Zinzi Clemmons is a visiting creative writing professor at Pitzer College and a writer from Philadelphia with South African and Trinidadian descent. She is a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35 Honoree,” and her debut novel “What We Lose” was named a best book of the year by Vogue, National Public Radio (NPR), Esquire, and Elle. I sat down with Clemmons after her Advanced Fiction Workshop course to discuss her perspective on the current role of creative writing, the direction of the field, and her own work in society.
TSL: When and what interested you in creative writing?
Zinzi Clemmons: I actually started out as a science major. So when I graduated high school and went to college, I entered as a premed, but I’d always done visual art. It was really just complete serendipity and luck. Basically, I got to university and started taking Bio classes and realized that I hated it. Science sort of fulfilled the more analytic side of my brain, while visual art fulfilled the artistic side. And then at some point in college, my parents told me: “We’re not paying for you to take visual art classes anymore.” I realized I didn’t want to be a doctor, so I signed up for a creative writing class, and I liked it, so I just kept doing it.
TSL: From where emotionally, do you draw your own work?
ZC: It’s kind of nice to think of it on those terms, but I don’t know if I have. What motivates me is injustice. This can have a few different forms. I try to engage a lot with mortality and thinking about how different types of people are treated differently in death. But ultimately, that comes down to injustice. What inspires me is when I see examples of injustice in the world, especially as they relate to people of different races and different identities and those sorts of things. And when I see that, I feel like I have to write about it.
TSL: What do you think is the role of creative writing and reading in our current times?
ZC: Our ability to do both in a genuine manner and to genuinely engage intellectually is the only hope we have of saving ourselves. I’d say it’s the most important thing. What we have now is a decaying of reason and logic and standards and the only way to fight is through practice. It’s even more important now that we are more rigorous, that we are more engaged intellectually, that we challenge each other more, that we make good faith arguments in the face of bad faith ones.
TSL: Who have you been reading, and why?
ZC: I read a graphic novel by the writer Kristen Radtke. It’s an illustrated memoir. It’s very quiet and melancholic and also very feminine in a specific way that I think graphic novels don’t tend to be. The sensibility is very different. It actually matches up with my interests in literary fiction, but I haven’t yet seen it in graphic novels. It’s beautiful and pensive.
TSL: What do you hope for the future of creative writing and reading?
ZC: Our literature doesn’t look like our life. Especially now, with the internet and things changing so rapidly, it really feels like the progress is lagging behind quite a bit. Within that, I think there is a danger to completely relying on representation, but what I want to see happening is people taking the next step. … This is a form of injustice that has motivated me. I have never been able to look around and see myself reflected in anything, and I still have not. That’s not as a black woman; that’s as a mixed women with a very specific background and very specific interests. The more that we’re able to do this and approach something like what we see in the world, the more effective our art will be.