The permanent absence of the things we lose, shreds our hearts into bits.

Ezioma Kalu.


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.


In What we lose, Clemmons presents to us a strong protagonist, Thandi, who is cut between two worlds and identities, and who also juggles between grieving her loss and holding on to her sanity.
Having a black American father and a biracial South African mother, Thandi is stuck in the limbo of in-betweenness, and she sees herself as a social pariah, constantly faced with the struggle of trying so hard to wriggle out of that chasm of “almost becoming.”
Though living in Philadelphia, Thandi is concerned about the fact that she is truly not accepted in either side of her parents. Her folks in Johannesburg do not consider her a black, because they gaze at her in askance whenever she tries to defend her blackness. How is a light-colored girl, black?

I’ve amazed myself with how well I’ve learned to live around her absence. This void is my constant companion, no matter what I do. Nothing will fill it, and it will never go away.

Zinzi Clemmons, What We Lose.

On the other hand, she is not considered a white girl either, by her American counterparts, as she also doesn’t fall into the mainstream narrative of blackness among other blacks in America.
She, a girl from a middle-class home, is a threat to the other blacks, and a slap on their poverty-stricken faces, so she’s neither here nor there.
However, race is not the only theme What we lose introduces us to, there’s the theme of family, of grief, of romance.
Thandi helplessly watches her mother gradually and painfully journey to the other world. The plot reveals that Thandi’s mother is the dearest human to her heart; the one who makes the instructions which Thandi obeys to the last letter, the one who encourages her to date black guys, to straighten her hair…

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.

Zinzi Clemmons, What We Lose.

While she doesn’t feel safe anywhere as no race accepts her as she is, her mother becomes her safe space, her home. But when she helplessly watches her mother battle breast cancer, she loses it. It’s depressing to see the only human you feel safe with, fizzle right between your eyes and you can do nothing but cry, weep, sob.
Her mother’s death tears her apart and she grieves and mourns her for the most part of the book. She falls in love with Peter and when she becomes pregnant, she realizes she’s become distant with Peter, her love, and her father even.

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.

Zinzi Clemmons, What We Lose.

But the only permanent human that would always stay beside her is Aminah, her best friend. She later has a baby, Mahpee, and when she decides she has to move on with her life and quit mourning her mother, she channels all her love to Mahpee, whom she calls ‘M.’ The book is a 4/5 for me.

Have you read the book? What do you feel about it? Please share your thoughts with me in the comment section. Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter, follow me on all social media platforms and share with your friends.
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