Novelist Zinzi Clemmons

The author discusses her debut novel What We Lose.

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 elsewhere. She is a co-founder and former publisher of Apogee Journal and 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 Dar al-Ma'mûn in Marrakech, Morocco. Clemmons lives in Los Angeles with her husband, where she teaches at The Colburn Conservatory and Occidental College.

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Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight first, a conversation with writer Zinzi Clemmons. She joins us to discuss her highly regarded debut novel, “What We Lose”, a coming of age story that explores who we become when we lose a parent.

Then actor and singer, two-time Tony nominee, Joshua Henry, is here to discuss his role in the national tour of the Broadway hit musical, “Hamilton”.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Writer Zinzi Clemmons and actor Joshua Henry coming up in just a moment.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: So pleased to welcome writer, Zinzi Clemmons, to this program. Her book, “What we Lose”, has been heralded as the debut novel of the year, and everybody’s saying that. It’s a loosely autobiographical story that explores race, family, identity and grief, and it’s an honor to have Zinzi on this program. How are you?

Zinzi Clemmons: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here.

Tavis: An honor to have you. How you handling all this mad love that you’re getting for this?

Clemmons: Oh, it’s better than bad hate really [laugh].

Tavis: It does beat that [laugh]. Take it from me, it beats mad hate. That I can guarantee you. Before we get into the book, which I’m anxious to talk about, I did not know that your cousin was Phife Dawg.

Clemmons: He was, yeah.

Tavis: Now I just lost half the audience. They’re like “Phife Dawg?” A Tribe Called Quest, one of the greatest groups ever, and that’s your cousin?

Clemmons: Yes, yes. Unfortunately, he passed away a little while ago, but yeah. You know, it was always a really big point of pride in my family that he was from our family. My great-grandmother, her house in Jamaica Queens is basically where he grew up, so it was really always this pretty magical place that, obviously, he was very inspired by. And his mother is also a wonderful poet, so I guess we have a little bit of a literary tradition…

Tavis: So you got a rapper in the family, a poet, and now an author.

Clemmons: Yeah [laugh].

Tavis: Did that impact in any way your artistic choices? Your direction? Your path in any way?

Clemmons: Well, I wrote an essay about this shortly after my cousin died. I had a really important summer where I spent some time with my aunt in New York City and that was when I was first starting to kind of get my start as an adult and in the publishing world.

I think, you know, just being around her and Malik and seeing how they were able to make their lives work while being artists, I think sort of gave me more permission or made me less scared of it in a pretty subtle way, I think.

You might think that like we have, because that exists in my family, it’s a topic of conversation. It wasn’t really. It was just something that I think was good for me to be around when I was growing up.

Tavis: That’s good. Did you know going into this where the lines were? Or did you discover that as you were writing? That is to say, the parts that were going to be a bit more semi-autobiographic and the parts that were going to be, as people are now calling it, more experimental fiction which I’ll come back to in a second. But did you know where those lines were going to be about your own personal story?

Clemmons: Uh, no. The reason for that is, you know, a creative project is always really different when you’re approaching it from the specter of a creator, and it didn’t all happen at once. It wasn’t intentional, really.

The way that I started writing the book was I was journaling as I often do, but at the time, my mother was herself dying of cancer and I just started writing these really small notes while it was going on. At the same time, I was writing another novel and eventually I abandoned that other novel when I realized I couldn’t sort of get away from what was going on in my family.

That was when I decided really after she passed away that this was a story I needed to write. So I actually came back to those journal entries and then started fictionalizing the story around them. So it wasn’t really a question of like me writing my own story and then trying to make it sound like fiction. It was much more like I was just writing a story and I wanted it to be a big one.

Tavis: When you say that you couldn’t, Zinzi, get away from what was happening in your own life, do you mean that you couldn’t get away from it emotionally, artistically, or both?

Clemmons: Both, both. I think, you know, importantly, they kind of work in concert. Especially when you’re a novelist, your business is making art out of your emotions to a greater or lesser extent depending on what type of writing you’re producing.

But for me, yeah. I think I was trying to write a book in a more traditional style and I think, you know, the fact that this was so preoccupying me, both emotionally and artistically, eventually, because it was emotional, I felt like I was always needing to write about it. That’s kind of how you know when you’re an artist, that you have something when you can’t stop thinking about it, when you can’t stop writing about it.

Tavis: Tell me about this young lady.

Clemmons: Thandi is a woman very similar to myself. But the way I like to describe her is she’s sort of me, but more impulsive. Maybe I was a little bit less responsible. We have a very similar world view in that, you know, we’re the type of people who have never really fit comfortably wherever we’ve sort of found ourselves.

And I think that makes Thandi as narrator importantly very used to sort of sitting back and assessing a situation from the outside. When you’re not used to being a participant, you’re not used to being a participant. You’re used to just kind of sitting back and seeing how things play out. That’s definitely who she is, and I think also because, you know, she had this experience of being in between cultures and countries.

