‘There Are Universal Human Roots for Every Problem’: An Interview with Zinzi Clemmons

The author of What We Lose on identities, the inability to be cured of grief, and abortion as a debate between something and nothing.


Abigail Bereola has grown up all over the place. She aims to be a socially conscious...

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What does it mean to live at the intersections of your specific identity, and to love with your specific heart, when living and loving are both permanent until they aren’t? What does it mean to lose? Those are the stories that change lives. In the debut novel by Zinzi Clemmons, we learn about the stories that change Thandi’s.

I had known of Clemmons, who grew up in Philadelphia and traces her roots from Trinidad and South Africa, for years, through her work with Apogee Journal, which she cofounded, and Literary Hub, where she is a contributing editor, but I had never read her fiction. What We Lose takes a look at multilayered loss. Thandi, the novel’s protagonist, is in her early twenties when her mother dies. While she lives through what it means to be without someone so fundamental to her personhood, the novel sifts through racial constructions and stereotypes, and dynamics of love, family, and friendship.

Thandi seeks out her own significance through other people. She measures herself through those she loves and the way they love her, and knowledge of the places her family comes from. Thandi is a character, but to those who actually live, this may be a familiar rendering.

Written in vignettes, with photographs and nonfictional interludes peppered throughout, What We Lose pushes at the limits of what it can mean to write literary fiction. It’s a novel that gave me new cause to consider what has been lost for certain people in my own life.

Abigail Bereola: One of the things that I love about this novel is that it feels like scenarios in a life. The vignettes recall memory and how different aspects of our lives resonate at different times. How did you decide on the structure for What We Lose?

Zinzi Clemmons: I hate to say this. It’s cheesy. It’s kind of a truism for writers, but it’s sort of just my voice. It’s not anything really specific to the book, except that it does work very well for the subject matter, I think. You know, when you’re talking about loss and grief and memory, the way that your brain makes these thematic associations and jumps—it fits with that style very well. I think it was a confluence of different things that made it work, but it was something that I was always doing.

How did you decide to write this book in particular?

I didn’t really decide it intentionally. I was actually writing another book that was more linear, because I figured I had to write my first book in a certain way. But it didn’t end up working and that was because my mom was actually going through what I described in the book. She was very sick and I started writing these little passages that were just reflections about what I was seeing. There’s probably a handful of them that are about what happened in a hospital. Just these really short, kind of pithy reflections on grief… Those somehow made their way into the book and my agent read it and she was like, “Yeah, this book as a whole is not working very well,” and she was right. But those parts that were about grief were what I started with. So, I basically threw away the rest of the novel and just started working from those pieces, and I realized that I was kind of avoiding what was going on in my life, but that I needed to write about it.

I think once I got that permission from my agent and I realized that I did have a lot to say and it started coming out very easily, that was when I realized that I had a good story, but it definitely happened by degrees. It wasn’t like I sat down and thought about what I was going to write and then wrote about it.

I studied abroad in South Africa while in college and many aspects of the book felt familiar to me, even if I’m not as well-versed as I could be in the daily realities of South African politics or lives. But one thing that struck me was the mutability of race within the novel—how Thandi’s mom is colored in the South African sense, but in the United States, she becomes black. And while the family seems to revere blackness for the most part, Thandi’s mother still believes that beauty only comes from straight hair, as opposed to kinky hair. And she also believes that because Thandi has light skin, she will never have true friendship with darker-skinned women. Why did you decide to create that juxtaposition? Their community is really rooted in blackness, but there are still these proliferating ideas.

I’m glad you asked the first part of the question about the mutability of race and how different it is from over there and here. I have a fixed identity that’s very real in the United States. I have a fixed identity that is very real in South Africa. But I never identified with it at all, I guess partly because I’m from America—I spend most of my time here—but also because I did understand the history of where these racial divisions came from. This might get me in trouble. In the case of the coloreds, I always thought it was really weird. I guess that’s informed from my American perspective because we don’t have a race for mixed race. But I also felt like, to a certain extent, the colored race was this sort of arbitrary division and I didn’t like—and I never did and I still don’t like—when people essentialize and fetishize themselves around race. And so, I guess I always really rejected that, especially when it comes to mixed race identity, to be honest.

I think a lot of people have done really wonderful writing about what it’s like to be a mixed race person, but I think that there’s not enough acknowledgement of how much privilege mixed race people have and that’s always really bothered me. So, I’d say in the same breath that any mixed race person says, “I don’t fit in anywhere,” they need to also say, “But I have it a lot better than a lot of other people.” I’m getting off-topic.

