieving process and the important decisions she makes in her life.

Anyone whose lost a parent will deeply resonate with this novel. I initially thought this novel would be morbid and sorrowful, but I was glad to find that it reads more as a visceral novel – deep feelings and black psyche are articulated so aptly!

I’m not sure how this book is being marketed to the public; but for me, What We Lose tackles so much more than the issue of race. This coming-of-age novel reminds you that we are all human. We are all dealing with our personal struggles. We are all trying to thrive and heal and survive. Illness, love, race, mental health, motherhood, sisterhood and social class dynamics are wonderfully weaved into the overall themes of grief and the quest to belong.

Read full review + quotes on: africanbookaddict.com
July 16, 2017
Throughout my life, coming-of-age novels peppered themselves onto bookshelves whenever I ventured. In these novels, heartbreak, love, loss, and joys scattered their footprints, asking me to grasp the main character's journey by finding similarity.

Most of the time, they failed as they offered two hundred and more pages of a life I witnessed on television and movie matinees. Bottled in blonde ponytails and bouncy curl drenched in Prell shampoo, any hardships described on the page felt sweeter than my actual life. Their attempts at connection rang hollow, because as a black girl (woman), what should have united us (e.g. girlhood, womanhood) ignored vital intersections that  rendered their stories "cute" and not to be taken seriously. No, Becky with the good hair, we could be friends, but you'll never understand me, even if you tried.

Via intimate, unsettling, and pining vignettes, Zinzi Clemmons' What We Lose gifted me one of the few options of a coming-of-age novel that rang more true than I anticipated. Race, family, loss, sex, and identity cultivated this novel. Despite the fifteen years or so, separating me from the author, her heroine, Thandi, the daughter of a South African "colored" woman and a light-skinned black American man, mirrored experiences founding my life's walls. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she navigated her life with privileges her multicultural background granted, while trying to interpret her carbon footprint in society. When not pulled between worlds - black and white, American and South African, she hashes rich and middle-class by realizing the gumbo her life created and how those outside do not benefit. 

“But when I call myself black, my cousins look at me askance. They are what is called coloured in South Africa—mixed race—and my father is light-skinned black. I looked just like my relatives, but calling myself black was wrong to them…. American blacks were my precarious homeland—because of my light skin and foreign roots, I was never fully accepted by any face.”

She's in, but she's not. She's a "strange in-betweener", cognizant of her need to belong, but, with her family and friends as anchors, she's not the tragic mulatto, as in Nella Larson's stories, which sweetened the pot. Strangely, this novel read as a memoir, which Clemmons' denied. Believing the author's hard, after reading her background. Each vignette felt like a private and provocative diary passage, except time's chartered, not in actual dates, but in Thandi's external actions. She fell and rose, fell and rose, until she settled her feet on the rocky pavement by story's end.

As mentioned before, family played a major role. Her mother - the rock of her small family (She had no siblings) - taught her key elements of living in her body and how to strengthen her mind, body, and soul, in a society not welcoming. Johannesburg, her mother's birthplace, received contemplative moments. Its class and racial system. Her family's belief system. Its violence. They shaped her mother. They shaped her.

Unfortunately, her mother's diagnosed with cancer, providing her another basis for identity. She noted the disease as one where one's privilege determined treatment and survival. Upon her mother's passing, a void's unleashed, and throughout her grief cycle, what's unleashed afterwards defined the marker her continuous journey finds her. Anyone who lost a parent will understand her descriptions of grief and bereavement. Her discussion felt real and complex, never shallow. Having lost an aunt to cancer, I cried, purging some feelings I hid to preserve my sanity.

Furthermore, I loved following Thandi on her journey, which never feels like a destination. Her journey continued, even when I finished the story. While not a free spirit or wanderer, she'll never fit in a societal box and she finds comfort in that notion. Also, I enjoyed the in-depth look at South Africa. I knew some things, but she offered me morsels that filled my curiosity. 

The vignettes piqued my interest. At times, I yearned for longer chapters. But, feeling as though I knew Thandi, she gave me what she thought I deserved, not what I wanted. Her examination of another corner of the diverse black psyche paved honesty, creativity, and the discomfort we, as readers, required. 

Bring tissues and a cup (pot, actually) of tea for her soul cleansing.

