Poets & Writers

Zinzi Clemmons

INTRODUCED BY

Danzy Senna author of five books, including the novel New People, forthcoming in August from Riverhead Books.

I HAD the pleasure of reading a section of What We Lose several summers ago, when I was Zinzi Clemmons’s workshop leader at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. I was struck then—as I was later, when I read a whole draft—by the language, which is so spare and poetic, yet cool and crisp. There is not a word out of place, but it somehow feels effortless. The story is quietly devastating. It is a story about death and birth and also about race and identity. The main character is complicated, both African and American, mixed and black, vulnerable and strong. She is grieving and falling in love. She inhabits so many spaces at once. Thandi presents herself, with all of her contradictions, and the reader is swept up into this intimate vision. The work never feels anthropological. It is written from within, and Thandi’s specific world immediately feels universal.

Were there writers—contemporary or classic—whose work specifically inspired you on a line and voice level? Other books you looked to as models of how to use language as you were writing this?

I was steeped in the postmodernists when I started writing. Doctorow, Pynchon, was very instructive in this manner; and Claudia Rankine’s came out when I was almost finished, though I’d read years ago—one of my favorites that I teach every year. It makes sense that I would learn from poets when it comes to voice, because I primarily write in the first person, and you could somewhat reductively refer to my voice as “confessional,” though I would probably argue with that label.

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