‘Being in South Africa as an author has shifted my perspective’—Zinzi Clemmons chats to The JRB about her debut novel, What We Lose

Zinzi Clemmons was in South Africa recently on a book tour for her debut novel, What We Lose. She sat down with The JRB Editor Jennifer Malec to talk about South Africa, experimental fiction and Black and Coloured identity.

Clemmons also spoke about Junot Díaz and literature’s latest #MeToo moment. Read that interview excerpt here.

What We Lose
Zinzi Clemmons
Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2017

Jennifer Malec for The JRB: I’d like to find out a little about your South African roots. Whereabouts are your South African family from? I was guessing Florida?

Zinzi Clemmons: Good guess! Nearby. My family lived in Bosmont for a little bit. Do you know where that is?

The JRB: Sure, of course.

Zinzi Clemmons: Nobody else does! I was born in eighty-five, and I started coming here when I was about six months old. My mother was a schoolteacher, she had every summer off, so every couple of years, whenever we could afford it, she would bring us over here for the entire summer. So that was from eighty-five until I graduated college—I had about twenty years of going back and forth. I’m still very close with my family, a really big family, that’s based here. I think maybe I’ve been hesitant to discuss this in public, because I’m not sure I have the complete language to describe what my relationship to the country is, but I feel like a part of my entire life has been over here.

The JRB: Have you picked up any South African habits or traditions? For example, did you learn to cook from your mother?

Zinzi Clemmons: Every time I come here I get like a kilo of biltong, and I take it with me and eat all of it in a day. My mom taught me how to cook curry, and I can’t make koeksisters but the food is always a big part of how I experience the country. Whenever I have any relatives that visit the States they always bring me a big packet of rooibos tea and biltong.

The JRB: In the book you mention Thandi’s South African mother’s curry. My boyfriend is Coloured—he’s from Cape Town, we’ve been together for more than a decade—and I think more than meeting him I’m pleased that I got introduced to Cape Malay food …

Zinzi Clemmons: South Africans are really particular about their spices, so even if it’s called the same thing in the States my mother would always come back with a big bag of spices because she had to have those spices. You get all kinds of spice mixes in the States but there was a feeling that it wasn’t the same unless it was from here. So when I was growing up our fridge would always smell of curry powder because there was this giant thing of it that we could never throw away.

The JRB: You don’t go into it in the book, but I’d imagine that’s one way that you’re still in touch with your mother, through cooking?

Zinzi Clemmons: Yeah. And visiting South Africa is a lot of it. I haven’t been for a while, the last time was 2014, it’s expensive, but whenever I can I come back.

The JRB: Did you read any South African fiction ahead of this trip?

Zinzi Clemmons: In the past year I haven’t had time to read anything, to be totally honest, but I do keep up with blogs quite a bit. I read Africa is a Country religiously, I read your site. Twitter helps. In terms of influences, like most people I started out with Gordimer and Coetzee, because that was what was available in America, and those influences are still really large. But then I read Zakes Mda and K Sello Duiker, who were interesting, particularly for the type of stuff I write.

The JRB: How has it been to return to South Africa as a published author to share and discuss your novel?

Zinzi Clemmons: I’ve only been here for a few days, so I’m still figuring it out. Different issues have come up here. I think the difference—and I completely understand where this comes from—is that in South Africa I’m not only an outsider, I’m also an American, and I think people are very sensitive to how I describe South Africa. I also think South Africans are very passionate about their country, and I’ve read reviews from South Africa, but the thing I’m looking forward to doing here is actually talking to people about the book. The one thing I was saying to my husband is that I’ve only experienced South Africa as a daughter. When I come over here I stay with my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, I’ve always described it as going to grandma’s house. Going to South Africa for me is going to grandma’s house. It’s a very familial atmosphere, and I don’t really leave that. Being here as an author, already it’s shifted my perspective quite a bit, because I have responsibilities in this capacity.

The JRB: How would you says it’s shifted your perspective, specifically?

