By Angelina Eimannsberger
Thandi, the main character of Zinzi Clemmons’ debut novel What We Lose, is living life best as she can after the trauma of her mother’s death from cancer. The narrative focuses on how home-making, cooking, independence, and happiness indicate the developments of her life. This might seem an oddly ‘anti-’ or at least ‘a-’ feminist way of storytelling. It is not. Instead, this feminist reclamation of the domestic reveals flawed previous cultural limitations of the domestic as a site of subjection and limitation. What We Loose turns the home, cooking, eating, homelife, into devices of storytelling that serve to create a narrative of increasing maturity and self-determination, overcoming the ancient and trite division into purportedly masculine public and feminine private spheres. Second Wave feminism has taught us that the personal is political and Zinzi Clemmons adds her own literary iteration to this liberating feminist tradition. Clearly, this has struck a nerve with the readers–since the novel’s publication in July 2017 it has heaped praise, with Vogue calling it the debut of the year and many offering comparisons to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s already canonical 2013 novel Americanah (Of course some of these are due to the limited imagination of white readers confronting black women writing about female experience in the US. But there’s also a basis for comparison that has literary merit.).
The reclaiming of home in the novel is complicated by the fact that the main character does not find a larger sense of a home available to her–no hometown, home country, well-defined demographic, or even a social clique are easy sites of belonging for Thandi, who grows up in her solidly middle-class family in Philadelphia, with an US-American father and a mother from Johannesburg, South Africa.
Set against this background of ambivalent belonging in the US and the loss of her mother, Thandi’s coming of age revels in the domestic, especially food preparation and consumption, as a site of nascent self-empowerment and happiness.
The domestic space in South Africa is filled with fear of potential interruption for Thandi: “This is the secret I have long held from my family: South Africa terrifies me. It always has. When I am there, I am often kept awake in bed at night, imagining which combination of failed locks, security doors, and alarms will allow a burglar inside, inviting disaster.” (10) Thinking about the famous case of the South African runner Oscar Pistorius and how he shot his girlfriend in his own home in Johannesburg, Thandi can imagine both that he would have rightly felt at danger and acted in self-defense or that he is, in fact, guilty of killing the woman on purpose. She concludes, “I chose to believe this story, of the athlete ruined by fame, instead of believing my worst thoughts and fears about my other home country.” (18)
She lives in the US and does not entertain any wish to experiment with living abroad. Her other home country, South Africa, does not provide her with a sense of being home and at ease.
While enjoying a sense of physical safety, Thandi doesn’t feel fully at home in the United States either. A black woman of middle-class status and relatively light skin tone, she has trouble becoming part of a community: “American blacks were my precarious homeland–because of my light skin and foreign roots, I was never fully accepted by any race. Plus my family had money, and all the black kids in my town came from the poorer areas.” (26) Her own longing makes her imagine black Americans as her ideal group with some denial: “That the tragic aspects of American blacks’ legacy are largely visible to the rest of the world is something I realized only later […] My naïveté, my feeling of rejection, made my identification all the more strong. I only desired to belong, and I idealized this group as one does a storybook character or a superstar.” (27)
Her family’s solidly middle-class economic situation and Thandi’s college education at “one of the top places in the country” reinforce her division from mainstream African American experience. (40) Thus, the novel only develops a strong sense of belonging in a home of her own, a small domestic space carved out by Thandi herself, her cooking skills, and with a handful of selected people, including her best friend, her parents, and eventually Peter and M, joining her.
The narrative’s dramatic development is manifest in the domestic, specifically the rooms and food of her childhood home when her mother gets sick.
After the first diagnosis, the change in family eating habits serves to indicate the seismic shifts unfolding in their lives: “Our family dinners of curries and aromatic roasts ceased. My father fixed simple, utilitarian meals that filled my stomach and suited my mother’s health restrictions. I brought a tray to my mother’s bedroom every evening and ate at the kitchen table with my father. He fumbled with the dishes and silverware as the sound of the TV buzzed from upstairs.” (60) This development away from the communal is dramatically reinforced after the mother’s death, who previously insisted that meal times are moments the family shares with no TV or other distraction.
The changes in the domestic atmosphere of her childhood home are highlighted at the very beginning of What We Lose. The prologue opens on a Chinese take-out dinner Thandi is sharing with her father, “the same order that we’ve made for years … When my mother died, they started giving us extra sodas with our order, and he returns with two cans of pineapple soda, my favorite.” (1-2) There is solace in the dinner, some small joy. It does not suffice to make Thandi feel better. She has to create her own space of home.
When the disease makes it necessary to stay home and be around her mother, Thandi embraces this domestic existence. “Every morning, I set my laptop on the [kitchen] island and did not leave except to bring my mother her meals.” (83) Food is one of the only things to happen in this sphere and takes a central spot in her life. Not only does she eat “gluttonously and gain[s] ten pounds” (83) but the fridge becomes “the center of my kitchen world. It sat right across from me, about as tall as a regular human, and when the radio was off, its hum was the only sound in the room.” (84) She is alone in the domestic sphere, already bereft of her mother’s presence in the kitchen, uprooted from her habits. This might seem as personal an experience as we can imagine, the novel’s epigraphs cite Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals and the breast cancer-fighting Susan G. Komen organization to show that African American women are systematically at much greater risk to be in poor health.
