A Burial Story About Far-Away Family

“What We Lose” by Zinzi Clemmons, Recommended by Well-Read Black Girl


Too often we are unaware of the realities of grief until we’re confronted with the life-altering loss of a loved one. What We Lose, the debut novel by Zinzi Clemmons, is a thoughtful exploration of loss and grief, cultural identity and race, motherhood and relationships. The story, which is loosely autobiographical, beautifully guides the reader through a myriad of pain and sadness. Clemmons is, like her protagonist Thandi, the child of a South African mother and African-American father, born and raised in Philadelphia with family vacations spent in Johannesburg. And just like Thandi, Clemmons left college to help with her mother’s care when she was diagnosed with cancer.

What I found most compelling about the narrative was the unpredictable format: An assortment of stream-of-consciousness vignettes, visual devices, and solid one sentence chapters. Together, they become an intricate collage, combining cultural commentary, archival photographs, and frequent meditations on intersectionality. Through this structure, Clemmons meticulously investigates what it means to be caught between two cultures — American and South African — and feels ultimately, like an outsider wherever she is. As a child of African immigrants, Thandi’s reality felt familiar. Clemmons and her character share the understanding that they’re of two distinctly different worlds and yearning to belong somewhere fully. In her American suburb, Thandi is constantly reminded that she’s not, like, “a real black person” and her mother’s troubling anecdotes on colorism inform her own complicated upbringing.

When the story travels to Johannesburg, the violence and inequality of her mother’s homeland come through vividly. Sharp yet at times shocking political commentary is also interspersed with Thandi’s narration — from the culpability of Oscar Pistorius to how Winnie Mandela was implicated in a sexual abuse cover-up. I started making note of how she carefully balanced history with the complexities of one’s identity. Her frank depiction of Thandi shows us how true vulnerability is a vital part of mourning and living. And personally, I greatly appreciated the private grief yet universal quality of her story.

What We Lose provokes an almost artistic sensibility around the process of self-discovery. I found myself moved to tears while reading Thandi’s story. You ask yourself: What is her truth? How much will she reveal? So much of Thandi’s experience is her willingness to unearth and expose her grief. “I’ve amazed myself with how well I’ve learned to live around her absence. This void is my constant companion, no matter what I do. Nothing will fill it, and it will never go away.” Clemmons has written a poignant tribute to beloved mother and the exploration of creating a life without her, and an emotionally rich book about the experience of being a Black female.

For all of these reasons, we are thrilled that What We Lose is the August pick for the Well-Read Black Girl book club. If you would like to know more about the WRBG organization and how to support our mission, you can find more information here.

– Glory Edim
Founder, Well-Read Black Girl


A Burial Story About Far-Away Family

“What We Lose”

by Zinzi Clemmons

We returned to Johannesburg one year after my mother died. Of the two weeks we spent there, I spent one afternoon with my grandfather. He sat in his recliner, in front of the TV, switched to the cricket game, and I halfheartedly arranged papers, went to the store to buy milk, and brought him cups of tea.

“You don’t seem well,” he said.

I laughed and said that I was fine.

“My feet ache,” he said, pointing down at his blue velvet slippers. His diabetes caused his feet to swell, and they caused him great pain. I removed the slippers and found his skin dry and red. His toenails were black.

“Papa . . .”

“I’m in pain every day,” he said. “It’s not just my feet, it’s all over.”

I saw his eyes fill with tears and then looked away quickly. My father had spent most of his time in Johannesburg with my grandfather, running him all over town, sitting with him, talking. They had always gotten along, but now they behaved as old friends, reunited after a long time apart. They shared a bond over my mother’s death that the rest of us couldn’t know. My grandfather’s pain was as unknowable to me as my father’s but multiplied several times over. I was afraid that if I looked into his eyes, I might see what it was like to lose a child. In- stead, I excused myself to the bathroom.

“I’ll get you some muscle rub, Da.”

In the small room lined by eggshell tiles, unchanged since my mother bathed in there as a baby, I gazed at his neat arrangement of ointments and creams, the same bottles that he’d used since I was a child. I cried until I felt so empty that I knew no more would come, and then I went back outside.

We assembled at my family’s gravesite, at the large coloured cemetery a few minutes from my grandparents’ house. As we walked from our cars to the small plot marked by a few lines of white folding chairs, I remembered my grandmother’s funeral, held here ten years ago. My grief had been simple and remote. I had had no clue of the depth of feeling beneath my own mother’s tears; this time I finally did.

My mother’s brother Bertie led the ceremony. He had made a small fortune and a name for himself by opening a string of gas stations in coloured townships that employed neighborhood people and quietly exploited them. He walked to the front of the group with a serious look that bordered on a smirk. He could barely contain his glee at being in front of a captive audience. He rubbed his belly with a gold ring–laden hand; his children sniffed loudly from the front row.