Verdict : 4/5 Trips to Philly (I loved the snippets of my hometown described. I traveled with her, remarking each site with clarity and fondness)

Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book2,120 followers
January 30, 2019
This novel felt uneven and thin and overwrought to me, all at once. I found myself resenting the novel for trying to make me feel things that the prose couldn't deliver. The story followed predictable patterns--there was no surprise. The writing in some parts had the feel of a kludgy autobiography--for instance the careful way the author explains what "colored" means in South Africa. The author's tendency to over-explain at times felt like an annoying slip in diction, from intimate to formal and back again. I didn't like the blank spaces in the text. They felt like a portentous attempt to fall toward silence that was unearned and maybe also a little lazy. The blank spaces should have been filled with more story, more depth, more.

I would have been more forgiving if it had been marketed as memoir. As literature it didn't make it.
Profile Image for Read By RodKelly.
206 reviews752 followers
January 25, 2019
In short: this is a phenomenal debut novel!

The author has created an intensely emotional account of a young woman's process of coping with the death of her mother, who suffered with cancer. The novel reads like a memoir or a diary; the chapters are often short, fragmented sketches, arranged in no particular order, and concern themselves with various experiences of the narrator, Thandi, around the time before and after her mother dies. There are moments when there are only two or three lines on a page, which I thought was beautiful: a person grieving will experience a period of reflecting on things that happen around the time of their loss, trying to reconcile all of the loose threads, trying to make sense out of all the disparate pieces that one feels they are broken into after experiencing such a difficult event.

The writing is economical: the sentences sharp, direct, and to the point, which really creates an atmosphere charged with raw emotion. I found myself dog-earing so many pages because in the midst of a very frankly written passage, I would come to a sentence so beautiful and poignant, stopping to marvel at the author's amazing ability to turn a phrase.

Her ability to capture the feeling of loss is fantastic: "There is that dark, terrifying loneliness that scares me, but I am acquainted with fear. If I stay inside it long enough, root my heels in deeper, it doesn't feel scary anymore. It feels like home."

And again in this moment: "We are like bricks in a wall, and a new one cannot fit unless another is taken away. It comforts me to peace...this harmony, the idea that for every suffering there is equal and opposite joy. In practice, it is so simple, yet so mystical and infinite."

I was blown away, and I cannot wait to read more from this fabulous talent.
Profile Image for Vanessa.
463 reviews303 followers
August 12, 2017
A very contemporary feeling book that tackles modern day themes but also about the past and how both have a habit of interesecting each other.

Thandi tries to break the mould of living and honouring the past of her South African background and paving a new future. This book tackles race, tradition and it's implications in melding it with her life in America. Sometimes she is torn between the two worlds. I feel like the main issues that are tackled here are concerning race and grieving and she tries to blend this together bringing a unique point of view which is startling at times but also powerful in its understatedness.

This is raw confronting and powerful sock it to you writing, it's tough and gentle at the same time. So realistic it took my breath away at times. It explores the senselessness of death the numbing pain it causes, the utter devastation, isolation, loneliness and often the only way to brave it, is by lashing out to fill a certain void that's left, a void that can never be properly filled as Thandi discovers. This was an interesting take on the theme, essay style writing that seems to be very popular at the moment. There is so much more offered here, it has it's flaws but I think this is only a taste of what this author has to offer.
Profile Image for Lori.
308 reviews99 followers
February 3, 2018
Cancer health disparities: black women and white women are equally likely to have breast cancer. Death from breast cancer is 42 percent more likely for black women than for white women.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,519 reviews8,982 followers
June 3, 2018
I wanted more from this slim novel, though I enjoyed what I did read. In What We Lose, Zinzi Clemmons writes about a young woman of mixed race whose mother passes away. In concise chapters, she explores her protagonist's grieving process as well as her experiences relatetd to race, apartheid in South Africa, marriage, family, and more. The personal and political intersect in this work of fiction, just as they do in real life.