Zinzi Clemmons: Some of those conversations are really forcing me to pin myself down on things. My husband also lived in South Africa for a while, and we always talk about the differences in how we relate to the country. For me, with the family connection and my occasional visits, versus his long time here and the things that you deal with on a daily basis, it’s different. I didn’t have to pay bills, I didn’t have to drive a car, all the stuff that changes how you interact with a country. So I still don’t have that experience. I hope to, I think we’ll probably move here at some point, at least temporarily. But it just forces me to really consider what I believe. In some ways, maybe I was able to be more passive about my feelings about the country. Having to face readers and listen to their questions has made me think about what I really, really believe about South Africa.

The JRB: What did your husband do in South Africa?

Zinzi Clemmons: He’s a poet and a translator, so he works from home most of the time, so he wasn’t doing anything different work-wise here. For a while before he met me he just hopped around the world to different exotic locations. He grew up in Abu Dhabi, and you don’t get citizenship there unless you’re an Emirati, so he’s never really had a home, and he was really drawn to South Africa because of the politics and the history, so he thought this could be a home for him. Then he met me! But he did a lot of work with Chimurenga and some other people, so he’s pretty connected to South Africa.

The JRB: Despite the cold, hard facts, safety in South Africa, which you speak about extensively in What We Lose, often seems to be internalised through what people have experienced personally or who you speak to. In this way, it seems very similar to the ‘magical thinking’ you mention in the book in relation to death and mourning, where people create an imaginary causal relationship between actions and events to help them deal with trauma.

Zinzi Clemmons: Sure. But I don’t think that’s isolated to South Africa. And I think a lot of the animation is race. In America there’s a big debate about police violence, and what that hinges on is implicit bias in police officers, along with society’s idea that if you come across a Black person they’re inherently more dangerous than a white person. That is what has been used in court to justify murders and is why people are getting off. There’s a similar factor at work with sexual assault in the legal system. If a woman says something, it’s an allegation. She’s not considered a credible witness to what happened to her. So it’s similar in that certain people’s imaginations matter and other people’s don’t. I think in America that’s animated a lot of discussions—about the ghetto, Trump and the Far Right. In the States the Right has turned the city of Chicago into a straw man, a hellscape of murder.

But in terms of the magical thinking aspect, there’s also a place in the book where I address it a little more directly: there’s a blog post by a scholar who goes around and asks people, ‘so, how bad is crime?’, and he asks a cab driver, who tells him, ‘oh, it’s horrible, blah blah blah’—but then it turns out he’s never been robbed in twenty years. Honestly, it’s confusing for me as an American, it’s taken me a lot of time to figure out.

The JRB: It’s as confusing for us, I think. I don’t think we think about it that much, we just have that confusion as a duality in our brain.

Zinzi Clemmons: The experience I’ve had is, first of all, in terms of facts, every time I come here there’s a new horrible story about someone I know or is in my family. Those are the facts. All of the incidents in the book, I didn’t make any of those up, they all happened. It’s a fact that I worry for my family’s safety, and my experiences here have had a really huge impact on my life and continue to. So those are my facts. In terms of what’s true and what’s anxiety, I think there’s obviously not an easy solution, but what I feel I need to do is to try and be critical about my responses in any situation. I’ve found that’s what has helped me the most. When I feel that twinge of anxiety that every South African knows, something’s about to go down—or something just went down—when I feel that I’ve also trained myself to stop and analyse that feeling and ask myself, ‘Is this based on a real threat?’ And if it’s based on a person or a rumour or something like that, if I go through those steps I’m able to stop. On an individual level that’s an important process to partake in. It’s really difficult but it’s really important. That’s how false accusations happen and that’s how discrimination happens, that imagination running wild, and it’s really important to rein it in and recognise that that’s not reality.

The JRB: The structure of your novel is, well, novel. What made you decide to play with form rather than take a more straightforward, realist approach, with a linear narrative? I’ve read you were encouraged in that area by Paul Beatty? He was here last year and I met him briefly—we interviewed him for The JRB—and his event at the Open Book Festival was just was fantastic.

