Debut novelist Zinzi Clemmons is frank and experimental in 'What We Lose'

The day before her first book tour, Zinzi Clemmons almost locked herself out.

It was, I admit, partially my fault: she left the building to meet me and the door shut behind her. Her husband, the poet and translator André Naffis-Sahely, was in London touring his own first collection, so she buzzed a guard to let her back into the complex in Culver City, shaded by sycamores, eucalyptus and pines. Luckily, she’d left her own front door open. Clemmons exhaled with relief as we walked inside.

Her debut novel, “What We Lose,” is about a young woman enduring the loss of her mother. Structured innovatively in precise vignettes, it stares down questions of emotional inheritance, belonging, grief and race. “To be as sharp and critical as possible — and rigorous — that is extremely important to me, in everything I do,” she said, and then laughed, “except, like, getting locked out of my apartment.”

Clemmons moved to Los Angeles with her husband two years ago, after a six-month stint in the Catskills. (He had previously lived in London, Clemmons in New York.) The apartment had belonged to her paternal grandfather, a skycap at LAX. “When André and I moved in here we found some of his books, and it’s a great snapshot … James Baldwin, ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ and the Marquis de Sade,” she said, amused all over again by the trifecta.

Clemmons opened a sliding patio door to let the breeze in and settled into a chair; she listens with intense focus to questions, ready to meet you halfway there, but expecting the half you provide to be worthwhile. “I try not to leave anything uninterrogated,” she said.

Like her protagonist, Thandi, a second-generation, mixed-race South African American who straddles cultures, identities and worlds, Clemmons grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and spent summers in South Africa with family, where her mother was born and raised.

“That’s something that I wanted to be part of the book, to represent that experience specifically of being outside and being an observer,” she said. “That’s been a natural state of being for me from the beginning.” It’s also a question of audience. “Often this conversation about diversity reverts to what will be better for the white populace and how they’ll be enlightened by learning about all these different brown people. That’s never been part of the question for me. It’s about people like me who are reading my books.”

Readers who have experienced loss are another important audience for “What We Lose,” which takes its name from a grief manual. After grad school at Columbia, Clemmons returned home to help care for her mother, who was dying of cancer.

“Things kinda bottomed out for me at that point,” she said, although despite the painful circumstances, Clemmons kept a journal at the time of her mother’s illness and passing. “I needed to just externalize, and so I wrote it down.” A novel she’d been working on took a back seat to recording her present experience. “When I started this book about my Mom, because I realized I couldn’t not write it, I started looking at some of those things.”

Those things include the healthcare system, motherhood and apartheid. Clemmons spent a year ordering the pieces of the collage-like novel. “I was working from these little kernels of really intense experience” while compiling the book, she said.

There is a fearless chapter on treatment centers — “I never told my mother that, until then, I had thought of cancer as a disease of privilege” — as well as frank depictions of sex. Her prose is stripped to its most affecting: “I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless.”

Clemmons, a founder of Apogee Journal, an online literary magazine dedicated to art that engages with identity, published a widely discussed piece, “Where Is Our Black Avant Garde?,” at another online journal, LitHub. “I’m not the most out there, avant-garde person, that’s not who I want to be either, but I do write in that tradition and I did want people to recognize that I was being experimental. I felt the need to put it out there in a polemic,” she said. “It’s very hard for [people] to say ‘this person writes as a black woman, writes about identity and is also experimental.’ ” This, she says, is “part of the unnuanced thought that people bring to race. It has to be one or the other, but not both.”

The sense of experimentation in “What We Lose” includes excerpts from other writers and a number of illustrations: “I started making a name for myself writing essays for the Internet, and it’s a very different form than writing for print, and so that visual language was always a part of how I wrote,” she explained.

The nontraditional structure of the book, which is not chronological but thematic, mimics loss itself — the fragmentation and persistence of memory in the face of what comes next, like having a child or falling in love. (In the novel, a wedding ceremony is kept brief so that “there’s no time to cry for who isn’t there,” one of many passages that inflict a sting of recognition.) I asked if, as her book is about to debut, Clemmons had been thinking of her mother. The sound of cars rushing past on Jefferson Boulevard grew louder as a new space entered our conversation; it was unspoken, but that space contained people we miss and the parts of our lives that they’re missing. “I don’t know,” said Clemmons. “The more complicated and fraught the relationship is in life,” she offered, “the more complicated it will be after they die. For women especially, with their mothers it’s really important to acknowledge that. Things were maybe not perfect … and that’s OK.”

It is OK. That next night marked the launch of Clemmons’ book tour. At Eso Won Books, before the reading began, owner James Fugate had already sold seven copies of “What We Lose,” whose poster hung in the window. I noticed a copy of “A Jean Toomer Reader,” one of the authors cited in Clemmons’ essay about the black avant-garde, on a shelf display to her right. Eso Won was the first bookstore that Clemmons visited after moving to L.A., and she told the small crowd how proud she was to be launching at a black community bookstore.

She’d arrived with her grandparents that night, who beamed from the front row. Clemmons read, and when she turned it over to the audience for questions, a hand shot up. “Are you working on another novel?” the woman asked. “Grandma,” Clemmons laughed, “that’s supposed to be the last question, the hardest question.”

agatha.french@latimes.com

@agathafrenchy

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