My own grandmother passed away last year, so perhaps I started this book searching for something unrealistically stellar. In some ways, Clemmons delivers with What We Lose, as she addresses important political themes while showing the messiness of grief and loss. A couple of lines related to grief resonated with me, to the point where I paused and took time to appreciate Clemmons's poignant prose. Still, I wished for so much more detail about the protagonist's internal life and her relationships. I wanted more detail about her relationship with Paul (though he sucked a lot), her grieving process, and how her foray into motherhood factored into everything else. Reading What We Lose felt like reading a sketch of something with the potential for greatness, though some parts were not quite filled in yet. Overall, a good read but one more sparse than I would have liked.
Profile Image for Jennifer Tam.
68 reviews78 followers
September 1, 2018
Started and finished this book in a couple of hours - it is a beautiful story about love and loss and grief in a very interesting format that I very much enjoyed - can’t wait to see what else comes from this author
Profile Image for Erin .
1,274 reviews1,198 followers
October 19, 2017
What We Lose is a weird little novel. Writing in the form of stream of consciousness. What We Lose is a different kind of book about loss and grief. I must admit I had trouble connecting with this book, maybe it was the stream of consciousness writing style or maybe it was the fact that the chapters moved back and forth through time. One chapter her mother's alive and in the very next chapter she's dead and then she's alive again. It was annoying and stopped me from fully connecting with the characters.

Since I'm in the minority and everyone else seems to love it I'm not giving a recommendation.
Profile Image for Ify.
166 reviews181 followers
September 1, 2017
Friends, I wonder if my extremely high expectations and vague understanding of this novel set me up for an anticlimactic and frustrating reading experience. I truly wanted to love this book. I wanted (and still want) this book to succeed.

Through a series of vignettes, Thandi describes and processes the death of her mother, what it means to lose someone (both familial and romantic) and her relationship to her mother's country- South Africa. A series of vignettes that presents itself as a novel can be really tricky to pull of, and in What We Lose, I was irritated by its use. It wasn't so much that I don't like vignettes, but that in this book, some (to me) came across as fillers because either didn't seem relevant to the plot (Ms Madikizela-Mandela vignettes) or felt unconvincing.

I truly appreciated the vignettes that directly explored Thandi's sense of loss and reflections on her mother. Losing someone can be devastating, confusing and world-altering so it makes sense to explore and try to make sense of that experience and the emotions that accompany it.

This book does have its gems, but overall it fell flat for me.

*2.5 stars
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews158k followers
November 21, 2017
I’ve written a full review of this novel elsewhere, but here I’d like to just say that anyone who has ever known loss should read this book. Clemmons captures grief so incredibly well on the page that it feels like your own pain put into words. Her experimental formatting and the gorgeous language she uses help, certainly, but this book really, more than anything else, is about losing a parent and the way the loss can unhinge a person even while their life continues to move and spin forward with each revolution of the earth around the sun.

–Ilana Masad

from The Best Books We Read In June 2017: https://bookriot.com/2017/07/03/riot-...
Profile Image for Emily Coffee and Commentary.
468 reviews155 followers
February 12, 2023
A musing reflation of grief and healing. Told though the turbulent period of illness and loss, narrator Thandi paints an expertly complicated picture of loneliness, confusion, and human connections. What We Lose is also an unconventional and effective tapestry of identity and race, weaving together memories, music, politics, and society to coney the struggle to escape the label of otherness, to feel comfortable in one’s skin, one’s past. An intimately painful reach for all of those who we miss terribly, and want to hold on to as the years pass with their absence.
Profile Image for luce (that loser crying on the n° 2 bus).
1,437 reviews4,043 followers
August 27, 2021
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3½ stars

Though mostly comprising of short chapters, some shorter than a page, What We Lose is a poignant novel that succeeds on many different levels: it captures the narrator's inner feelings, it gives a crystal-clear understanding of her circumstances, and it provides us with insights into questions of love, race, illness, grief, and motherhood. Thandi, our narrator, is a light-skinned Black woman who although raised in America feels both close and not to South Africa, her mother's country. Clemmons marries a coming-of-age story—self-fulfillment, love, friendships, career, finding a place to which you can fully belong—with a piercing commentary on race, class, cancer (providing sobering evidence showing the disproportionate death rate among Black people, regardless of class), gender, and love. The narrative hones in on Thandi's grief over the death of her mother. She recalls those excruciating months in which her mother was bedridden and in atrocious pain. There are portions of the narrative that relate to the still ongoing aftermath of apartheid and Clemmons initiates some thoughtful discussion about South Africa's history and current socioeconomic.
Clemmons prose is restrained yet startling for its preciseness. With just a few words Clemmons manages to explore with authenticity and nuance complex feelings and scenarios. It is not a happy tale, as it brings to the forefront some sad yet real truths. Still, here and there, we are given glimpses of hope and genuine love (especially between Thandi and her best friend). Part of me did wish that the novel could have been a bit longer but I also recognize that the ending did not feel abrupt nor hurried.
Profile Image for BookOfCinz.
1,422 reviews2,546 followers
January 25, 2019
I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe. Even while you’re out in public, feeling fine and free, inside you cannot shake the feeling of rootlessness. Others may even envy you, but this masks the fact that at night, there is nowhere safe for you, no place to call your own.

