Zinzi Clemmons: ‘I’m proud of it, because I didn’t hold anything back’

What We Lose is a startlingly experimental and intimate first novel, about a character whose complicated cultural identity reflects the author’s own

About five years ago, Zinzi Clemmons’s mother’s health worsened dramatically and doctors told her she didn’t have much longer to live. Clemmons, who was away studying, returned home to Philadelphia – a detail she says “is highly relevant because of what’s going on right now [with healthcare in the US]”, as it was partly an economic decision: “I acted as her primary caretaker, and my family wouldn’t have been able to afford that unless I had done it. And we’re not badly off in any way.”

At that point, Clemmons was working on a story about HIV, exploring illness and its politicisation – themes that remain in her mesmerising debut novel What We Lose – but she didn’t have “enough direct experience”, and it wasn’t working. ...

Zinzi Clemmons: ‘I’m proud of it, because I didn’t hold anything back’

What We Lose is a startlingly experimental and intimate first novel, about a character whose complicated cultural identity reflects the author’s own

About five years ago, Zinzi Clemmons’s mother’s health worsened dramatically and doctors told her she didn’t have much longer to live. Clemmons, who was away studying, returned home to Philadelphia – a detail she says “is highly relevant because of what’s going on right now [with healthcare in the US]”, as it was partly an economic decision: “I acted as her primary caretaker, and my family wouldn’t have been able to afford that unless I had done it. And we’re not badly off in any way.”

At that point, Clemmons was working on a story about HIV, exploring illness and its politicisation – themes that remain in her mesmerising debut novel What We Lose – but she didn’t have “enough direct experience”, and it wasn’t working. ...