Zinzi Clemmons: He was my first workshop professor at Columbia. I had read The White Boy Shuffle and I was a really big fan. We kind of clicked, and I think he was just interested in some of my ideas and what I was trying to do. I was a first year MFA student so my work wasn’t the best, but I think he recognised that I was in the same kind of territory with what we were talking about, and I was trying to investigate things in earnest. As far as him encouraging me to pursue the style, I don’t think that for him it came out of some secret affection for experimental writing. [laughs] I had been writing in a more traditional, linear form but I had a story or two that were more experimental and he said, ‘this is really good, this is what you should do’. I think a lot of times people overcomplicate the teacher-student relationship or the mentor-mentee relationship or what have you. He was just caring and tried to help me.

The JRB: Did you agree with him, at the time?

Zinzi Clemmons: I had a feeling. Yeah, I think I did. I think I felt more comfortable in this mode. When I was trying to write linearly I felt like I was shoehorning myself into something, I was writing and I wasn’t really enjoying it. So you have that voice that’s saying something, but you need someone to confirm it. Especially at that stage. So he helped me a lot there, and in many other ways too.

The JRB: In his interview with The JRB, Beatty quoted Kafka saying: ‘What do I have in common with Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself’—adding that he believes that where he operates. He also said ‘books are about conversations that individuals are having with themselves’. I think both of these quotes relate to what you’re doing with What We Lose, in that you’re refusing to homogenise, you’re presenting an experience that you know many people will not ‘identify with’.

Zinzi Clemmons: It was a long time ago, so that kind of brings things back, but in his class he was definitely able to identity with any kind of writing, and he would apply the same principles to a piece of writing whether it was by a Black writer, or by a white writer, or by a Black writer writing about white people, or a Black writer writing about other Black people. He was just fair, and I think that’s reflected in the first quote. He is also, I think, somebody who believes in a connection between all people, and not holding one oppression over the other. The way a lot of this material is often presented in books, I’d even say it’s the norm, is along the lines of very black and white conceptions of race, about Blackness in particular. In the States we still have this obsession with oppression narratives: the kinds of books that get published are about Black people suffering, and some of those books are wonderful and necessary, but you also have to pay attention to the decision that is being made. Because the decisions to publish these stories are not being made by Black people, they are being made by white people who have very little idea of how Black people are, how they live, and I know because I worked in publishing for a long time. So I think Paul is one of those people who is trying to interrogate some of those narratives and, most importantly, those narratives that make us feel comfortable or complacent. That’s what a lot of oppression narratives do. Speaking of Junot Díaz, another conversation that needs to happen is, why are we promoting certain stories over others? Whose ends does that serve?

The JRB: That ties in a little bit with the article you wrote for LitHub, ‘Where is our Black avant-garde?’, in which you explore the hidden avant garde-canon of colour. Two-and-a-half years later, do you think there is more space in the mainstream for experimental or innovative writing by people of colour? Do you think the whiteness of the publishing industry is decreasing?

Zinzi Clemmons: Not really. The writers who I can think of that are experimental still are pushed as ‘ethnic’ writers, and there are a lot of features of their work that just aren’t being considered and appreciated for what they are. I think a lot of people saw that piece but I don’t think anyone knows what to do about it.

In terms of the whiteness of the industry, there have been some studies done in the States. I saw one that came out in 2017, I think, a demographic survey, that said eighty-five per cent of publishing is white women. I doubt that’s changed.

The JRB: Sounds similar to here.

Zinzi Clemmons: That’s going to take a lot of work because the reason for that is that publishing just doesn’t pay enough money, so you have to subsidise your job with something else, usually independent wealth.

The JRB: Or in South Africa you subsidise your fiction list with political non-fiction, about Jacob Zuma or the state of the country.

Zinzi Clemmons: That’s a big part of it too. In America it’s Milo Yiannopoulos or Jordan Peterson, which is distressing.

The JRB: You don’t even want to know the traffic our take-down review of Jordan Peterson‘s book got. Why can’t people get that excited about South African fiction?

Zinzi Clemmons: It’s cool that you did that though, because people really need to pay to attention to him for the danger he poses.

The JRB: We think so. But back to your book. When Thandi is pregnant she ruminates on the life and reputation of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a Struggle hero accused of violent acts who is also a mother. That section is interspersed with writing on motherhood by Adrienne Rich and on Black and white feminism by Gloria I Joseph and Jill Lewis. The excerpts are uncredited, and when I started reading them at first I thought it was your writing, until I checked the back of the book and found the references. I was wondering what your thinking behind that was.