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons is raw, profound, deeply moving and will in some instances leave you gutted. The book, explores mother-daughter relationship, grief, friendship, loss and racial tension in America and South Africa. There is so much going on in these few pages but Clemmons is able to address them in the most moving way.

I am generally not a fan of non-linear novels but because I read it in two sittings it wasn't as jarring. Clemmons doesn't use a lot of words to get her point across or move the plot along. The story is told in snippers or vignettes, for some it might be a bit off putting but I found it worked well.

A must read debut novel. I cannot wait to hear more from Clemmons.
Profile Image for Kasa Cotugno.
2,409 reviews489 followers
July 20, 2017
Heartfelt account of a young woman's coming to self realization and dealing with her mother's death, a mother who was young and still had much in front of her, this reminded me at times of Cheryl Strayed's Wild. Clemmons fully expresses her loss in short vignettes, with splashes of surprising candor. They say everyone has at least one book in them based on experience. Let's hope there will be more from this young author.
Profile Image for Lizzie Huxley-Jones.
Author 6 books222 followers
June 19, 2017
When I started reading What We Lose, I thought it was a memoir. 50 pages in I happened to turn over the proof and noticed the words “a novel”, alongside realising that the author’s name was Zinzi, not Thandi. I had become so enraptured in the writing, I hadn’t for a second thought it wasn’t memoir. Thandi is such a fully realised person that I fully believed What We Lose was the story of her life, and a life that actually lived.

What We Lose follows Thandi through the death of her mother, told through short vignettes in a style straight out of the literary memoir genre. Thandi is both American and South African, but she feels not quite either, and the non-linearity of the novel finds her both in love and falling out of love at the same time.

Through her eyes (and Zinzi’s) the reader is told a lot about the history of South Africa, from Oskar Pistorious to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to the photography of Kevin Carter. The novel also includes photographs and short poems, creating a multimedia experience akin to Claudia Rankin’s poetry collections.

While it took me only an evening to read this novella, the emotions linger. Clemmons explores the spectrum of grief from the sudden bereavement to forgetting their voice. Her writing is honest and ragged raw. I’m still thinking about Thandi now, and wondering how about her life after the novel.

I truly, truly think that What We Lose is going to grab the attention of several literary awards. It’s an impressive, profound novella that balances history with the complexities of romance, grief and a sense of belonging.

What to read next:
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Passing by Nella Larsen
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Thank you kindly to the team at Harper Collins Insider and 4th Estate Press for sharing this copy with me.
Profile Image for ♥ Sandi ❣	.
1,320 reviews18 followers
October 10, 2017
3 stars (generously)

I know this is not in following the group, but I must say that I am disappointed in this book. I know it has gotten a very high rating, but for me it is really just middle of the road.

I did like the vignettes method of her writing. I thought this read quite like a memoir, which I enjoyed. However, it felt to me like the author did a lot of ruminating. I felt like I was her confidant, although I really did not know her. I was her stand-in for a best friend, whether I wanted to be or not. Had this book been written with a full format I might not have felt this way, but the short bursts of the vignettes just kind of felt like they were right in my face. I also did not feel as compassionate for her in reference to her Mother's death as I probably should have. This event is not solely hers, we all have or will lose our parents, but I felt like she expected my grief to be exclusive. I don't think I really liked Thandi. I could not connect with her.

Obviously the writer received what she wanted from me - a strong response - just not the one she may have expected.
Profile Image for Joachim Stoop.
751 reviews513 followers
August 6, 2017

Sometimes I really don't get the buzz, promo and high ratings surrounding a book. I do my very best, but I just don't see it. So, debut novel of the year? Really?

