I started writing when I was in college. I had plans to become a doctor, which obviously made my parents very happy. My mother was born in South Africa, and my father’s mother was from Trinidad, and he grew up in the heavily West Indian neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens. Both were strict disciplinarians. Both had nice families but modest childhoods and, like so many immigrant families in this country, believed in hard work and sacrifice as much as they did in God.
They were devastated when, in my second year of college, I realized that no matter how proud medicine made my parents, studying it made me profoundly unhappy. So I signed up for a creative writing class on a whim and began my journey as a writer.
There was never much of a question that I would write about my mother. She was a larger-than-life figure, at turns aggressive, funny and generous. Strong-willed and acid-tongued, she spoke her mind as a matter of principle, and even though she had a tendency to offend, she was incredibly well liked. Her brash, contradictory personality was the source of constant wonder for me as a child. Our fights were legendary, ranging in topic from the mundane to the serious. I didn’t have to do much inventing when I wrote the mother character in my novel. With my own mother as inspiration, the character wrote itself. Nevertheless, What We Lose is a novel of ideas, primarily about how larger forces like race, nationality and gender shape our lives consciously and unconsciously.
However, my mother’s influence and likeness appeared often in my early work. For example, my hair was a constant flashpoint of tension in our relationship. I grew up in the ’90s, and the natural hair renaissance that would take place around the mid-2000s was still a long way off. It was still the norm for black women to straighten their hair with harsh chemicals or scalding-hot irons, both of which usually left your scalp covered in burns, not to mention the permanent damage done to the hair itself. As a tomboy and an A-student, I could see little use for perfectly coiffed hair and would avoid my mother’s straightening sessions and hair appointments like the plague. Of course, this only made her angrier.
Stories about hair have made their way into several of my short stories and my novel. I use these episodes as a way of discussing intergenerational conflict—how race impacts our conceptions of beauty, colorism and gender. Similar arguments arose around my clothes, grades and career choices. They mostly had the same result: My mother would double down on her objections, and I would become increasingly alienated from both her and the rest of my family. My father, an immensely agreeable man, was forced to play mediator during holidays when I would visit home. These visits would always be marked by at least one fight that, if we were lucky, wouldn’t balloon beyond my visit. But often, it did.
Our relationship eased, as tends to happen, when my mother became gravely ill. About six months before she died at 55, mere days after I finished my MFA program at Columbia University, I moved back into my parents’ Philadelphia house to help care for her. This decision in itself was shaped by the gender norms inherent in both Caribbean and South African culture. It is the daughter’s job to take care of the parents. Even though I volunteered, my brother stayed in New Mexico, where he had relocated for work. I missed my brother and felt incredibly alone, and I resented my parents for not placing the same responsibilities on him that they did on me. These gendered cultural expectations—as well as the experience of living in hospitals, caring for her nearly around the clock, my sadness at her impending death—all later became part of What We Lose.
I wrote most of What We Lose after my mother’s death, and in so doing, I was finally able to gain a higher understanding of who she was. By delving into her history, both in her home country of South Africa and in the U.S., I began to realize that much of her behavior in my childhood had sprung out of fear: fear that she wouldn’t be able to succeed in a new country, fear that her children wouldn’t make it. Fear of what harm might befall me as a young, rebellious black woman, and the ever-present fear of raising black children in the United States.
In addition to providing some closure, the stories of our conflicts illustrated how systemic issues play out in our everyday lives. Our fights about my hair were also about the expectations placed on young black women, and how the failure to live up to those expectations would reflect on my mother. My appearance, my friends and my career were all constantly judged by our mostly white community. Growing up and leaving my hometown would only provide bigger dangers, when these choices could impact my ability to find a job, a family and in certain cases (usually involving law enforcement) whether I lived or died. By investigating my relationship with my mother—the years we spent at odds and our short armistice at the end of her life—I ultimately realized how these larger forces shaped my life as well, and how deeply I’d internalized them. To me, this is the most important part of What We Lose, the point from which all of the book’s relationships and drama emanates. The same was always true of my life, long before I even recognized it.
Zinzi Clemmons is the co-founder of Apogee Journal and a contributing editor to Literary Hub. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, where she teaches at The Colburn Conservatory and Occidental College. What We Lose, her debut novel, is a poignant exploration of womanhood and identity.
Author photo credit Nina Subin.