Everybody is talking about Philadelphia native, Zinzi Clemmons’s debut novel What We Lose (Viking). It seems to be on everyone’s “Must Read” summer list. Clemmons, who has relocated to Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing at Occidental College, will be at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Thursday July 13, 2017. Qwerty Philly’s Lori L Tharps caught up with Clemmons to ask her about her writing life, what she misses about the Philadelphia Lit scene and what keeps her writing in this divisive age.
Qwerty Philly: As a native Philadelphian who now lives in Los Angeles, what do you miss, if anything, about Philly?
Zinzi Clemmons: I love living in Los Angeles for its weather, services, and natural landscape, which is just breathtaking. It also has a very interesting (though relatively young) history, and it’s an extremely diverse city. At the same time, it rightly earns its nickname of La La Land in that it can sometimes feel hollow. I miss Philly’s history and its grit. We’ve got a ton of heart. As a city, it feels more real. I’m an East Coaster at heart, so I don’t exactly fit in on the West coast, but I enjoy living there. It’s sustaining, which is necessary, because my work is very emotionally draining.
QP: We heard that you were a member of the Backyard Writers Group. How did that group shape you or influence your writing life?
ZC: When I joined the Backyard Writers, I was living with my dad and writing my novel, which would turn into What We Lose. The Backyard Writers gave me a lot of support—both writing- and friendship-wise—during that very transitional time, and I’ll always be grateful to them for that. That group kind of encapsulates what I love about Philly writers: they’re all about community, and they’re self-organized. Philly writers have more of a DIY spirit, and it’s been really encouraging to see the different aspects of the literary community that have developed in the past few years. I was also a member of the Head & the Hand press’s workshop, and it’s great to see how they’ve grown as well.
QP: There’s a lot of great buzz surrounding What We Lose. How do you feel about all of the pre-publication accolades? Is it a blessing or a burden or a little bit of both?
ZC: I’m incredibly grateful for all of the positive coverage the book has gotten so far, because it’s an indication that people are connecting with the book. It must be that, because it’s not a page turner or anything—they’re not reading it for thrills! So, I’m very pleased, mainly because it will allow me to continue doing what I’m doing.
QP: Based on early reviews, it sounds like What We Lose is inspired somewhat by your own life experiences. Are there any scenes or stories that your Philly friends will recognize in the book?
ZC: The book is based on my life—you might call it auto fiction or some permutation thereof—and particularly about my relationship with my mom, who died of cancer in 2012. The novel actually arose from a series of notes I took when I was living in Philadelphia and acting as her caretaker. I grew up in Swarthmore, and the hometown of the main character, Thandi, is based on it. Philadelphia figures heavily in the book. I wrote in the Society Hill towers and Pennsylvania Hospital, as well as a reference to Eagles games, which my publisher flagged many times because I don’t explain it. It’s an inside joke. I’m a hometown girl—I love Philly, and it was very important to me that people would read the book and recognize our city.
QP: Given the current political climate, what inspires you to keep writing, particularly fiction?
ZC: I’m one of those crazy idealists who believe that writers have a responsibility to address issues that are important to readers. What could be more important than what’s happening right now? I feel honored to be able to write during this time, and I’d go as far as to say that if you’re not energized by what’s going on, you should probably question why you’re writing in the first place. I’d like to focus on essays next. I love nonfiction—reading it, writing it. I consume an insane amount of journalism, even before the election. And it’s important that we speak to what’s going on now, both through fiction and directly, through polemic. Seriously, what else would I be doing?