If a novel is that fragmented, essayistic and autobiographical it needs to come across more fierce, engaging, poetic, insightful and original.

Nope, in somewhat the same genre/topic read Adichie, Coates, Teju Cole, Another Brooklyn, Behold the dreamers instead. Or just dust of the Baldwin on your bookshelf
Profile Image for Jessica J..
1,027 reviews2,048 followers
August 1, 2017
The latest in a string of high-profile minimalist "novel-in-vignettes," this is the kind of novel that feels like nonfiction. But in the best kind of way. You forget that you're reading about a character, because there's so little emphasis on plot and so much on internal development, that it genuinely feels like reading a diary or a set of stream-of-consciousness essays. More to come.
Profile Image for La La.
1,014 reviews126 followers
July 9, 2017
3 stars on the blog.

I know you are all saying, "Huh?" How can it be five stars here and three stars on the blog? Well, this book has gotten quite a few one star ratings based solely on the fact that it is about African American culture and race relations; one reviewer said she is sick of all the "trendy" POC titles. Yeah, can you believe that? So, therefore, despite all of the mechanical problems I had with this book, it is getting five Goodreads stars from me because of its message and the insight it provides.

Also, for all of those "readers" who gave it one star for being about minority cultural situations... approximately 50 percent of the story is about a college student dealing with a parent's illness and death, ten percent is about family issues not related to color, and another ten percent is about relationships. That adds up to around only 30 percent being specifically about black culture and race relations, so based on your assessment of your rating you should be giving the book three stars.

Now for my thoughts on this title...

The narration was dry. Most of the time it was like reading the diary of someone who was not much inspired to journal. The storyline was chaotic, it switched between characters and time periods erratically. The author would start out using "he" referring to her boyfriend and then all sudden she mentions something and you realize somewhere along the line she had switched "he" to mean her father, or a cousin, etc. It took me a good chunk of the book to realize her mother passed away when she was in college, not high school like it seemed in the beginning. I had to go back and re-read previous sections of the story to place what was going on, and everyone knows that is one of my biggest pet peeves.

There were also continuity problems. At one point she was talking about discussing something with a person and then two paragraphs later she was saying how she hadn't told them about the situation yet, then it went back to saying they had discussed it. The MC would be one place and then without any mention of how, or why, they would be somewhere else. The character would also jump time frames without warning.

There were weird unexplained scenes like: although she had a car she for some reason ended up taking a city bus somewhere and back again. Some events, like the bus trip scenerio, had no correlation to the story and I would be thinking these things were going to affect something later in the book, but they didn't. And then there was a rather large section of textbook type South African history unceremoniously plunked down in the middle of a scene, which would have been more effective parceled out through the story in smaller pieces.

Honestly, it was like reading a scattered second draft. Like the publisher was so fired up to get it published they didn't bother with final edits. This is Adult Fiction and the Young Adult title The Hate U Give puts this book to shame for solid storytelling; which is a shame because content wise this book has a lot of profound statements to make.

I was approved for an eARC, via Edelweiss, in return for an honest review. I was also sent a physical copy by the publisher.

This title will be included in a blog post I am doing about Goodreads members rating books before reading them. I will add the link when it is posted.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,589 reviews2,811 followers
March 23, 2018
This book didn’t hurt, but it also didn’t do anything for me. A fragmented narrative in the style of a memoir about a young woman named Thandi who loses her mother to breast cancer and gives birth to her first child, this story is ripped apart by centrifugal forces – so duck down, reader, Clemmons’ free-flying ideas and ruminations might hit you in the head, and instead of an epiphany, you might just get a headache. Let’s look at some of the topics Clemmons meditates on:

- South Africa
Thandi’s mother was born in South Africa, and we hear some random things about the country – this could have been absolutely fascinating, as Thandi’s mother was mixed-race (the very existence of mixed-race children used to be illegal in South Africa), but beware, it is not. So if you want to learn more about this country, do yourself a favor and read Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood instead.

