Saturday 16 December 2017

Powerful debut about race, gender, belonging

Fiction: What We Lose, Zinzi Clemmons, 4th Estate, hardback, 244 pages,€14.99

New talent: Zinzi Clemmons' book has been named in many summer reading lists
New talent: Zinzi Clemmons' book has been named in many summer reading lists
What We Lose

Hilary A White

This much-hyped first novel tackles some very modern issues and manages to both unsettle and arrest - but when the author abandons prose in favour of graphs and glib one-liners, it can frustrate, too.

In a recent New York Times interview, Zinzi Clemmons reasoned that presenting a thinly veiled memoir in the shape of a novel held far more possibilities for her, and that any parallels felt almost "coincidental". By the time What We Lose draws to a close, the idea of it being a straight-up grief memoir written from a place of raw, first-person authenticity strikes you as being rather preferable.

The mantra of "write from what you know" leads to debuts such as this very often, right up to Sally Rooney's recent Conversations With Friends. What We Lose is perhaps even more firmly rooted in the experiences of its author, to the point that the mind boggles as to what has been added to provide narrative thrust.

With unflinching self-analysis and a devotion to self-truth, Clemmons configures What We Lose in the style of a journal-cum-scrapbook, where its author - Thandi - ponders her own angst in the face of muddled racial-identity politics and her terminally ill mother. Both things befell Clemmons in real life - she grew up in the US as the daughter of an African-American father and a mixed-race South African mother who she cared for full-time after a breast cancer diagnosis. What We Lose was stitched together from vignettes she used as momentary sounding boards during her downtime as she came to terms with losing an overarching omnipresence in her life, through which she had contemplated race, gender and belonging.

But with its short, doodle-like chapters, excerpts, graph illustrations and photos, you are never fully convinced that this is the work of someone committed to relating a story. You turn some pages to be met with a line of text ("Sex is kicking death in the ass while singing") floating in the airy expanse of a full page, the kind of thing a writer might scribble out on a bedside notepad in the middle of the night. All they serve to do is tell us that Thandi is, at best, meandering through her problems unevenly, at worst, tediously self-indulgent and precious.

When the character looks beyond her own situation and uses the experiences from the two cultures she is cut from, What We Lose starts to really say things. For example, her apprehension about the security levels she encounters during trips to Johannesburg produce empathy for Oscar Pistorius's trigger-happy paranoia because she has a foot in the reality of the situation.

Similarly, she ruminates on the Pulitzer-winning photographer Kevin Carter, who was drawn to the brutal conflicts raging in the Johannesburg townships and snapped the grisly execution method known as necklacing. Thandi reminds us that he took his own life three months after the Pulitzer gong and lets the information float effectively. Despite being born in South Africa and never personally experiencing violence there, the land always fills her with a level of dread that is coolly transmitted in some fine opening chapters. "Rarely are you overestimating your own safety," she remarks of her motherland.

Her parents' prejudices travel with the family to their new home in Pennsylvania in the form of ideas about what is and is not acceptable in relation to the various strata of "blackness" in African society. Ironically, it is American society that views her as neither one thing nor the other. When Thandi comments that she is the only black person at a high-school party, a white girl in her group insists she is not "a real black person". She is "unsure how to respond", but it ultimately makes her identification "all the more strong".

Extracts from Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom and Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father weave deceased mothers into broader ideas of orphaned heroes, the loss of the grand maternal constant and "a literal and figurative departure from childhood". Thandi negotiates relationships with a range of men - at times showing vigorous carnal hungers and bizarre infidelities - and one or two friends whom she reflects off. But, inevitably, it comes back to her mother who she must watch being crushed by cancer.

The smouldering, momentum-gaining grief of the entire process manifests itself in a number of edgy, unseated ways, some understandable, others that feel merely provocative. It is unnecessary, as are short, bitty paragraphs in the middle of a page relating trite dream sequences ("I dream in bright, swirling colours. The dreams are so vivid that they linger with me long after I've woken up") or chin-stroking scientific maxims ("An object at rest remains at rest, or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force"). This smacks of filler, and you wonder why as good a writer as Clemmons is devoting whole pages to such detritus.

The considerable hype this debut has garnered - it has been included in many summer-reading lists - is perhaps understandable given how much it signals about both the future prospects of its undoubtedly talented creator and the issues orbiting her right now. She does herself no favours, though, when she abandons prose in favour of glib one-liners and scratchy geographic charts to illustrate emotional concepts.

A brave, unsettling and arresting maiden voyage, for sure, but also a frustrating one.

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