The Ruptures Within Us

Earthquakes are among the most powerful forces of nature. For millennia, they have shaped the world as we know it. It has also caused widespread devastation in different parts of the world. It is not only its power that is one of its most devastating facets. Its unpredictability is its most potent aspect. Not even the advancement in technology has perfected the science of predicting earthquakes. In the meantime, we can only hope that the faults under us remain stable. However, the plates that comprise the surface of the earth are in constant motion, and the frictions between them result in these catastrophic events. Meanwhile, the whole world holds its collective breath, hoping it has done enough to prepare for the big one.

The aftershocks that often accompany them are more devastating than the first wave of earthquakes. The aftershocks are not as equally powerful as the first tremors but they are often more damaging for they can collapse structures that were already damaged by the first wave. Earthquakes can also be metaphorical. In our lives, we experience earthquakes that can devastate us on several levels, some even mortally damaging us. In her memoir and first book Aftershocks, Nadia Owusu recounted the major earthquake that has caused the greatest damage to her psyche and her esteem. Most devastating were the aftershocks that ensued for they irreversibly altered her life at a young age, thus, setting the precedent for how she will live the rest of her life.

Owusu’s childhood was not an ideal one; it abounded with complications that were, at times, too complex for the young Nadia to process. For a start, she was born to different heritages. Her father, Osei Owusu, was from southern Ghana and was a member of the Ashanti tribe. On the other hand, her mother, Almas Janikian, was of Armenian heritage but was born and raised in Watertown, Massachusetts. Her maternal grandparents fled Turkey during the height of the Armenian genocide that took place in the early 20th century. She also had a younger sister, Yasmeen. One of her earliest memories of an earthquake was when she was seven years old. Through the radio, she heard devastating news from her grandparents’ homeland: a magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck the city of Spitak, causing widespread damage and flattening the city. In its wake, the earthquake has left thousands dead. It would be known as the Spitak earthquake of 1988.

“But harmony is a fragile thing, and so is justice. They bend and break easily. We bend and break them with greed, with violence, with lies and obscurations. The people sold into slavery are modern-day Ghanaians’ ancestors too. Their backs and hearts broke under whip and weight. The incomplete story Ghana tells about slavery is a breach. Ashanti culture was breached by colonization. My family broke before and I knew it might break again. The earth broke from the force of a meteoroid, which sent shock waves in every direction.”

~ Nadia Owusu, Aftershocks

It was, however, another earthquake that would shake the young Nadia to her core. When she was younger, her mother abandoned them, leaving her and her sister in their father’s care. Their mother severed all lines of communication with them. In the same year of the Spitak earthquake, her mother tried to reestablish communications as she visited her former husband and daughters in Rome. By then, her father has married again, to Anabel while her mother has also remarried. However, the visit was cut short as Almas abruptly left. Her second abandonment of her daughters left a devastating mark on the young Nadia. It was an experience that can be described as an earthquake: “The earthquake came and destroyed their homes, their city. On the same day, my mother came, and her coming toppled me. My mother became the earthquake. I was only seven.”

The events that ensued after the initial earthquake, the titular aftershocks that reverberated throughout Owusu’s life, were the main theme of her memoir. Her memoir was a deep and introspective examination of how the memory of a seven-year-old girl has affected her life. The impact of this earthquake came in different forms, some more devastating than others. The absence of a mother figure in their household made the young Nadia, and her sister, long for a mother figure. The first mother figure they had was their father’s sister, Harriett. Harriett tried to fill the void for two and a half years after her brother sent her nieces to her following Almas’ departure. In England, the young sisters stayed for two and a half years.

Anabel, their stepmother who Nadia first met when she was five, also tried her best to fill in the role. Nadia, however, found herself in a paradoxical situation. While she longed for a mother, she also steeled herself from the “reality that I would not have one.” In the absence, rather the rejection of mother figures, the two sisters found comfort in their father whom they looked up to. He was their safe harbor and when he passed away after suffering from a disease he kept from his daughter when Nadia was just 14 years old – yet another manifestation of the many aftershocks that have come to characterize Owusu’s life – both sisters were clearly devastated. They have now become virtually orphaned although Anabel has kept the doors open for her stepdaughters. She and Osei has a son named Kwame.

Coupled with the longing for a mother figure, one of the memoir’s biggest subjects was the different meanings of home. Osei worked in emergency food aid for United Nations. Because of his work, he and his family had to go back and forth to different countries experiencing different forms of crises. Living a peripatetic life at a young age, Nadia began to question the meaning of home. She spent time living in different cities such as London, Rome, Kumasi in Ghana, Kampala in Uganda, and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. There was no permanence for the Owusu family who jetted to different points of the globe in a matter of months. Home was impermanent and just when they were about to establish a routine, they had to be uprooted again. For a young girl, the experience provides a broad perspective of the world. At the same time, it can be a harrowing experience.

