Aftershocks By Nadia Owusu

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Nadia Owusu has a complicated background. “Although I identify as Black,” she writes in her memoir “Aftershocks,” “I am more literally Caucasian than most people who call themselves Caucasian. My mother is ethnically Armenian, and Armenians are from the Caucasus region between Europe and Asia.” Owusu’s mother was born in Watertown, Mass. Her father belonged to the Ashanti tribe of southern Ghana. Owusu was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and moved back and forth between England, Italy and East Africa. At 18 she came to New York City for college and has lived there ever since.

If the arc of your life, considered from a distance, has ever seemed akin to an earthquake — soft warning rumbles, seismic shakes, aftershocks that ripple out and lead to future earthquakes — then. Aftershocks: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Identity, by Nadia Owusu, Sceptre, RRP£16.99, 320 pages Oluwakemi Aladesuyi is an audio journalist at the FT Join our online book group on Facebook at. Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu March 14, 2021; Book Spotlight: The Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson March 10, 2021; Book Spotlight: Bright Burning Stars by A.K. Small March 8, 2021; Book Spotlight: An Unexpected Peril by Deanna Raybourn March 7, 2021; Book Spotlight: The Outside Man by Don Bentley March 3, 2021. I have just finished reading Aftershocks - A Memoir by Nadia Owusu This was an outstanding memoir, and first book by the author. It is an honest and heartfelt book about her life that spans many countries and cultures. She had a very special bond with her father and had a mother who abandoned her when she was only two years old.

Aftershocks By Nadia Owusu Collection

“I am the blue chair island. I rock and the island rocks. I pull at a blue thread on the chair’s arm. I pull a hangnail from the third finger on my right hand.” In this Books Are Magic virtual event, Nadia Owusu reads from her debut memoir, Aftershocks (Simon & Schuster, 2021), and speaks with author Catherine E.

© Beowulf Sheehan The author Nadia Owusu

Given all this, Owusu knows well the complex issues surrounding race and identity. She’s lived them to an unusual degree. In her much-anticipated debut memoir, the 39-year-old Whiting Award winner and urban planner explores the personal price of what could be described as cultural homelessness, while also coping with profound personal losses.

When she was 4, Owusu’s mother abandoned the family; she was 13 when her beloved father died of cancer. This left her and her sister to be raised with their half brother by their East African stepmother. In some ways, the splintering of Owusu’s family parallels the dislocations poet Natasha Tretheway, who is also biracial, documents in her recent memoir, “Memorial Drive” (but without the murder). Both took away a similar lesson. As Owusu puts it, “Grieving, I learned, was a process of story construction. I needed to construct a story so I could reconstruct my world.”

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In “Aftershocks,” Owusu’s reconstruction is fractured by design, with a guiding metaphor of seismic shifts; its sections are titled “First Earthquake,” “Foreshocks,” “Faults,” “Aftershocks” and so on; definitions of seismological terms appear between them. Earthquakes have a particularly personal meaning for Owusu: When she was 7, her long-lost mother showed up in Rome to visit her daughters on the same morning that she heard a radio report of a catastrophic earthquake in Armenia. “In me, private and seismic tremors cannot be separated,” Owusu writes.

Owusu’s history gives her the authority to write about many identities with confidence. She sketches in the national character of Tanzanians, her stepmother’s people: they love country music and believe in God. She examines the complex history of Ghanaians, how their complicity in slavery both in the Americas and in their own country resonates through their history. In a particularly engaging part of the book, when she is at boarding school outside London, she regretfully details how she relied on her light skin and her facility with accents to ally her with the most popular English girls and separate herself from Agatha, the only other African.

“Because I was believed to be American, I was expected to behave like the teenagers in the American television shows the girls watched a great deal of when they went home to their parents: My So-Called Life; Beverly Hills 90210,” she writes. And while she had her Aunt Harriet take her regularly to the hairdresser, she watched coldly as Agatha’s extensions grew out and her braids were found in the shower and the breadbasket. She ties her experience to that of Pecola in “The Bluest Eye,” one of several instances when she refers to the work of “the women I had long imagined as a council of mothers: Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Cade Bambara.”

