Aftershocks: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Identity by Nadia Owusu

“To heal, I would need to look inward as well as outward. I would need to examine my memories. I would need to interrogate the stories I told myself—about myself, about my family, about the world.”

Unflinching and elegant Aftershocks is an impressive, engrossing, and deeply moving memoir by a promising author. In her memoir, Nadia Owusu explores the way in which her upbringing shaped her sense of self. Throughout the course of her non-linear narrative, which jumps from Ghana, America, England, Italy, Ethiopia, and Uganda, from her childhood to her adulthood, identity, loss, fear, madness, longing, belonging, abandonment, and Blackness are underlining motifs and, as the title suggests, Owusu uses earthquakes related terminology—foreshocks, faults, aftershocks, mainshocks—as a lens through to which she reassesses her past experiences and her shifting perception of herself.

“I ached for lasting connection, for a place where rejection was not inevitable. No matter how many times I stood on bare floors, surrounded by blank walls, telling myself I belonged everywhere and to everywhere, emptied houses never stopped feeling like ruin.”

Rather than providing a straightforward linear retelling of her life, Owusu’s narrative jumps from memory to memory, in a way that felt natural and far from confusing. She dwells on different periods of her childhood and her teen years, in particular, on her relationship to her father (who she idolized), her mother who after marrying for all intent and purposes disappeared from Owusu and her younger sister’s lives, and her rocky relationship with her father’s ‘new’ wife. Owusu is both observant and incisive when it comes to examining herself, her family, and the countries she lived in. As the daughter of a Ghanian father and an Armenian mother raised across numerous and vastly different countries she is time and again forced to question who she is, how others perceive, how she fits within a certain society. Those instances recounting her time in Rome were particularly hard to read as I was born and grew up there and could easily imagine the kind of way in which Italians would have exoticized her Blackness (my best friend growing up although white had dark skin and was often taunted and called ‘dirty’ because of it). I also found her relationship with her father, who died of cancer, to be incredibly moving. I truly respect how self-critical Owusu is when revisiting her childhood as she does not paint herself as the hero nor the villain of her own story. She has hurt and been hurt, she grieved and loved, she longed for a mother figure yet she also pushed her stepmother away. Owusu is also cognisant of her own privilege, for example, when she observes the poverty and violence present in Ethiopia. While the people she writes of are rendered in vivid detail, some of what she recounts is obscured, by pain or distance, so that each moment she writes appears in a unique light.
Because her father worked for UN Owusu grew up in many different countries. When revisiting her memories of her many ‘homes’ she not only writes about her personal/family history but often delves into a country’s own history. For example, when remembering her time in Ghana, she dedicates many passages to exploring Ghana, its people, its rich history, and its myths. It was truly illuminating. I also found her discussions on language and code-switching to be deeply captivating. Owusu’s nuanced approached to race, racism, and Blackness makes for some thought-provoking reading material.

Towards the end Owusu’s earthquake metaphor does seem a bit strained, one could even say affected, but I could see why she is so obsessed by it. It allows her to understand the topography of her own mind and body, and the marks left by the trauma, grief, and abandonment she experienced growing up.

Aftersohocks is a striking memoir that moved me tears. Owusu’s prose, by turns graceful and direct, combined with her distinctive storytelling (her non-linear structure, her shifts in pacing and style, her earthquake metaphor, her ability to depict time, place, and person) make Aftersohocks into a powerful and not soon to be forgotten memoir.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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