Her point of view is maybe a little bit unusual for people and the book, if you think about it, as her journal in a way, it’s kind of a repository of all these ideas with what’s going on in her life, but also who she is as a person. She has a lot of control over the story and the process of reading the book is really about getting inside her mind.

Tavis: Again, it’s always tough talking about novels because you don’t want to give the story away. But tell me, to the extent you can and to the extent that you want to share with the audience, the back story for why she doesn’t feel like she fits or belongs anywhere in the world.

Clemmons: Yeah. So Thandi’s story is she is raised in a suburb in Pennsylvania. Her mother immigrated from South Africa while her father is American. Her mother also is part of a race in South Africa is called “colored”, so we have white people, we have Black people, and then we also have colored people who are mixed race people, also sometimes includes Indians. Basically, this was a way for the apartheid government to exert control over everybody, right? So you can’t have a bunch of people out there with no category [laugh].

Basically, what has happened since independence is that, even though a lot of the official restraints have lessened, people still tend to live in the same places and there are still some vestiges basically of apartheid and that’s one of them.

So Thandi sees South Africa, she sees America, she’s also mixed race, an identity that doesn’t exist in America. She’s also light-skinned, she is visibly multiracial. All of these things make her kind of who she is.

Tavis: Tell me more about what she’s struggling with internally, what her internal struggles are. That’s trying to find your place in the world. Tell me about her internal struggles.

Clemmons: Yeah. So this requires a little bit of background. The way that the book is formatted is that, if you can sort of imagine Thandi, the narrator, in the present tense, and the things that are happening in her life in the present tense, will jog memories of what’s happened in the past. So in the present tense of this book, we find out that she’s just recently fallen in love.

She’s contemplated starting her own family and, in the past, her mother passed away from cancer. So all of these events in her life where she’s basically being sort of forced into this new adulthood makes her think of her own mother, naturally. And she’s sort of still processing in a way.

I think that, by the time that the book happens in the present tense, she has mostly dealt with the grief from her mother. But what she’s dealing with now is how to sort of move forward, how to construct her life without the presence of her mother in it.

So I think that’s really the central question. I have this line in the book that says something like, “The central question of my life after my mother’s death was how to live without her when she was so important to who I was as a person.”

Tavis: What is it, to your mind — set your humility aside for just a second — what is it, to your mind, that you’ve done that’s a bit different than other novels that’s got people all — in a good way — just freaked out about your process?

Clemmons: Yeah. So I wrote this essay about a year ago about sort of the invisibility of Black experimental fiction and poetry. And the point of that essay was to say that Black writers have always been writing in an experimental tradition. It’s just that we’re not recognized for doing such. And I basically just posed the question. I said why is that? I don’t have an answer.

And one of the things that I say in the article which I had to do a lot of research on was just to define this thing called experimental. And it turns out that there’s actually no definition or fixed definition. It’s relative because you think back to, say, Langston Hughes who wrote just poems. At the time, that was very innovative, but now we could consider it part of mainstream poetry writing.

So it’s whatever is cutting edge at the time. It’s relative to its own time and its context. Again, I just kind of describe my process for how I wrote the book. I wasn’t trying to write into a particular experimental tradition. I was just trying to write the book and I didn’t have many ideas about how it should be done.

So I think it sort of ended up being a very cutting edge thing, but for me, it was really a very organic process. And I wasn’t trying to wow anyone or deliberately trying to do anything different. This is how I write. This is how I express myself, and I just see myself as having carried out that vision basically.

Tavis: Well, you weren’t trying to, but you wowed a whole lot of people with this novel. It is, as I said a moment ago, being called the debut of the year. It’s called “What We Lose: A Novel” by Zinzi Clemmons. And it is a name that we are being told by everybody that we should remember. We met many, many years ago, I’m told. We met when you were how old? How old were you about that time?

Clemmons: I was in high school.

Tavis: You were in high school.

Clemmons: Yeah, I was. I was at your Youth to Leaders program that was in Philadelphia. It was probably around 2002, 2003. Yeah, I think it was in the convention center in Philly. I spent a really fun day with a bunch of young over-achieving folks and the highlight was I got to meet Nick Cannon, who I had a really huge crush on. So, thank you [laugh].

Tavis: My pleasure. That’s what I’m here for. To introduce you to Nick Cannon [laugh]. And now your debut novel to the rest of the world [laugh]. It’s a funny story because you never know. Through my foundation, I’ve had a Youth to Leadership development program for years, and you never know where these young people are going to end up when you meet them as youngsters.

I have one in the State House in Pennsylvania now, some of them running Nationwide Insurance. I mean, they’re all over the place now. And I had no idea when I met Zinzi just as a young kid in Philadelphia that she’d be the author of this. So one never knows. Congratulations, and I’m honored to have you on this program.

Clemmons: Thank you so much. Thank you so much.

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Last modified: September 8, 2017 at 6:20 pm