The contradictions part, that has just always been such a huge experience for me of race. What always struck me in South Africa were the conversations that I would have with other colored people when no one else was around. I don’t think I’ve been able to experience that to the same degree in the States, in that people are extremely racist toward other groups and also toward their own people. And so, with that discussion about colorism, that’s what it is with the mother and with those kinds of really bothersome statements. I wanted to show that that is really real, that racism toward people in your own group who look a little bit different than you is something that, especially as women, I think we have to really navigate all the time. It is extremely harmful and it’s extremely omnipresent… So, I guess this is a book where I try to look at racism in all its forms, coming from all directions, and I just see that as a very big part of it. The internalized racism that we have and how we can use that against others. I think that’s a very big part of the picture.

What significance does putting nonfictional work into a fictional story have?

Yeah. Well, again, this is a feature of my writing. You could call those parts and the style of book collage, which incorporates, usually, original and found components. It’s just kind of a part of my language. I think that I tend to—and everyone does tend to—consume media and incorporate it into a part of your inner monologue. So, whenever I think something or even say something, I tend to switch registers in order to indicate that this is something that I’ve heard and I’m repeating back, and then for my own voice, I speak differently, but it’s always this polyphonic voice that is really how people think and communicate for now.

It was really important to me that Thandi’s point-of-view was pretty close to my own, so that part was totally intentional, and that was because I felt like it was really important that this character, who is a black woman, is constantly deconstructing the world around her. And that’s one of the ways in which she does it, to internalize and parrot back these different outside sources. I think those parts for me really show the degree to which Thandi observes what’s going on around her, that she reads, that she can interact with different kinds of media—difficult sources—in a sort of advanced way. And usually the way that that happens is when you position them as part of your language and your discourse. You could call it postmodern, but I think it’s just the way that I see people express themselves, and it felt true to me.

I think a lot of the cues that I got when it comes to the form of the book were from more experimental stuff. I think probably the most popular books that are sort of in that vein are—Maggie Nelson’s pretty close and Jenny Offill is sort of similar. She might be the most mainstream, but Claudia Rankine does this very often. Citizen actually came out when I was almost finished with the novel, but I think there are a lot of touchstones there in terms of using found material and things like that. There’s a few and it’s not super prominent.

I guess what’s unique about me as a writer is that I’m pretty omnivorous, so I do borrow a lot of subject matter and ideas from really disparate sources from which I borrow aesthetic influences, so I don’t think that it’s a very simple roadmap. I’d not seen anything done like that either and I was totally surprised when my publisher decided to publish it in the way that I wanted. I never felt certain that it would be published and most of it was because of the form. I guess I was very happy and grateful that they took the project on as-is and I hope that more innovative work continues to be published because it is out there. It’s just not always published by mainstream publishers, but it’s fun and people like it, so it should be.

Thandi discusses the process of applying to colleges and how the white students in her school believed that she only got into a good college because of affirmative action. This really resonated with me, but I also appreciated how it was more of a passing note as opposed to something that really became internalized in her psyche. Why did you want to include this, in juxtaposition with the feeling that Thandi went from being extraordinary to being ordinary while in college?

I think that whole experience of being an exceptional young black person, that’s something that I definitely experienced, but it’s also something that I saw all of my friends experience. I’m not surprised to hear you say that you identified also. You know, when you’re black and you do well, it’s like a burden in some ways, especially if you’re also a woman. I think that you’re constantly forced to explain yourself to many people and not to make them feel bad or else you would set off something like that reaction that I wrote about. I always felt like you’re just playing inside this very small box and if you go out of it, the consequences can be really upsetting.

Another thing that I saw and that I read about quite a bit is students of color tend to drop out at much higher rates, even the ones who have gone through programs like [Prep for Prep] in New York City. We had [A Better Chance (ABC)] in the town where I grew up.

I was in ABC.

Oh really?

Yeah.

Where are you from? Or where did you live?

I’m from California.

Oh! Okay, cool. I’m in California now. So yeah, you know what I’m talking about. You can be in these programs that I think do tend to work for people and give you a lot of support, but when you get to college, through a combination of cultural experiences, or cultural dissonance, or what I saw, because I went to a public school and then I ended up at an Ivy League, is that students of color tend to come from public schools for the most part and when you get to these really elite institutions, you’re suddenly surrounded by people who went to the fanciest of private schools and who were having family dinners with the editor of The New Yorker. For me, going to college was really, really difficult. That was when my self-esteem really faltered, because of that. Because I felt like I had achieved this big thing and then I got there and I couldn’t handle it as well as I thought I should be able to. As far as I can tell, that’s pretty universal. That was just, again, something that I saw and I felt like it was important to write about.