Bertie took the urn holding my mother’s ashes from the pedestal nearby. He handed it to my grandfather, who laid it in a small hole next to my grandmother’s headstone.

My cousin Lyndall squeezed my hand.

“I hope his fat ass falls in that hole,” she whispered under her breath to me. We both laughed, and Bertie’s children — clad in designer clothes and shades, comforted by their respective spouses — shot us disapproving stares. Though we were close as children, our relationship became distant when my cousins became certifiably rich, in a way none of us could really understand; it ended completely when they married. Their wealth made them paranoid. They closed ranks against people or conflicts that challenged any one of them. The rest of us saw this happen, felt a different kind of grief for the people they had once been.

I started to sob in huge bursts again, felt my face getting hot.

“Are you okay?” Lyndall whispered to me.

I felt Stephanie, my older cousin, poke me in the back. She opened her palm and revealed a small blue pill.

“For your nerves,” Lyndall said. I held it in my hand.

“Don’t think about it,” Lyndall said, and raised my hand to my mouth.

The pill kicked in just as Bertie waddled back to his seat, and everything turned gray. I stopped crying. We waited in line to throw dirt on my mother’s ashes. I held my father’s hand. We said our final prayer and went back the way we had come.

My cousin Lyndall is beautiful and wild. She has wavy sandy- brown hair flowing down to her back that she flicks off of her neck mischievously whenever she is lying. She’s the pariah of our family because in high school, her parents caught her doing tik. They screamed and beat her and she didn’t apologize, so they sent her to rehab in Botswana for a month. She came back wilder than ever, but better at hiding it.

Lyndall is that fatal mix of beautiful and visible brokenness that made all the guys swarm us whenever we would go out. When I first arrived, she took me out into the small rectangle of my grandfather’s backyard and handed me a joint. As we hunched under the clothesline, Lyndall held the garments away from our smoke. “Aish, if my mother smells this I’m in for it.” I chided Lyndall, still a captive to her parents’ old ways. For the millionth time, I told her she should move to America. No one as free as her should live in this country. She waved off the weed smoke.

“This is dangerous,” Lyndall said, putting the joint be- tween her teeth. She led me up to the roof of our grandfather’s garage just like she did when we were kids. We hoisted our- selves onto the wall, then onto the storm pipe, and up onto the tin roof.

“Papa used to hate us doing this, hey?” Lyndall said with the joint still in her teeth, casting a cautious glance into the living room window. When we were little, our grandfather had a sixth sense for our mischief. As soon as we put a foot on the house’s whitewashed wall, he would be at the window, yelling threats at us to get down.

A dog barked. We lay side by side, blowing smoke into the air. We could hear pots clanging in the kitchen sink, our aunties cleaning up the funeral lunch.

“Do you remember when we were little,” Lyndall said, “when we used to pretend we were grown-up? You always wanted to be twenty years old and living in New York.”

“I did,” I said, chuckling. “We used to practice putting on lipstick and kissing our pillows.”

“I was going to marry a footballer,” Lyndall purred, drawing long on the joint. “I still can.”

We laughed.

“How you doing, really?” Lyndall asked.

“How do you think?” I sighed. “It feels like everything has fallen apart.”

“Your mom and I were close in a — different kind of way.” My mother generally disapproved of Lyndall’s wild behavior, but there was some part of her that obviously identified with it. They called each other often to share gossip, and when Lyndall got in trouble, my mother would be the first to call and chastise her. But at the end of the conversation, they would end up laughing.

I looked over and Lyndall was crying. She wiped her eyes on her forearm, the joint in her fingers.

Ahhhh!” She flicked the joint off the roof. “It’s time to get out of here and get drunk!”

From an article on a planned high-rise in Maboneng, the fast-developing neighborhood in Johannesburg, by London-bred Ghanaian “celebritecht” David Adjaye

“I think it will be a double take with a lot of people, because you will look at this building and think that it is in some other city, and then you will realise its in Johannesburg; it’s in Africa,” he said. The aim is to “combine an African aesthetic with a contemporary vision.”

But why do “African” and “contemporary” have to be incommensurate? Why (and to whom) is it appealing to think you are in another city besides the one, in Africa, that you are in?

About the Recommender

More about the recommender

More Like This

Telepathy Is the Sixth Stage of Grief

"Exercises in Thinking" by Jane Pek, recommended by Wynter K Miller for Electric Literature

Aug 21 - Jane Pek

Hey Siri, Cure My Postpartum Depression

Two poems by Chelsea Dingman

Jul 12 - Chelsea Dingman

The Bluest Crab at Grandpa’s Funeral

"Carapace" by Matthew Ryan Frankel, winner of the 2023 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize

May 31 - Matthew Ryan Frankel
Thank You!