“But harmony is a fragile thing, and so is justice. They bend and break easily. We bend and break them with greed, with violence, with lies and obscurations. The people sold into slavery are modern-day Ghanaians’ ancestors too. Their backs and hearts broke under whip and weight. The incomplete story Ghana tells about slavery is a breach. Ashanti culture was breached by colonization. My family broke before and I knew it might break again. The earth broke from the force of a meteoroid, which sent shock waves in every direction.”

~ Nadia Owusu, Aftershocks

While her father’s job ensured some level of comfort, it wasn’t enough to shield his family from the ugly realities attached to his job. In a chapter titled The Other Side of the Wall, Owusu recounted her brush up with the Ethiopian civil war. It was but one of many details of contemporary Africa that Owusu candidly wrote about in her memoir. She talked about her father’s homeland and its history of colonialism. She also provided commentaries on the duplicity of elected leaders. She subtly highlighted how Ghananian identity and traditions are slowly being lost because of the effort to shift and portray Western ideals. Owusu also did not bat an eye highlighting her father’s tribe’s role in the slave trade; this was also vividly explored in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. She also gave her own comments on Tanzania, the country where she was born. Owusu’s peripatetic young life has made her politically and socially aware of the maladies that hound Africa, even in the present.

What Owusu witnessed in Addis Ababa was but one of many ugly realities that she would witness while growing up. Living in different parts of the world comes with its disadvantages. Some of the plights of people of color were experienced by Owusu. She witnessed discrimination and racism at the different schools she attended, including a Catholic boarding school in London. Most of the time, she was the only black student or one of the few, making her stand out. There was also a scene of sexual abuse, again described in a straightforward manner. At one point, when her father was sick and nearing his death, Owusu was assaulted by a neighbor; she was 13 or 14. Her world grew bigger when she moved to New York City when she turned eighteen. It was there that she witnessed the other plights experienced by POCs in contemporary America, such as racial profiling and police brutality. She also grappled with discrimination from her own race. Unfortunately, these concerns continue to persist in the present.

In all of these, we see the image of a young woman at odds with herself. Growing up in a complex environment has adversely affected Owusu. Trauma, from her mother’s abandonment to the abuses she experienced, has defined Owusu’s younger life. At one point, she had to grapple with them. In parts titled The Blue Chair, Owusu dug deeper into these traumas and how they have resulted in the person she was now in her late twenties. In these parts, she recounted how she mentally struggled, her mental struggles the offshoots of her years of reckoning with the different trauma she experienced, from the main tremor to the ensuing aftershocks. Owusu relating her mental struggles was the height of her memoir. In an interview with Vogue, Owusu admitted that she started writing her memoir after struggling with depression1.

In writing her memoir, Owusu was reckoning with her own memories of her childhood and with the ghosts of her past that kept haunting her, threatening to destabilize the present. She examined the aftershocks that reverberated throughout her life and their implications for who Nadia is in the present. In her memoir, we read of a young woman who struggled to come to terms with her past. While the past is an integral part of who we are, the only way to move forward is to confront these ghosts. After swimming in a sea of darkness, hope finally started to illuminate. Hope, after all, springs eternal. All of these were captured by Owusu’s unflinching gaze.

“But harmony is a fragile thing, and so is justice. They bend and break easily. We bend and break them with greed, with violence, with lies and obscurations. The people sold into slavery are modern-day Ghanaians’ ancestors too. Their backs and hearts broke under whip and weight. The incomplete story Ghana tells about slavery is a breach. Ashanti culture was breached by colonization. My family broke before and I knew it might break again. The earth broke from the force of a meteoroid, which sent shock waves in every direction.”

~ Nadia Owusu, Aftershocks

Owusu’s story was moving and intimate. The writing had a lyrical quality to it that reels the reader in. However, there were slanders that can undermine the reading experience. For one, the narrative constantly shifted. Timelines and geographical locations were blurred as the story weaves in and out of places and time periods. This resulted in an episodic albeit dynamic story rather than a fluid narrative. On the other hand, this structure was a subtle reference to Owusu’s peripatetic childhood. The writing was also uneven. The opening pages were didactic as they dealt with the history of Africa. This part came across as textbook-y rather than literary.