When the novel begins, Thandi’s mother has died. Throughout the novel, Thandi is grieving and learning to live without her mother’s physical presence. She also explores the different ways that people grieve—how some people believe that the spirits of those who have died still influence the lives of the living. For Thandi, her mother’s death seems to bring both an everpresence and a lack of presence—she feels her mom in nature, she appears in her dreams, she can hear her cry, but at the same time, her mom is gone. Did you research grief at all while writing this novel?

Yeah, I did. I think those were some of the parts that actually came from notes. Some of them are from books. There are three quotes that are paragraph-length quotes from books and one of them is about a durian fruit and that’s actually from Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s a very influential, very famous Buddhist monk and writer. He’s written lots of these kinds of books that are sort of self-helpish. Some of that stuff that came from notes was just things that I was genuinely reading and helped me understand what was going on in some way. And so I think that kind of dissonance between feeling the trauma and shock of someone you just lost, which means that you’re thinking about them constantly in a really acute kind of way, so they’re present—totally—in your mind. But at the same time, they’re completely out of reach and you don’t even know—especially for me because I’m not religious—you don’t know where they are and to think that they might be in a heaven or something is a very disconcerting thought as a nonbeliever. That was the slippage or sort of the intellectual difficulty that I had with it and I really did seek out books that helped me with it and it ranged from books that talked about loss, to mathematics and theory, and the idea of the sublime was a very, very big one. Those were things that I was thinking about independently and I think that they just kind of fit because they felt like they illuminated a concept that is very difficult to explain and articulate.

Could you elaborate on the idea of a loved one being in a heaven of sorts as disconcerting as a nonbeliever? If you don’t want to, that’s okay.

I’ll try. It is difficult. When I was growing up, my parents were not extremely religious, but they were the type that went to church every week. I think my parents were in it for more of the community aspect, which is, I think, good. I’m deeply suspicious of most religion because when I was in middle school or something, I was actually pretty devout in that middle school way where you’re just obsessed about being obsessed about stuff. I ended up reading the whole Bible and I would go to church all the time and I was totally there. I was like Born-Again. And I became disillusioned because I noticed that all of the people who were most involved with the church were the most terrible people I’d ever met. I was like, “Well, I like reading the Bible and I think there might be something there, but I cannot get down with any of this other stuff.” And also, at the same time, I started to read a lot about science and about philosophy and I guess I felt like I had to pick one or the other. Maybe I didn’t have to, but it was a very conscious decision on my part, to basically become a skeptic and there was a lot about my own identity that went into that decision to reject what I’d been taught.

Part of that was political because my family’s from Africa—I cannot ignore the many terrible things that were done to people in the name of Christianity. So, it was a very conscious decision for me and I do think very often about spirituality and what is beyond, and I think I made a really conscious decision to say I’m not going to think about it in that way. I think there’s maybe something out there, but the way that people talk about religion turns me off and I think is besides the point of what we’re really trying to get at.

So, given that, when you have something like somebody very close to you passing away in a very difficult way, there is a huge temptation to fall on religion and spirituality, and for me, I think I always really tried to resist that because I would have seen it as being completely hypocritical for my stance. And so, I was always constantly feeling pulled toward religion and spirituality, at the same having to check myself and being like, well, you don’t believe that and you never have, so don’t start getting seduced by it now. It would just be easy. I would be a fair-weather Christian, you know? A person who, when the end is coming, they repent. I never wanted to be that person. So, when you’re dealing with something that’s that emotional or that devastating, the temptation to say, I know what’s happened to them, they’ve gone to this heaven that’s a really nice place, is very strong. And having to say I don’t buy into that means having to say I don’t know where my loved one is, I don’t know what’s happened to them. They could have just disappeared into thin air. It’s that sort of contradiction there that is the really hard part. The way that my personal beliefs that are mostly intellectual but very important to me—how does that undercut my desire to know that my loved one is safe and in a good place? And I was just always really struggling with that.

Thandi has a couple of romantic relationships with men throughout the novel, leading up to her relationship with Peter. In previous romantic situations, she has become easily consumed, but with Peter, despite the acuteness of the feelings she feels with him, she is a little more calculated about being with him. In many ways, it is a continuous choice. Her mother’s death plays a role in her relationship with him though, as she would never be able to see them get married or offer advice on a fight or even tell Thandi what she thinks of him. Even in this—I won’t say all-consuming, but this bright, hot, white love, Thandi cannot be cured, so to speak, of her grief. Can you talk about this?

