Book Review

The pain of losing a mother between Thanksgiving and Xmas


This Is What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA

This is What We Lose starts: “I was born when apartheid was dying”. However, you choose to look at it, loss is involved. Loss of loved ones: through ravaging disease, and of relationships between the living.

This is What We Lose is a book born from the pain of loss of her character Thandi.

Much of the book by Zinzi Clemmons, is about Thandi caring for her mother as she lay paining from cancer then as the inevitable eventually happens, the process of grief takes over in the various passages, written like poems, odes to the living, or emotions evoked by memories, dreams and pain written in soul-tearing fashion.

It’s basically her story, loosely inspired by her life, with added fiction questioning her existence, what it should be and mean. “My mother died between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The final cruel stroke of this whole experience. I will hate the holidays for the rest of my life”, Clemmons writes.

Soon after, the half American, half South African Thandi, receives a pamphlet in the mail called What We Lose: A Support Guide sent by the hospice that cared for her mother.

With this in mind, it is not too hard a choice for the book title, even though it tilts towards a book title by famed writer and Pulitzer Awards chairman Junot Diaz “This is How You Lose Her”, who Clemmons accused of forcibly smooching her, amid allegations of sexual misconduct with female writers before they were cleared by the Pulitzer prize board following independent assessment.

Through the voice of Thandi, grief bares her soul in her writing in ways those deeply affected by loss would understand. “It’s the wound, not the parts that are left untouched.”

“My mother is dead. But I still see her. I can still hear her voice, even right now as I am speaking to you. But she is dead” she adds. The mother who taught her everything now forever gone, somehow reminds her of being an orphan, and of former President Obama’s Grandmother Ann Dunham. Zinzi quotes Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama where he writes about this. It’s uncanny that Thandi’s nickname from childhood is “Ouma” and Mr Obama’s half-sister is Auma.

This is What We Lose is rather direct and to the point. Thandi finds comfort in the arms of a lover and soon discovers she’ll be a mother herself despite her ambivalence.

In 2017, when it was published, Vogue referred to this title as “book of the year”. For Clemmons first novel, it came with some panache and that’s hard not to admire.