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Swarthmore native Zinzi Clemmons on her debut novel about 'sex and death'

Zinzi Clemmons, who grew up in Yeadon and Swarthmore, will speak 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library. She talks about how she discovered writing, and how that discovery led to what she calls "a coming-of-age novel about life, about growing up, about sex and death."

Novelist Zinzi Clemmons’ first novel is titled “What We Lose.’
Novelist Zinzi Clemmons’ first novel is titled “What We Lose.’Read moreNina Subin.

Strath Haven High School alumnus Zinzi Clemmons says she has written the standard debut novel, a semiautobiographical coming-of-age story about a young, artistically inclined outsider contending with the loss of a parent.

Clemmons, 32, who speaks with a delightful mix of modesty and wry humor, will probably claim just as much when she visits the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to talk about What We Lose.

There's nothing standard about Clemmons' novel, a gorgeous, taut narrative about grief, identity, race, and sexuality enhanced by rap lyrics, archival photos, drawings, graphs, and charts.

Hailed by Vogue as the literary debut of the year, Zinzi's powerful testament is a beautiful example of self-reflexive postmodern fiction that plays with generic conventions without coming off as precious.

Born to a mixed-race South African mother named Dorothy and a black Trinidadian father named Michael who grew up in Jamaica, Queens, Clemmons spent her childhood first in Yeadon, then in Swarthmore. She said in a recent interview that she grew up not feeling she belonged.

"I grew up in Swarthmore, and I was from this family who wasn't exactly upper-class and who was visually very mixed-race," Clemmons said in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, poet and translator André Naffis-Sahely.

"We were mixed-race," she said, "but also from Africa, you know. No one from where I grew up had been to Africa. Heck, no one had been to the inner city. And here I was with a dad who grew up in a working-class neighborhood."

Clemmons' mom was a kindergarten teacher and her dad was an engineer at Boeing. She said that she became interested in photography and painting in high school, but that she knew her parents didn't envision her becoming an artist.

"Like most children of immigrants … the emphasis always was on getting me to find a lucrative career," she said. "And I was going to become a medical doctor. So I entered college as a premed major."

Something happened while she was at Brown University. "After taking so many biology and chemistry courses, I realized I just couldn't go through with it. I was just so bored with it.

"And no," Clemmons added with a laugh, her parents "weren't happy. You know, they were like, 'We didn't send you to an Ivy League school so you could be an artist.' "

Freed from the expectations of medical school, Clemmons took courses in philosophy, African American studies, and literature.

"Most of the books I had read are written by people who have very little relation to my life," she said. "It was when I took African American lit courses that I felt writing could be a real possibility for  me."

Clemmons said she had never really written before, but discovered she had a knack for it while studying under novelist John Edgar Wideman.

"This was really the turning point for me at Brown," she said. "Not only did he write about things and people I could relate to, here he was, this artist from Philadelphia, and he really became my first mentor as a writer."

Clemmons studied creative writing in the Columbia University MFA program and planned to write a first novel about the politics of HIV and AIDS. But "it wasn't something I really knew about that well, and I had no real feeling for the characters." By this point, she had moved back to Swarthmore to take care of her mother, who was dying of cancer. That turned her attention back to her own life, and she abandoned the first novel because it felt far too contrived.

"I had written about my mother before this, and things about my mom kept cropping up in the [AIDS] novel," said Clemmons. When she turned in her manuscript, her editor was drawn to the parts about her mother and suggested she expand on them. When her mother died in late 2012, Clemmons refocused on the novel with renewed energy. Now titled What We Lose, it now concerned a young woman's coming of age through the experience of losing her mother.

"It was immensely difficult" to write about such a painful topic when it was still so raw, said Clemmons. "But I had realized that this was the one thing in my life I had experienced that really was worthy of being written about."

She laughed when asked if she's uncomfortable discussing the book's autobiographical elements. "I have always tried to be transparent about the autobiographical elements of the book, that it was inspired by my life," she said. "I mean, it is in a sense a very traditional coming-of-age novel about life, about growing up, about sex and death."

Zinzi Clemmons, What We Lose. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 13. Library of Philadelphia, Central Library, 1901 Vine St.
Free. Information: 215-567-4341,