This is something that I observed in my own life, although the relationship there is not based on mine. I think, as often happens, it’s something of a composite, but nothing approaching what happened between Thandi and Peter happened in my life. But what I did identify with and what was sort of the jumping off point for that relationship is that when you lose a parent, especially around that age—Thandi in the book is a little bit younger. I think it’s like early twenties or something and for me, it was mid- to late- when my mom died. And what happened is that those questions about your own family suddenly become very, very big. I think it’s partly because you have people asking you that. You have a lot more family around you and they’re kind of concerned about you, especially if you’re single. And so, they’ll be like, “You should date this person.” You know, as families do.

So that’s one part of it, but the other part of it is you start to think a lot more about parenthood and motherhood. And I think maybe it’s a mix of hormones and all of these things, but these questions about how you would be as a parent and, I think, just a general desire to start another family when your own has been shattered, at least in the way that you previously thought about it, becomes very big in your life. And again, this is something that I’ve seen in other friends who have gone through the same thing. For me, personally, that was when I started to really think more seriously about starting my own family. And the other thing that I saw in myself and saw in other people who also lost parents around that age is that they were very quick to attach themselves to someone else because of this increased desire. And so, I think with the relationship with Peter and Thandi, originally I had them in some happily ever after kind of situation and I decided against it because I think it is pretty true that when you go through something like that, like any kind of trauma really, it can lead you to make these decisions, very often, too soon. To attach yourself to people out of loneliness and anxiety for the future. So that was where that came from.

Abortion comes up in the novel and it’s a battle of something versus nothing, politics versus feelings. When Aminah, Thandi’s best friend, has an abortion, Thandi tries to convince her that nothing is being lost, and yet when Thandi is faced with the same option, she can’t choose it. Why did you choose to juxtapose these experiences? Because in the book, Thandi finds out that she’s pregnant and then it’s back to when she is accompanying Aminah—

Yeah, it’s a flashback. Well, interestingly, it wasn’t intentional to juxtapose them and make some kind of statement comparing the two. I had actually written the abortion scene first and I don’t know why I wrote it. I think it’s just something that happens when you are a young woman and you live in a city. Honestly. It wasn’t that much of a statement. But I think what you said is right. I like how you phrased it as it being nothing versus something. I knew people would latch onto it in the book. I guess it’s maybe a little bit controversial but this is how I thought about it. This is, I guess, why I wrote about it in the way that I did.

When I was in college, one of my best friends, and still one of my very good friends, is a guy who’s a pretty devout Catholic, but—I’m going to put this distinction in—in a community way and not in an I’m-going-to-tell-you-what-to-do way. He would always have this really funny habit—maybe funny’s not the word. Whenever we were sitting around, particularly when we were meeting new people, he would always just go right in and ask them what they think about abortion. And I went to Brown University, a very, very liberal school, and it was just such an odd thing to have this Catholic guy come up to liberal people and ask this question that is basically about self-flagellation because what are they going to tell you? That was always the funny thing for me, is that he was very earnest about it and sometimes he did end up with good conversations, but it’s like, well, nine times out of ten, people are going to say, “What’s wrong with you?”

I always felt that issue—I had to stop myself at a certain point because that is just the reaction that you’ll get from liberals: it’s okay, we don’t question it at all. It’s almost like if you start to kind of go down that path of “Well, maybe I’m not okay with it,” people get really mad at you. And I said this in an interview I did that was on LitHub—I think it’s very important to give the disclaimer: I, personally, think that every woman should have the right to have an abortion. At the same time—and I think this is probably a pretty good message for what’s going on today in the political climate—there are universal human roots for every problem, and I think it’s really important and hopeful to our political arguments. I’m assuming left-leaning, but I think it’s very important to those political arguments that we can acknowledge some of that discomfort with these issues, because we can say, this is a right that needs to be protected at all costs, but I think people should also be allowed to say, “It’s not something that I want to do, it’s something that I’m scared of. It’s fine for anyone else but something about it makes me uneasy.” I think that when you start to acknowledge those contradictions that are at the root of all of these highly polarized issues, you kind of start getting closer to the other side’s argument. And that’s not because we owe them anything—we don’t at all. But that is how you engage in debate, really, is to really look at every issue. And so with that passage, it was almost like a thrill for me. I wrote it really early on and I felt like I wanted to talk about all of the scary parts of it. I wrote that scene based on what a friend had told me about her abortion and some other research that I’d done, and I felt like I just wanted to write it and present it in a way that was not completely positive or completely negative, just in the way that I feel most women actually do think about this… They don’t want to go to the place because of how other people act about it. It’s scary to undergo any kind of medical procedure and the isolation that you face when you do it is part of how hard it is. And then there’s a part of you that, especially when you’re a certain age, has a connection with it and thinks about what could be. And that’s also very real. What I’ve seen myself is, around the age that that happens to Thandi, it really does take a toll on relationships, especially romantic relationships. A really big part of that to me is, yeah, when you’re a woman and you have to make that decision, all of these things come into it and make it really, really emotional and difficult. And I just wanted to acknowledge that, the totality of that experience and how contradictory it can be. It’s really important to speak about it honestly.

