Zinzi Clemmons grew up in Swarthmore and now lives in Los Angeles. Author of the recently published novel What We Lose, she read from the novel and spoke this week at the Free Library of Philadelphia. She will return to Swarthmore on Thursday, August 17, at 7 p.m. for a reading and discussion at the Campus and Community Store. Ms. Clemmons talked with the Swarthmorean recently about her origins and her work.
Were you a writer when you were at Strath Haven?
I was always a reader, but my interests were more in science and visual arts … I was going to be a doctor, but when I got there [Brown University], I realized that science wasn’t for me after taking a couple of classes, and also realized that visual arts wasn’t really for me in the long run. On a whim I signed up for a creative writing class … I still remember the first time I wrote something and others read it, the response was pretty dramatic. It was clear I had a talent for it; it came from nowhere, sort of an innate kind of thing. When I recognized that, I had a professor who encouraged me, other students encouraged me, too, and it felt good, I enjoyed doing it.
I had a certain ear for language that was innate; I hadn’t read that widely, it just happened. That’s the raw talent portion of it, then I started training myself. I kept taking those classes, I practiced on my own, joined writing groups, went back to grad school [Columbia University’s MFA program in Fiction.] When I started I was about 20, so for about ten years I was just training.
How did the novel happen?
I always wanted to write a novel from the time I was in college. The subject matter happened a little more coincidentally. The short stories I was writing for workshops were about identity, about my relationship with my mom and my travels to South Africa.
From the time I was an infant to college, my mom [who was born of mixed race in South Africa] would take my brother and me to South Africa and spend the entire summer with her family. For about a decade, I saw what the country was like before it became an independent democracy in 1994. A lot of those [travel] experiences were loaded and emotional, and a huge change from Swarthmore, to a country that was pretty embattled during my childhood. To witness some of the overt racism and abuses of power by police and local governments, that was all out in the open.
My mother had a really strong personality and our relationship was always pretty fraught. I ended up writing stories and little reflections about that experience … By the time I started this novel in my mid 20’s, my mother had gotten really sick. I was writing a different novel at the time … but these reflections about her and about SA kept coming up … My agent picked up on these threads about grief and illness and SA, and she said “you should really focus on those parts, they’re really powerful.”
I realized this is what I had to do, and I ended up writing that story.
Writing the book helped me understand more about where she was coming from. I realized a lot of the tension between us came from the fact that she was an immigrant to this country. It was difficult for her, changing environments so completely. She didn’t always know how to handle that, and it was reflected in her parenting.
The novel is set in a town like Swarthmore?
Yeah, it’s based on Swarthmore; the father in the book actually works at a liberal arts college that is modeled after Swarthmore College. There’s a lot of detail about the college, it’s pretty clear that’s what it’s based on. Writers love to write about their hometowns.
For me, growing up in Swarthmore and being one of a small minority, not just being a black person but being a person of mixed heritage … because of our mixed background and our class, we were kind of in our own category. I was always an outsider in a number of ways, and when you have that experience, you’re used to observing … The experience of always watching and listening, that really informed my identity as a writer.
Was the attitude here to appearance and race different than in other towns you’ve lived in?
I had very few overtly racist experiences there. We didn’t have much relation with other people there except my friends. Some of the most amazing people in my life are from Swarthmore, and I stay in touch with [them] … I think there’s a big difference between suburban and urban areas, just the way that difference is treated in places like Swarthmore … The really interesting thing is that things usually go unsaid. What was much more common was subtle, almost invisible instances where I was made to feel very different, like I didn’t belong. I don’t know that people intended that to happen … People make assumptions, but it’s also just human nature that people who are part of a group….when an outsider or minority….they tend to side with people like them. It’s part of the human condition, it’s called tribalism, and it’s everywhere.
What is next for you?
I’m teaching at Occidental College, creative writing classes for undergrads. Next year I’ll be teaching grad students at Otis College of Art & Design. My next [book] might be an essay collection. Just given the time frame in which I work, I think a novel is a long time off. I’ve published a number of essays online; I think it makes sense to collect them. As a writer, it’s a very inspiring time to write about some of the issues that we’re seeing. A lot of the things that were invisible are being made visible now which is really how I see what is going on politically. Trump is a symptom of the disease but it’s existed for a long time. It’s important that young people write about what’s happening.