Episode 165: Weaving Fiction from Reality — Interview with Zinzi Clemmons

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Podcast

Today I am delighted to have author Zinzi Clemmons on the show!

Zinzi’s gorgeous debut novel, What We Lose, has already taken the literary world by storm establishing her as a strong new voice to watch.

Raised in the Philadelphia suburbs by a South African mother and American father, Zinzi has much in common with the main character of her novel, Thandi, so much so that What We Lose has been described as autobiographical fiction.

Listen in as we dive into Zinzi’s novel and how to craft fiction and reality in a novel that defies normal expectations.

In this episode Zinzi and I discuss:

  • Autobiographical fiction, and how to decide what pieces of reality to include in your novel.
  • How to weave big topics—such as race and identity—into your novel organically.
  • What to do when you receive pushback about your story, and how to preserve that emotional truth.
  • Why art and literature can shine a light on the grey areas of life.
  • When to keep pursuing a novel and when to throw it out.

Plus, Zinzi’s #1 tip for writers.

About Zinzi Clemmons

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. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband. To connect with Zinzi check out her website at www.zinziclemmons.com.

What We Lose

Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose is a powerful and innovative debut novel that questions the nature of identity, grief, and love through the eyes of a young woman who loses her mother to cancer. Told in visceral vignettes that draw from autofiction, online media, and encyclopedia, What We Lose is a thoughtful, poignant debut from a promising new voice.

At the beginning of the novel we meet Thandi, a second generation South African American of mixed race growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs. Thandi is raised by her South African mother, yet in Thandi’s daily life she is immersed in the culture of “American Blacks . . . my precarious homeland.” “Because of my light skin and foreign roots,” Clemmons writes, “I was never fully accepted by any race.” This feeling, of being detached from a tribe, the loneliness of a perpetual outsider, follows her throughout her life.

Her mother, a pillar of strength in their family, becomes ill while Thandi is at college, and eventually Thandi leaves school to care for her. After her mother’s death, Thandi struggles to anchor herself to a self-image and to relationships that seem increasingly tenuous to her. She falls in love and fashions an unexpected new family for herself, only to find herself uncomfortable in it—an interloper again—and still deeply disoriented by the loss of her mother.

Clemmons intersperses the narrative with photography, text messages, excerpts from blogs and newspaper articles; the effect is by turns playful and haunting. The primary sources create intimate and sprawling connections between the reader, Thandi, and the novel’s larger questions: about the construct of race, injustice within social systems, the durability of love, and the ability to overcome grief. In this way What We Lose confronts the horrors and the legacy of Apartheid, and the tyranny of race in the personal and political realms.

The meditations in What We Lose are deeply felt, not least because its themes are informed by the author’s personal experiences. The breadth and skill Zinzi Clemmons demonstrates in this slim, penetrating novel—praised by early readers from John Edgar Wideman, to Angela Flournoy, to Alexandra Kleeman—establish her as a writer to watch.

If you decide to check out the book, we hope you’ll do so via this Amazon affiliate link, where if you choose to purchase DIY MFA makes a small commission at no cost to you. As always, thank you for supporting DIY MFA!

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