I appreciate what you said in the beginning, that it wasn’t meant to be a statement. Because it is just something that can happen and can be what it is sometimes.

Yeah. This is going to sound nuts, but I didn’t really think about it that much until around publication or something and I had this fear that people were going to say, “Oh, you’re anti-abortion” or something. In the way that people do always look for a positive or a negative way to attack something like that, and I was really afraid that people would interpret it as a political statement. And they still may, but I guess it also does provide an opportunity to talk about it in a more nuanced way…

Yeah. And I do think—kind of like you said—that you either have to be like, “it’s not a person and this isn’t doing anything or hurting anything” or “of course it’s a person and of course it’s doing something or hurting something.” Politics, I guess, doesn’t really allow for anything in between because then all of a sudden you’re undermining your position, you know?

Yeah, exactly… For me, it goes back to this question of unknowability and that’s how it connects to grief. What I was talking about before is, well, the way I actually feel is I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s a person. I don’t know if it’s a cell. I have some ideas, but ultimately, I don’t think anybody knows. And I think that’s actually the part that you have to accept that is very difficult for me—you’re doing this thing and you don’t know. It might be really bad. It might be fine. But I think if people could accept that is true, that people don’t know, and work from there and think well, this might be something bad, but it’s something that is necessary in our society so that we don’t have unwanted children and so that women can go to school.

Or women don’t kill themselves or self-induce and then die.

Exactly! This is why I really appreciate hunting and slaughtering animals. Because there’s an acknowledgement there that life is brutal, you know? Humans are brutal and violent, and if you can acknowledge that we sometimes do really brutal and violent things in order to make life better for some of us, maybe we wouldn’t be having this kind of argument. One person thinks that they’re totally right and another person thinks, no, there’s probably something in the middle here that’s going on, and let’s speak calmly to each other.

So, I don’t really have a question with this and I was having problems framing it, but I’ll just say it. At the end, it was really sad to me when Thandi speaks Afrikaans to her son and he asks why she’s speaking funny. And I don’t know, it just made me think about the idea of losing culture generationally… Maybe Mahpee would grow up and decide to learn Afrikaans in college or study abroad in South Africa, but for now, it just felt like another form of loss related to her mom’s passing. But then, also, Thandi comes from these two different, but maybe related, cultures, but Mahpee has more added. This gets kind of convoluted, but if he has kids with an Asian woman, then, you know?

Yeah. Yeah, I get it. And I didn’t think about it in this way, but it is heightened because she has a partner who is from a totally different culture. As I see it, there are two levels of grief that I tried to write about, but maybe aren’t as strongly present in the novel as I would have liked. There is the loss of the person, and then I experienced a second loss, when you start to lose memories and you start to lose things like language. And you kind of forget what their voice sounded like. I had a really traumatic moment when I had a bunch of voicemails from my mom. I had them on my phone and I meant to record them but I was in the process of figuring out how to do that, and I went to a nightclub and lost my phone. And I lost all of my voicemails from her. And that was really, really hard. And so, that moment for me, in the same way that in the prologue, I talk about the different kinds of food that she used to make and when she died, they were buried with her. Those things that really are as much a part of your loved one as they were, as their physical bodies. And when you start to lose those things, you really do go through another wave of grief. And then yeah, just the idea that—and this goes along with the urge to make family—when you lose someone, that they’ll never be able to meet that person. That you can see so much of them in that child, but they’re not around. It’s just another really, really difficult part that you have to deal with.

While reading, I felt like depression and anxiety were present throughout the novel without ever being explicitly named. Do you feel that way?

