It didn’t occur to Zinzi Clemmons while writing her debut novel that it would eventually be about her mother, the “inescapable” woman who, growing up, eluded her.

“The novel that I originally started writing was completely fictional, about made-up characters that didn’t really resemble anyone I knew,” Clemmons recalls over the phone from L.A., where she lives with her husband, a translator of Italian. “And I think that was one of the big problems with it.”

Her agent agreed, and upon reading a couple of pages in an early draft of the manuscript that were thinly-veiled accounts about Clemmons’ mother, she exclaimed, “These are fantastic. You should write this.” But to write about her mother was to confront death and the issues that they faced as immigrant mother and American daughter. By fictionalizing the story that was most painful to conjure, Clemmons was able to transcend the constraints that a memoir might have imposed.

In that debut novel, What We Lose, Clemmons examines race and grief through the eyes of Thandi, a young African-American woman whose earnest search for belonging is upended by the tragic loss of her mother. Thandi’s story hews closely to that of Clemmons’; it’s autobiographical fiction of the highest order, not only for its perseverance and humility, but for its potency.

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In just a slim 200 pages, Clemmons traverses the rocky terrain of race in both America and South Africa. Thandi, like Clemmons, is mixed-race. Her mother is South African, from Johannesburg, a city still reeling from its violent past, and her father was born in New York  but relocated to Philadelphia, where they safely reside nestled in a wealthy, mostly white suburb. For Thandi’s parents—who pride themselves on their education—this is a monumental achievement, whereas Thandi feels like an outsider in a community in which, because of her heritage and light complexion, she’s adrift. “American blacks were my precarious homeland—because of my light skin and foreign roots, I was never fully accepted by any race. Plus my family had money, and all the black kids in my town came from the poorer areas,” Clemmons writes. “I was a strange in-betweener.”  

Likewise, Clemmons was born to a South African mother and American father, though her father’s family originally hails from Trinidad. She was well aware growing up of her origins and how they were seemingly incongruous with the lives her white peers led. “When we would have show and tell, I would just bring in an artifact from South Africa and everyone was immediately interested, but also kind of weirded out,” she tells me, laughing. “I grew up in a mostly white suburb. A lot of WASPS, a lot of people whose lineage in America goes way back.” Her difference was made manifest through other people’s lenses: “gentle reminders that weren’t always negative. It was just these constant things like, ‘Oh, your hair’s different,’ or ‘Your food’s different,’ or ‘Your mom talks weird.’ ”

In 2010, while Clemmons was studying for her MFA at Columbia, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. And in 2012, Clemmons moved back home to care for her mother in the final months of her life. In What We Lose, when Thandi’s mother dies of cancer, she grapples with the unimaginable loss of the woman she both revered and often clashed with. “As much as I cried, she could not comfort me, and this fact only multiplied my pain,” Clemmons writes. “I realized that this would be life; to figure out how to live without her hand on my back.” Told in dissonant vignettes that capture grief’s frenetic nature, Thandi contends with the legacy of apartheid, the very history that shaped her mother, their strained relationship, and ultimately Thandi’s ambivalence toward motherhood, sex, and her African roots. This generational rift between Thandi and her mother is a subject Clemmons wrote about countless times before approaching the novel.

“I think I would always write about it as a way of trying to figure out what’s going on here, trying to understand [my mother],” Clemmons says. “This is kind of the immigrant experience, being a child of immigrants.Unfortunately it happened around the time that my mom was very sick that I realized that the cause of a lot of our friction was because she was scared.” Not to mention the aftershocks of dramatically uprooting her life by immigrating to America. Clemmons’ husband is a relatively new immigrant to America, though he received his green card before President Trump was elected. “It was hard even then,” Clemmons says. “They were hostile to my mom at the time, and my husband’s half Middle Eastern, so yeah, I get it now.”

Growing up, Clemmons and her parents would spend most of their summers visiting her aunts, uncles, and cousins in Johannesburg. It was on these holidays that she witnessed the effects of apartheid first-hand. “There’s always this strange thing with South Africa that there is no corollary to a lot of experiences,” Clemmons explains. “When we were going there, especially during apartheid, there were no Americans there. So we would always be the weird Americans. They’re like, ‘Why are you guys here? Like not in like touristy places, like why are you hanging out here?’ ”

Clemmons CoverIn the novel, Thandi reckons with her racial and cultural identities by exploring the intersection of class and race with found blog entries (“Some Observations on Race and Security in South Africa”), rap lyrics and quotes (one, notably, from the Notorious B.I.G.), and photographs. One especially devastating picture is the 1994 Pulitzer-winning photograph, taken by the white South African photographer Kevin Carter, of a Sudanese child dying from famine while a vulture gazes at her from behind.

Clemmons’ deeply felt convictions expose not just the violence that still persists in Johannesburg, but also her own nation’s capacity to commit atrocities of the same scale, particularly when it pertains to healthcare and inequality. Fortunately, because her mother worked for the school district of Philadelphia, health care wasn’t an issue but theirs was a case that felt atypical against the backdrop of our nation’s fraught health-care debate.

“We didn’t have to worry about anything. But the entire time I was taking her to [her treatments] I would always think about how much it cost and what we would do if we couldn’t afford it,” Clemmons recounts. “These issues go to the heart of some of the problems in our society: Why are  some people when they’re suffering treated differently? How are huge groups of people with little babies allowed to be set out into the ocean on a life raft and then turned around at borders? It’s because they look different from us. And why do we constantly consume these pictures of dead Syrian children but we would never look at [pictures of] a dead white child?”

What We Lose confounds our expectations of what a story about grief should be. In the tradition of fiercely intelligent writers like Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Clemmons’ writing is an act of resistance and capacious grace. “I think it’s an important experience and also kind of a fruitful one for readers to be able to read a book through the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong,” she says. “It’s a very valuable experience for people to have. For possibly obvious reasons.”

Stephanie Buschardt is an editorial assistant at Kirkus Reviews.