© Simon and Schuster

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Moving to New York at 18 was not an easy transition. She had her first panic attack on a bus a couple of months after she arrived; she was in the World Trade Center subway station on 9/11; she followed with horror the treatment of Blacks in New Orleans after Katrina. Her accommodation as an African to the lineaments of African American culture recalls moments in both Wayetu Moore’s recent memoir, “The Dragons, the Giant, the Women” and in Chimamanda Adichie’s novel, “Americanah.” In 2010, Owusu’s half brother, Kwame, was picked up by the NYPD. He was released unharmed, but in “the version of the story my mind wrote,” she imagines her brother was shot and killed. She recounts the story of the shooting of her brother in great, although completely fictional, detail, which is a bit confusing tucked into a generally factual memoir. Owusu explains that, “[e]very black mother, sister, and wife in America has written some version of that story in her mind.” Many have also lived it.

[In ‘Memorial Drive,’ Natasha Trethewey reclaims her mother’s life from the man who took it]

Aftershocks By Nadia Owusu -

A few months after that incident, a breakup with a long-term boyfriend kicked off a period of suicidal ideation and despair covered in four sections that appear over the length of the book. Each is titled “The Blue Chair” after an upholstered rocker Owusu found in the street, dragged home, and sat in for eight days, occasionally forcing herself to eat. “Madness was coming, and no amount of working twice as hard could stop it now. My seismometer sputtered. It was spent, kaput. I had finally heeded the alarm. Now I was on my own. I would have to find my own way out. I hoped, despite my blackness, despite madness, despite the rules of race in America, I would make it out alive.” This memoir represents that bid for survival.


Owusu makes this period of reckoning and high emotional drama the axis around which the rest of the book revolves. Dedicated to “mad black women everywhere,” bursting with flashbacks, flash-forwards, research-based asides, and returns to the Blue Chair, “Aftershocks” is all over the place. Which is exactly the identity it claims. Full of narrative risk and untrammeled lyricism, it fulfills the grieving author’s directive to herself: to construct a story that reconstructs her world.

Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love,” “The Big Book of the Dead” and, most recently, “Above Us Only Sky.”


By Nadia Owusu

Simon and Schuster. 320 pp. $26

Aftershocks is an incredible debut memoir from Whiting Award winner Nadia Owusu that measures the ever-expanding vibrations of the experiences and traumas that shaped the fault lines that crisscross a woman’s adulthood.

Beginning with her young experiences being abandoned by her mother and subsequently brought up by her father silently suffering from a brain tumor up until his death in her adolescence, Owusu brings the audience on her journey of self-discovery pitted with the dangers of magnitude that a young woman of color faces from independence, to education, cat calls to assault, healthy relationships to bad choices, and peppers a strong contextual cultural history of her homes in Massachusetts, New York, Rome, London, Uganda, and Tanzania throughout. There are harrowing tales from her family’s experiences in the Armenian Genocide, near-escapes from a restaurant terror attacks and the twin towers on 9/11, and the gripping fears of learning her brother was arrested – a black man in America – for a crime he didn’t commit.

Owusu swirls these experiences and historical ruminations around our heads from a blue chair, pulling each tale like Scheherazade from lessons woven with rich beauty and terrible traumas that seem almost impossible to comprehend from such a short life. Owusu guides us through her process of her mind’s rifts, subsequent repairing, and the destructive aftershocks that reemerge with every new moment requiring introspection.

This book is a gorgeous work of creative nonfiction as much as it is a lesson on colonial history, a remembrance on the horrors of genocide, a commentary on the state and history of race relations in the United States and elsewhere, an indictment of the effects of public health / law / and economic policy on the livelihoods of people of color, a memoir about love and family, a conceptualization of the long-term effects of abandonment and loneliness, a case study on epigenetics, and a firsthand portrait of how difficult mental illness makes navigating modern life in a complex, globalized world.

Owusu’s prose, and seamless dreamlike transitions between countries, topics, and genres purely illustrate her mastery over her craft. This is a tale of truth. This is a journey. Mach write. This is a heart-wrenching personal history. A perfect debut sure to send shockwaves across the world in January 2021, and keep aftershocks rumbling for quite some time.