I think that’s a very astute observation. In some of the reflections, there was probably very strong melancholy and depression. And then the parts about flying, I guess that’s probably the most directly that I addressed anxiety, but I think given that Thandi’s point-of-view is very close to mine, I think just the way that I wrote the book is pretty indicative of depression and anxiety, in how deliberative it is. This is clearly somebody that overthinks as a narrator.

Was it a choice not to name them or was it something that you didn’t really notice because it’s so part of your world?

No, I didn’t consciously decide “I’m not going to name them.” I hadn’t honestly thought about it until now, what difference it would have made in saying this is a character with anxiety. Maybe that would have been more helpful for people.

I don’t know. I feel like people can make of it what they want in the way that it is, but what I thought, not necessarily at the forefront, but it’s how a lot of these things, particularly for African immigrants or the descendants of African immigrants, how it’s not named or it’s not really considered to be a thing, and so you’re experiencing these things and it is your worldview and maybe you know what it is—

But you’re totally not going to talk about it.

Right. It’s just how you live. Or you’ve been actively discouraged from talking about it.

Yeah. And I think, implicitly, I wrote about it in the way I’m used to experiencing it. I think that anxiety is inherited and I think I did inherit a lot of anxiety from my mom and part of where it comes from is witnessing the things that she saw, and even that I saw, in South Africa. Just having to deal with trauma and not knowing how to process it in a healthy way leads to that anxiety, and I think that’s something that I was always raised with. And I think it’s also probably pretty common for people who have parents who have come from embattled countries. You do have this kind of nervous existence always. And you don’t really know why. When I was growing up, we lived in a town that’s very similar to the one in the book—it’s very safe, it’s middle to upper-middle class, almost completely white. And both my parents always insisted on having an alarm system in our house, and they were obsessive about locking the doors, and about safety. So, if I went to my friend’s house after school and I didn’t tell them, my mom would call all of my friends, extremely worried, and then all of my friends would make fun of me because my mom was crazy. Well, you know why she’s crazy? Because she actually had a lot of friends who went out and didn’t come home and people would break into the house and kill people. There are reasons for that. And I think the ways in which immigrant families are sort of isolated from their communities, a lot of it is because they’re still living in their minds in their old country. There’s no relation between the two, but we never left our door open at all. There’s no crime in our town. But it’s real—that’s how it is. I did want to say, I don’t know if you read Margo Jefferson’s Negroland or read about it.

I haven’t read it, but I’ve read a little about it.

One of the things she does in that book that people talked about is that she does talk about her own mental illness issues, I think mostly depression. And she talks about being suicidal and she does actually name it. I think that is incredibly important. It does kind of give people permission to talk about these things more so. And I think it’s really important when that does happen and I think it’s a good thing to point out and think about.

In the novel, “What We Lose” is actually the name of a pamphlet published by a hospice about learning to live with loss. Thandi turns to it, almost as a source of guidance and comfort as her mom is dying and after she dies. In naming the novel after this pamphlet, do you want the novel to do the same thing for readers that the pamphlet does for Thandi?

I think that’s a really good way to describe it, that it provides comfort and knowledge, really. Comfort in knowledge. I think you could almost say that’s one of the messages or takeaways from the book is that I do—or at least tried to—really investigate every topic from an emotional and intellectual angle, and I think that does provide support for people who are going through similar things.

Who do you write for?

When I actually sit down to write, I totally wall myself off and I have to tell myself that nobody will ever read what I’m writing. And so, there’s usually not a specific audience in mind except myself. But I think that’s a really important decision that I’ve made and a very good one that I made early on when I started writing. I think it was Phillip Roth who said he was never in competition with other writers, he was always in competition with himself. And for me, it was really important in writing the book that I did not hold back, because when I think about writing for myself, I think about not hiding from myself and not hiding anything from who will be reading it. So, if I write something and it doesn’t feel true to me or I feel like I could easily disprove it, I will change it because it has to be up to my own standard of reading.

I guess to extrapolate, who I write for is somebody like me. I think it’s important to acknowledge that and that writers do think intentionally about that, especially when you’re a black woman. It was important to me that Thandi was a critical thinking, funny, sensitive person. But very heavy on the critical part because I don’t think that that exists enough in literature—black female characters who are like that. And so, I would say I wrote it for myself, but really, who I was writing for is people like me: young people, people of color, who are really concerned about politics and equality and the things that they see around them, and also are intellectual and interested in some way in making the world better. I think that’s probably how I’d describe the reader.

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