2018 Finalist

Cover.WhatWeLose“What We Lose”

Viking | Penguin Random House
ISBN: 9780735221710

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.


Zinzi Clemmons was raised in Philadelphia by a South African mother and an American father. She is a graduate of Brown and Columbia universities, and her writing has appeared in Zoetrope: All Story, The Paris Review Daily, Transition, and elsewhere. She is a cofounder and former publisher of Apogee Journal, a contributing editor to Literary Hub. She has been in residence at the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Dar al-Ma’mûn, Morocco. Clemmons lives in Los Angeles with her husband.


Why did you write “What We Lose”?
I wrote “What We Lose because I had to. I had been through the same experience and I knew that I had to share it.

What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?
Everything was pretty hard, but the most challenging part was turning a true story into fiction. It’s more than changing names, dates and locations. I had to separate myself from the story, determine the parts that needed to remain and buttress the rest with imagination. It was a difficult balance that I’m still not sure I achieved completely.

How might fiction help us to explore contemporary issues?
I find that people are more open and receptive to fiction than most other types of writing. Most people want to escape their lives for a little while and spend time in someone else’s life. I’ve been so happy to notice that my readers come from so many different backgrounds, but they can connect around this one experience, and while they’re there, they’re also considering some different ideas, perhaps their perspective has shifted a bit.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I only started writing in college (before that I was going to be a doctor, like any good child of immigrants), so most of my interactions with language happened with music. I listened to many singer-songwriters, but I mostly listened to hip hop. I could memorize lyrics very easily, and I loved noticing how the meaning of words would change from artist to artist, song to song. I saw the lexicon evolve over time, from the 90s until now–from the Sugar Hill Gang to Little Yachty — who would have predicted how hip hop would sound today? It’s an incredible thing to behold.

What book(s) have made you see the world differently? How?
I think most books I read–that are any good, anyway–encourage me to see the world differently, at least a little. But I think I started relating to literature differently after reading Paule Marshall’s “Brown Girl, Brownstones.” The protagonist in that story is so spunky, so charming, and her family is a lot like mine. I later ended up living across the street from the house the book is named after. Reading that book made me feel like a part of the world of literature, whereas before I considered myself a complete outsider.