Debut Author Snapshot: Zinzi Clemmons

Posted by Goodreads on June 26, 2017
Zinzi Clemmons In the debut novel What We Lose, a young woman raised by an immigrant mother struggles to carve out her identity as she lives between countries, races, and cultures. Her mother dies from cancer, and as she comes to grips with her grief, she falls in love and becomes pregnant. It's a plotline that seems to be autobiographical for Zinzi Clemmons, who began writing this novel as she was exploring her own history of being raised by an immigrant and coping with her mother's illness and death. The result is a novel with collage elements mixed into the prose, from hand-drawn charts on the "stages of dying" to old photos to a pro/con list of a relationship.


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Clemmons now lives in Los Angeles but has spent the majority of her life on the East Coast—in Philadelphia, Providence, and New York—where she has set this first novel. She talked to Goodreads about experience versus fiction, her influences, and the books she's recommending to her friends.

Goodreads: So many aspects of your personal life are present in the premise of your novel. Tell us why you decided to write this story as fiction, and how did (or didn't) you use your life as a foundation?

Zinzi Clemmons: The story of my life and my relationship with my mother I believe held resonance for the different things I was interested in writing about. It was a story that needed to be told. Besides that, aspects of every fiction writer's life show up in their fiction. I told this story in the best way I could, which was as a novel.

GR: Throughout your book you make use of photos, graphs, even a "pro and con" list. Why did you decide to incorporate these visual elements into your novel?

ZC: I have a visual background, having worked in publication design and production, so my writing always incorporates some visual elements, whether that be through a table or graph or in the way my words appear on the page. Again, the visual elements were part of how I believed this story should be told. I didn't consider them as optional. They are part of how the narrator sees and interprets the world, and are thus organic.


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GR: Your book has been described as an exploration of identity and grief. How do they inform each other?

ZC: I see identity—whether racial, religious, gender- or sexuality-wise, or even geographical or generational—as informing every decision we make as humans, so of course it enters discussions of how we process the loss of people we love.

Thandi's relationship to her mother is extremely tied to her racial and gender identity, so it makes sense that these issues would intertwine in this book. Again, I never tried very hard to make these pieces fit together; they just do. I think the question is in why they might seem strange to consider together, when in reality they interact constantly in our everyday lives.

GR: Tell us about the process of writing this book and how you knew you had the idea for this novel.


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ZC: I started writing a much more traditional, character-driven, linear novel that wasn't working very well. At the same time, my mother got very sick, and these little threads about grief and loss kept poking through that other narrative.

My agent read the novel and told me that those little pieces were what I should really be pursuing, so I took her advice, and I wrote the book relatively quickly after that. The ease that came in writing the second book—what became What We Lose—it was almost like I couldn't stop the story from coming out. That was how I knew, for certain, that I was onto something.

GR: What writers are you influenced by, and how do those influences show themselves within What We Lose?

ZC: Toni Morrison's more experimental impulses really inspire me, present in works like The Bluest Eye and Beloved. Maggie Nelson's fragmentation and incorporation of theory into her works. Jean Toomer's collage of styles. Claudia Rankine's candor. Karl Ove Knausgaard's auto fiction. The writings of great feminist thinkers: Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Angela Davis helped me figure out the narrative of Thandi's motherhood, which I have no experience with whatsoever. I'm one of those people who can't keep a cactus alive.

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

ZC: The three at the top of my list are Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's Kintu, Danzy Senna's New People (her first novel since the groundbreaking Caucasia), and Lesley Nneka Arimah's What It Means when a Man Falls from the Sky. I don't think it's too premature to recommend them, so read them!

Read more of our exclusive author interviews on our Voice page.




Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Latanya (Crafty Scribbles) I await her book's release. My pre-order's arriving soon.


message 2: by Martina (new)

Martina I have a feeling this book is going to make cry and I'll need to keep my tissues at hand.


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