Aiming for some agency, Thandi cleans the fridge at first and fills it with healthy food. “I understood then, awash in unfiltered refrigerator light, that this was how I was going to cure my mom, with whole grains and elbow grease.” (84) But her optimistic sense of agency doesn’t last. Visitors gift them dishes that require being stored in the fridge. “I had to take my vegetables out of the crisper and set them in the fruit bowl in the middle of the island, defenseless. I took the huge tinfoil packages, the grease beginning to leak through, and shoved them in the spotless drawer. I slammed the door shut and ran straight to the spare bedroom. I locked myself inside, buried my face in the bed pillows, and cried.” (85) She won’t be able to save her mother through food. She has no actual agency against the disease and even the tools her mother had relied on for homemaking–food preparation and the kitchen space– don’t have any force in the face of the catastrophe that is happening in Thandi’s life when her mother is dying from cancer.
The mechanisms of building a home work much better when Thandi is living in New York and crafting a relationship with Peter, who she met at a conference on the West Coast. The first day she visits Peter in Portland is spent entirely in the domestic, they have sex and eat a homemade meal. With Peter, the domestic and the sexual takes center stage immediately and easily. In the food co-op, “We stroll down the aisles. I push the cart from behind and he steers with his hand on the front. He pauses every few steps to hold up an item. You like this? You need this? Do you drink dairy milk? I prefer rice. I say yes to granola, rice milk, a young organic chicken, lemon, fresh rosemary, and baby potatoes.” (62) These items come together easily to let Thandi create comfort and joy.
Thandi cooks for Peter while he is at work. She is able to bring back the nourishing, communal eating that had disappeared from her life when her mother got sick. Thandi describes the cooking process as a labor of new, anxious to please love: “My hands shake as I grease the skin with olive oil and rub salt and pepper all over the body. My knife wriggles as I cut the lemon in half and squeeze citrus over the bird.” (62) Thandi worries about cooking the meal well: “What if, no matter how perfectly I cook the chicken, he doesn’t like it? Then I would be a bad feminist and a bad cook. I shove the bird into the oven and collapse onto the floor.” (63) However, her concern was unnecessary. “He eats each bite through a satisfied smile, and I realize that, even if the chicken had been charred, or half-raw, I would never have known the difference from his face.” (63) They make a transient home for themselves: “We spend the next three days in bed except when we are carousing around the city, hand in hand, feeling like everything is brand-new and already ours.” (63)
This domestic bliss feels right, and its ease signals that the relationship is meant to be. As soon as Thandi gets “home, I make the announcement. I call Aminah and my father. It’s official, real this time: I am in love.” (63)
While continuing to divide their time together between Portland and NYC, they find out that Thandi is pregnant. “Peter comes to New York to decide what we are going to do.” (122) Another homemade meal sets the stage for discussing if and how they will create a family. “When we get back to my place, I make us steaks. Halfway into cooking them, I realize that iron is one of those tastes pregnancy will make me abhor. He eats his steak and mine and we barely speak. I just sit there and watch him chew. I eat cereal.” (122) Their routine of blissful eating has been tipped out of rhythm. Just the anticipation of changes through her pregnancy makes Thandi shy away from the exquisite meal. The tensions continue over the next few days and Peter and Thandi struggle to agree on how, and if, to create a family and a marriage, that strongest institutional banner of belonging. They explore other people’s private lives in the park in a park in Brooklyn Thandi likes: “It’s one of my favorite places, in part because nearly everyone here looks like me. There are mixed families all around us; all of their children look like they could be mine. Peter, I feel, notices this too, and I think it makes him uncomfortable.” (124)
This tension is reinforced by a lack of shared geographical home. They live on opposite coasts and both love their cities: “He loves Portland. And I love the East Coast. Neither of us will easily give up our respective homes.” (123) They get married but don’t develop ease under this strain: “Love and marriage are completely unrelated enterprises. Marriage bears as little resemblance to love as competing in the Olympics does to your afternoon jog.” (182) Thandi will eventually be the one to stay in her home, and Peter is the one to move and they make a home in Queens. “I drain the rest of the money out of my mother’s inheritance and buy us a small, plastic-sided house with a small yard way out in the farther reaches of Queens.” (175) It is not a dream home “but on good days, we feel like we have everything we need.” (176) This new, high-speed built domesticity might work, or so it seems for a moment.
Their son M, they call him by initial rather than his given name, is the center of this new home but they can’t create domesticity around him. The parents fight and very soon Thandi asks Peter to move out. Even though she is in pain, we witness another meal of Chinese food and learn that she and M will be ok living by themselves.
A few days into living alone, Thandi begins to find balance against all odds: “I put M’s crib in the living room. I order Chinese food and eat straight from the container. I have a glass of wine and turn the TV up so that it tunes out M’s gurgling and occasional crying. M sits next to me on the couch, and crawls dangerously close to the edge. I push him back over with my ankle. I watch all three reruns of my show until Mahpee starts to wail, then I feed him and wash his little body in the sink. We both fall asleep in the living room that night, and when I wake up, it’s 6:00 a.m. and the TV is still on, blaring an infomercial for a mop that looks like every other mop in stores. It’s the first time I’ve slept through the night in as long as I can remember.” (193-4)
This is not a polished mommy blog’s version of life with a baby. But it is a start. Thandi moves to a new place and creates a domestic place for herself and her baby that can be lasting and comfortable. “Even though oftentimes I am lonely, it also feels right, just him and me together in our little apartment.” (204) Another meal of Chinese take-out ends the novel, this time with her son, in her own home, and setting up a future of if not domestic bliss at least nutritious belonging.