Nadia Owusu’s debut book, “Aftershocks,” is a nontraditional memoir. Rooted in an exploration of her own identity — through family, language, geography, mental health — the book is not only about Owusu, the daughter of an Armenian mother and Ghanaian father who fell in love in America and divorced when she was very young. “Aftershocks” is also a historical narrative, interested in the ways that historical and cultural narratives shape the present moment.
Owusu was mostly estranged from her mother until adulthood, while her father, who worked for the U.N., passed away when she was a teenager. Living with her father, stepmother and two siblings, Owusu spent her childhood moving between England, Ethiopia, Uganda, Italy and Tanzania. In the book, Owusu dives into the lingering effect of Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa ideology in Tanzania, how the Ashanti tribe and leadership were affected by British colonialism and slave trade (Owusu is descended from Ashanti royalty), and the ways conservative ideology in Uganda subverted the effectiveness of public AIDS initiatives.
“Those forces shaped my life and played out in the private choices that my family made, and that I have made,” says Owusu, now in her late 30s and currently living in Brooklyn. She began researching and writing pieces of the book 10 years ago when coming out of a period of depression. “The project started as a personal journey toward better understanding myself and my family, and the places where they came from,” she says.
The book opens with a disclaimer about truth and time. “I write toward truth, but my memory is prone to bouts of imagination,” she writes, acknowledging that she occasionally blurs the lines, creating composite characters or moving events to different locations. The memoir aspects of the book aren’t reported, and Owusu notes the ways in which memory is fallible. The stories are her own recollection of what happened, and her intention was to tap into the emotional truth of events, even if she couldn’t remember them clearly.
The book is presented in a nonlinear manner, and Owusu turns to metaphor — earthquakes — to provide the temporal scaffolding and a throughline for readers. She structures her chapters in sections named for the stages of earthquakes — foreshocks, faults, main shocks, aftershocks — and a blue chair in her New York apartment, the epicenter of a major depressive episode when she was 28.
“Especially when I’m writing about when I was very young, I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on. We tell ourselves stories about what happened and we make meaning of it for ourselves,” she says. “I also am somebody who believes that there are many truths — there are facts and then there are truths.”
That mentality applies also to the historical sections of her book. While fact-based, those question what and how stories get told, whose perspective is centered, and why.
“A lot of African history, or the history of the Armenian genocide — which are histories that are important to my family — are not very much taught in school, or at least weren’t in the schools that I went to,” says Owusu, who attended international schools as a child. “Even when we were living in Africa — and there was history happening all around us. I lived in Ethiopia during the civil war, for example, but we weren’t learning about that history.”
In addition to her writing career, Owusu works as the associate director for racial economic justice nonprofit Living Cities. Her social justice and urban policy work are linked with the stories she’s interested in telling, whether through nonfiction or fiction.
“I’ve been interested in how people are in community with each other. How people make homes for themselves, how they connect with each other, how places come to be the way that they are and how we live inside of them. And who public spaces are for, and who is invited in and who isn’t,” she says. “Who is able to move across borders freely and who isn’t.
“We need a lot more imagination in our policy work in this country, in terms of not just being satisfied with what is, but believing that we can actually have systems and policies and places that work for everyone,” she adds. “I think that unless you deeply engage and understand history, it’s really hard for you…to make choices that contribute to creating a better world without understanding what came before.”
In 2019, Owusu was the recipient of a Whiting Award, presented annually to 10 emerging creative writers. She received the news with complete shock — she didn’t yet have a book out, and the process for nomination is secretive — and credits the award with opening doors to new connections and opportunities. But she notes that what matters most is what she creates now, in the space after that initial shock.
“I try to stay really grounded, in that all that matters is the work that you’re creating,” she says. “It’s about showing up and returning to the page and trying to do the best work that you can do.”
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