Its flaws, however, do little to undo the powerful message that Owusu’s memoir carried. In Aftershocks, Owusu grappled with the ruptures created by the earthquakes – it was an evocative metaphor – in our lives. It was moving, absorbing, and intimate. The details of her mental struggles, candidly written about, were some of the memoir’s most compelling facets. It was one of the deepest and most vivid examinations of the impact of these faultlines in her, and, by extension, our own lives. In her own way, Owusu was also telling her readers that it is fine to struggle. What is important is how we deal with them, hence, heal. In examining these faultlines, Owusu has commenced the long healing process. In coming to terms with her past, Owusu is discovering the other side of herself. It was this sea of hope after the darkness that made her memoir a rewarding read.

“History is a story, my grandfather said. I offer a friendly amendment: history is many stories. Those stories are written, spoken, and sung. They are carried in our bodies. They billow all around us like copper-colored dust that sometimes obscures everything. In those stories, we grasp at meaning. We search for ourselves, for our place, for direction. We search for a way forward: a woman warrior, a complication man, an invitation home, a meteor, a lake, a child landing with a splat. Destruction and creation. Changes in light, terrain, and atmosphere. Delicate new freedom. Hope.”

~ Nadia Owusu, Aftershocks
Rating

⭐⭐⭐⭐

It was while researching for books to include in my 2021 Books I Look Forward To List that I first encountered Nadia Owusu and her memoir, Aftershocks. I was intrigued by the book; I can recall being fascinated by earthquakes when I was younger. I eventually added it to my most anticipated 2021 releases despite it being a memoir; I am not that keen on reading memoirs although I make exceptions once in a while. Thankfully, I was able to obtain a copy of the book midway through the year and, without more ado, I read it. After Nobel Laureate in Literature Wole Soyinka’s Aké: The Years of Childhood, Aftershocks was the second memoir I read in 2021. From the onset, Owusu had my attention and held it as she recounted details of her life. Her childhood memories were particularly vivid. She carried her childhood traumas, the proverbial and titular aftershocks, into adulthood. Her reckoning with it was powerfully drawn. The writing was a little uneven but overall it was beautiful. Honestly, I always find it a challenge evaluating memoirs but I am still glad I read the moving book.

Book Specs

Author: Nadia Owusu
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 295
Genre: Memoir

Synopsis

Young Nadia Owusu followed her father, a United Nations official, from Europe to Africa and back again. Just as she and her family settled into a new home, her father would tell them it was time to say their goodbye. Their instability wrought by Nadia’s nomadic childhood was deepened by family secrets and fractures, both lived and inherited. Her Armenian American mother, who abandoned Nadia when she was two, would periodically reappear, only to vanish again. Her father, a Ghanaian, the great hero of her life, died when she was thirteen. After his passing, Nadia’s stepmother weighed her down with a revelation that was either a bombshell secret or a life, rife with shaming innuendo.

With these and other ruptures, Nadia arrived in New York as a young woman feeling stateless, motherless, and uncertain about her future, yet eager to find her own identity. What followed, however, were periods of depression in which she struggled to hold herself and her siblings together.

Aftershocks is the way she hauled herself from the wreckage of her life’s perpetual quaking, the means by which she has finally come to understand that the only ground firm enough to count on is the one written into existence by her own hand.

Heralding a dazzling new writer, Aftershocks joins the likes of William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Esme Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, and does for race identity what Maggie Nelson does for gender identity in The Argonauts.

About the Author

Nadia Owusu was born on February 23, 1981, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to a Ghanaian father and an Armenian-American mother. Her maternal grandparents fled Turkey to escape the Armenian genocide. They eventually settled in Watertown, Massachusetts. Her father, Osei Owusu, on the other hand, worked for the United Nations. Because of his father’s work, Owusu’s younger days were spent traveling across different cities such as Rome, London, Kumasi, Addis Ababa, and Kampala. When she was 18 years old, she permanently moved to New York City and is currently based in Brooklyn where she works both as a writer and an urban planner. She graduated from Pace University and Hunter College. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Fiction at the Mountainview low-residency program.

Her lyric essay chapbook So Dvilish a Fire won the Atlas Review chapbook series and was published in 2018. A year later,.Owusu was named the recipient of the Whiting Award. Her works have appeared in a score of publications such as The New York TimesThe Literary ReviewCatapult, The Paris Review Daily, and The Washington Post. In 2021, her memoir, Aftershocks, was published. It was critically praised, even being selected as one of the best books of 2021 by Time, Vogue, Esquire, The Guardian, NPR, and the BBC.

References

1. Schama, C 13 January 2021, In Her New Memoir, Aftershocks, Nadia Owusu Examines the Lasting Fault Lines of Trauma’. Accessed 19 June 2022, <https://www.vogue.com/article/nadia-owusu-interview-aftershocks-a-memoir>.