- Losing a parent to illness
Unfortunately, watching a parent die slowly from a severe illness is something I happen to know quite a bit about, and while people deal with this very differently (which could make this book highly interesting), it never became clear to me how witnessing the slow demise of her mother affected Thandi. Dreams, thoughts, and recollections randomly pop up, and Clemmons mixes in some psychological facts about grief, but everything remained rather abstract to me. If the great emotional insight here is supposed to be that losing a parent means to live on with a constant void, that’s quite a let-down.

- Child and marriage
Even Thandi’s unwanted pregnancy and her marriage simply made me shrug, probably because Clemmons does not connect these events well to the topics of loss, grief, and race. It feels like Thandi does not manage to venture to the bottom of her psyche and her motivations, and as we hear the story from her point of view, she as a character remains vague – too vague to really care about her.

All in all, I found this pretty underwhelming – where are the new ideas? Where is the emotional depth? To be fair, I listened to the audiobook, so maybe the photos and graphs included in the printed version would have made the book more enjoyable.
Profile Image for Sophie.
664 reviews
July 14, 2018
I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe. Even while you’re out in public, feeling fine and free, inside you cannot shake the feeling of rootlessness. Others may envy you, but this masks the fact that at night, there is nowhere safe for you, no place to call your own.
Μυθιστόρημα; Κείμενο στοχαστικό περί της απώλειας; Κείμενο για τη διττή συνείδηση; Συλλογή από vignettes; Η ανορθόδοξη δομή του δυσχεραίνει, αψηφά ίσως, την κατηγοριοποίηση, η συγγραφέας εξάλλου το χαρακτηρίζει weird little book, φράση που επιτρέπει την ταυτόχρονη ύπαρξη των υπόλοιπων ιδιοτήτων· πρόκειται για ένα έργο που φαινομενικά προέρχεται από τις εμπειρίες του καλλιτέχνη, επιτρέποντας την ανάγνωσή του ως απομνημόνευμα, τιμά εντούτοις τις επιταγές της μυθοπλασίας, ακολουθώντας την τακτική του coming of age μυθιστορήματος, με αναζωογονητική ιδιοσυγκρασία και στρωτή πρόζα.

Πέραν της σημασίας που έχει η εκπροσώπηση μειονοτήτων στη λογοτεχνία, ο τρόπος που απεικονίζεται η θλίψη μετά την απώλεια είναι θεαματικός, όχι γιατί η Clemmons χειρίζεται το συγκεκριμένο θέμα με δυνατές και δραματικές αναπαραστάσεις, αλλά επειδή καταλαβαίνει πως η πραγματικότητα έγκειται στην ουσιαστική θλίψη, στην εσωτερίκευσή της, στον κοίλο πόνο που νιώθει κανείς όταν συνεχίζει τη ζωή του με την απουσία κάποιου προσώπου.
Grief was what you owed the dead for the necessary crime of living on without them
γράφει η Kamila Shamsie στο Home Fire κι αυτή η αίσθηση είναι ένα εγγενές στοιχείο στο κείμενο της Clemmons.

Η αφήγηση είναι αποσπασματική με αρκετά χρονικά άλματα, με τη ζωή της πρωταγωνίστριας να τεμαχίζεται σε φέτες και με την έκθεση των απόψεών της για το τι σημαίνει να είσαι μαύρη γυναίκα στη σημερινή Αμερική, για τον καθημερινό ρατσισμό και την απαίτηση της συμμόρφωσης (αξιοσημείωτη η στιγμή κατά την οποία υποχρεώνεται να ισιώσει τα ατίθασα μαλλιά της για να είναι αποδεκτή) που βιώνει κι από την κοινότητά της, να καταλαμβάνουν το πρώτο και μεγάλο κομμάτι του βιβλίου. Μέσα από προσωπικά κι οδυνηρά vignettes, το μυθιστόρημα περνά από το θέμα της φυλής σε εκείνο του έρωτα, της οικογένειας, της φθοράς, της ταυτότητας, του αποτυπώματος του καθενός στην κοινωνία.
Profile Image for Theresa.
232 reviews141 followers
September 30, 2019
My poor, poor heart!

I'm such a crybaby! What a beautifully written story about loss and mourning. This one hit me hard. I also enjoyed the honest discussion of race. Especially when it comes to how it feels when you are biracial, and the how the world perceives you. I can definitely relate. "What We Lose" is short and to the point, but it's a novel I surely won't forget anytime soon.
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