Zinzi Clemmons: I actually got that from a book called Reality Hunger by David Shields. He’s a major practitioner of non-fiction writing, and he theorises what non-fiction is and its relationship to truth. Reality Hunger is composed entirely of quotes that are unattributed, and I basically just ripped it off. What he did in that book mimics the way we interact with information today. The way that we live online, with things like Pinterest and retweeting and sharing, we’re really composing our identities and rethinking ourselves in terms of the things that we like. Sometimes we’re editorialising, but more often than not we’re not. We’re becoming consumption machines.

The JRB: In that we’re not worrying where these things that we ‘like’ come from?

Zinzi Clemmons: Yeah, and they become disembodied from their original context. The bad end of that is fake news, you have a story and nobody knows where it came from and people just accept it. But on the other hand, concepts of ownership and authenticity are starting to be broken down in an important way. And just on an aesthetic level, I wanted people to interact with the writing and not be pulled out of it by the fact that a section comes from someone else. It’s also supposed to serve as an indication that these are things that Thandi has absorbed. So there are some blog posts and things that are distributed in the text, and those are supposed to be interpreted differently. Things like the Adrienne Rich and the Winnie Mandela parts are so close to Thandi, they’re something that she takes in as opposed to something that she interacts with.

The JRB: The juxtapositions are also very powerful, for example the TRC report on The Mandela United Football Club, and then the piece on the effects of racial and economic oppression on Black women. How did you feel when Winnie Mandela died? You’re named after Zindzi Mandela, and you obviously have a relationship with Winnie.

Zinzi Clemmons: For me it provided an occasion to go back and look at her intellectually. I think I related to Winnie in a sentimental way, and that’s where the line in the book ‘Winnie Mandela looks like my mother’ comes from. I think a lot of South African women would say that or feel that, or feel that when they saw her they were reminded of their own mothers. And that was how I interacted with her for a long time. I knew about the other things but there was probably a desire not to interact with that as much, which I’m sure a lot of people share. When she died, especially I think because of the climate right now, and also because I watched the documentary that was very much from her perspective, it made me think a lot about what may have been missed at the time with regards to the discrimination she faced because she was a woman. This documentary calls into question the Stompie killing quite a bit, and I’m not a journalist, I can’t say anything about the factuality of that, except that I saw it and it made me think. It made me think about what we may have overlooked at the time, what we may not have questioned as hard at the time, because she was a woman. We have a much easier time accepting brutality from men, and we do it almost automatically. If we think about our heroes, how many of them killed people? Tons of people. In America, our founding fathers owned slaves. How many of our celebrity heroes beat their wives and we look the other way? But with Winnie it gives us pause and it makes us reconsider her and I think it’s important to think about that.

The JRB: The unfairness of it seems quite astounding. Did you come to any conclusions?

Zinzi Clemmons: I never come to conclusions. Paul taught me that.

The JRB: Excellent. So, you only name your main character, Thandi, on page ninety-five, almost halfway into the book. Did that just happen or was it a conscious choice?

Zinzi Clemmons: It just happened. Because of how I wrote the book and organised it, I wrote it in vignettes and then played around with the order a lot and I actually didn’t realise that until I was going through it with my editor, and she pointed it out. And she didn’t have a problem with it, so—I think it works, I don’t know if everyone does. But if it does I think it’s because it’s such an internal story, you’re in her head the whole time and so it doesn’t really matter.

The JRB: The name comes out at a significant moment, so I think it works well. It reminded me a bit of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, where the narrator is never named. Your book goes a little further than you expect it to, in that Thandi gives birth and then, a while later, she and Peter split up. In other words you take it past the ‘happy ever after’ moment. I’ve read that you changed the ending to the book a number of times. What made the final decision for you?

Zinzi Clemmons: I’m glad you asked that because that part of the narrative, everything that happens after the birth, when Thandi is basically living, that was the most imagined part of the book. I was constructing it as I went along, whereas a lot of the other pieces were things that I had been turning over and editing down for years. But this was pure invention on my part. I originally ended the book with the marriage, and I went back and looked at it and thought about it, and it felt too rom-commy to me. It felt like I was tying everything up and, also, a man saved her. I didn’t want that to be the case. This is Thandi’s story, it’s about her rebuilding her life. In my experience, and the experience of people who are close to me who have been through similar things, it’s actually very common to look to your relationships to fill a void, especially when you’ve lost someone in your family, you’re trying to make a new family. Women especially will undertake it really quickly, out of incorrect desires. I’ve seen that pattern repeated quite a bit. So instead of her marriage being her salvation it ended up being a learning experience. That’s more the kind of story I was trying to tell.

The JRB: It’s also great because it undercuts the societal pressure involved with marriage. Thandi can get out of her marriage without feeling like she’s made a mistake. It’s just part of her life.

Zinzi Clemmons: This is one difficulty I have with South Africa. Obviously it isn’t everybody but I find that the expectations on women are more to those ends. More so than where I’m from, what I’m used to encountering, is that here divorce does feel like a big deal to people. And I’ve always felt a lot of pressure from family and friends here to get married and define myself on those terms. It’s bullshit. Divorce is wonderful because it saves you from misery and abuse. It’s one of the most wonderful inventions and no one should ever be ashamed to get a divorce. You should be happy that you have that out.

The JRB: I wanted to talk about something I’ve noticed in your interviews, where you say you don’t like using the term ‘Coloured’.

Zinzi Clemmons: Did I say that?

The JRB: Well, because of the fact that it’s a term imposed from above on a group of people, and because of the racial stereotyping that comes with terms like that. But I want to ask whether you have any positive feelings about Coloured culture?

Zinzi Clemmons: Well, I have to because it’s my family.

The JRB: Because I think a lot of Coloured people in South Africa are very proud of their culture. The food, the music, the humour, the strong family ties, and so on.

Zinzi Clemmons: Honestly that has made me a bit nervous, at times. At the same time that those wonderful things have come up, unfortunately there’s a lot of anti-Blackness that’s a part of it. I think it’s really necessary, before we start flying our flag, to think about how we got that flag in the first place. And that it’s premised on the oppression of other people. If it doesn’t have to do with those things, then I’d say maybe. So some of the cultural things I can see, and they’re fine to celebrate, but again a huge caveat is that it should not be based on ‘this is better than someone else’. But it strikes me as very difficult to do and I haven’t seen it done very successfully so far. Maybe what I have a problem with is that Coloured identity is something inherited from apartheid, but there are many different identities within that, and maybe what I’d like to see more of is a celebration of those individual identities, especially the ones that pre-dated apartheid, and thinking about it more in those ways. To disentangle it from that colonial influence. If we can celebrate things that are not touched by that, that’s probably the direction. Mixing is a good thing, and whenever there’s that acceptance I think that’s something worth celebrating, but you just have to really interrogate celebrating something that was constructed by people with the intention of doing harm. That’s really important. I would also encourage Coloured people to investigate their connections to Black people. That strikes me as more important.

The JRB: Do you feel the same way about Black culture in the States, as a homogenous group? If you’re saying it’s a designation placed upon you.

Zinzi Clemmons: The history is different. I have similar anxiety about cohering Blackness together and pinning it down into one thing. The essentialising part of it. And also I recognise that that impulse to celebrate comes from a reaction to the oppression. So we have to be careful.

The JRB: I think that’s what I was getting at.

Yeah, so at the same time as we’re celebrating ourselves by defining ourselves, we’re excluding people. That’s always something I’ve felt strongly about as a mixed-race person. That’s another discussion that I think needs to happen. For example with Black Twitter especially, we’re touting our Blackness all the time, and that’s wonderful, but there’s a limit to that where we’re sometimes excluding people. To use another good example, Blackness for a long time has involved putting Black men on a pedestal and not holding them accountable for the things that they do to people. And when you are celebrating Blackness so much that you’re not being critical, that’s when problems start to happen.

One thought on “‘Being in South Africa as an author has shifted my perspective’—Zinzi Clemmons chats to The JRB about her debut novel, What We Lose”

  1. Saw Zinsi Clemmons in Franshhoek, listened to her being interviewed , Amazing woman to listen to and wonderful article to read here. Great interview.

    Thank you

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