'Aftershocks' Is A Powerful Memoir Of A Life Upended — Then Pieced Back Together

Jan 18, 2021
Originally published on January 22, 2021 5:58 am

When Nadia Owusu was 7 years old and living in Rome with her father, stepmother and younger sister, two events occurred on the same day that upended her world.

The first was a disaster she didn't experience personally, but heard about on the radio: a catastrophic earthquake in Armenia, where her mother's family had lived before they sought refuge in America. The second was the sudden appearance of her mother, standing nervously at the front door, gripping a pair of red balloons in her hands.

Owusu hadn't seen her mother for three years, but now there she was, along with her silent second husband. They'd been vacationing in Italy. Her mother whisked Nadia and her sister off for a day of fun, before she vanished again.

As happens, especially in the minds of children, those two events became soldered together in memory. Here's how Owusu puts it in her new memoir: "When I was seven, my mother showed up with an earthquake and red balloons. I remember her shaking hands and I remember the shaking earth. In me, private and seismic tremors cannot be separated."

Owusu's lyrical and tough memoir is called Aftershocks; and though, at first, it may seem like an overly dramatic conceit for Owusu to tell the story of her life in terms of tremors, seismic shock waves, and fault lines, those metaphors quickly come to seem apt, even restrained.

Owusu's memoir is a classic "search for identity" story, one that's complicated by the fact that the ground beneath Owusu's feet is so unstable. Owusu's out-of-the-picture mother is white and Armenian American; her beloved father is Black from Ghana. His work with the United Nations gave Nadia and her siblings a cosmopolitan upbringing — Italy, England, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda — but no fixed sense of home.

Nadia Owusu is a Brooklyn-based writer and urban planner.
Beowulf Sheehan / Simon & Schuster

Being biracial intensifies Owusu's apartness. And, then, there are the abandonments that fracture her life. Her mother's unexplained departure when Nadia is 4 is followed by the death of her father when she's 13 and, almost simultaneously, the refusal of her mother to take in Owusu and her sister. Instead, Owusu lives, tempestuously, with her stepmother until she leaves for college in New York where, not surprisingly, in her late 20s she experiences a breakdown.

Owusu devotes a portion of this memoir to surveying the ruptured histories of the many countries she's connected to, but it's her striking personal story and charged language that makes Aftershocks compelling. Speaking of her father's death, Owusu comes to realize that "grief is slow internal bleeding." Reflecting on the stories she'd heard about the opposition of her father's family in Ghana to his marriage to her white mother, Owusu passes on this critical folk adage: "Any river loses its identity when entering the sea." Feeling her breakdown approaching, Owusu describes stumbling out of "the speeding purgatory" of her subway train, running into her apartment and spending seven mostly sleepless days rocking in a ratty blue chair she picked up off the street. There she forces herself to confront questions about her "upended, dislocated body and mind. ...[A]bout the geography and geology of my experience — about who I was and how I'd ended up in the blue chair. ... [A]bout finding my way out of it."

Aftershocks, Owusu's father had told her on the day of the Armenian earthquake, are "the earth's delayed reaction to stress." Owusu's breakdown is one kind of aftershock; this well-wrought, often powerful memoir is another.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Nadia Owusu is a Whiting Award-winning writer and urban planner. Her new memoir, "Aftershocks," delves deep into the fault lines of her own racial identity and family story. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has this review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: When Nadia Owusu was 7 years old and living in Rome with her father, stepmother and younger sister, two events occurred on the same day that upended her world. The first was a disaster she didn't experience personally, but heard about on the radio - a catastrophic earthquake in Armenia, where her mother's family had lived before they sought refuge in America. The second was the sudden appearance of her mother standing nervously at the front door, gripping a pair of red balloons in her hands. Owusu hadn't seen her mother for three years, but now there she was, along with her silent second husband. They'd been vacationing in Italy. Her mother whisked Nadia and her sister off for a day of fun before she vanished again.

As happens, especially in the minds of children, those two events became soldered together in memory. Here's how Owusu puts it in her new memoir.

(Reading) When I was 7, my mother showed up with an earthquake and red balloons. I remember her shaking hands, and I remember the shaking Earth. In me, private and seismic tremors cannot be separated.

Owusu's lyrical and tough memoir is called "Aftershocks." And though at first it may seem like an overly dramatic conceit for Owusu to tell the story of her life in terms of tremors, seismic shock waves and fault lines, those metaphors quickly come to seem apt, even restrained. Owusu's memoir is a classic search-for-identity story, one that's complicated by the fact that the ground beneath Owusu's feet is so unstable. Owusu's out-of-the-picture mother is white, an Armenian American. Her beloved father is Black from Ghana. His work with the United Nations gave Nadia and her siblings a cosmopolitan upbringing - Italy, England, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda - but no fixed sense of home.

Being biracial intensified Owusu's apartness, and then there are the abandonments that fractured Owusu's life. One I've mentioned already - her mother's unexplained departure when Nadia was 4. That's followed by the death of her father when she's 13 and almost simultaneously the refusal of her mother to take in her and her sister. Instead, Owusu lived tempestuously with her stepmother until she left for college in New York, where, not surprisingly, in her late 20s, she experienced a breakdown.

Owusu devotes a portion of this memoir to surveying the ruptured histories of the many countries she's connected to, but it's her striking personal story and charged language that makes "Aftershocks" compelling. Speaking of her father's death, Owusu comes to realize that grief is slow internal bleeding. Reflecting on the stories she'd heard about the opposition of her father's family in Ghana to his marriage to her white mother, Owusu passes on this critical folk adage. Any river loses its identity when entering the sea.

Feeling her breakdown approaching, Owusu describes stumbling out of the speeding purgatory of her subway train, running into her apartment and spending seven mostly sleepless days rocking in a ratty blue chair she picked up off the street. There, she forces herself to confront questions about (reading) my upended dislocated body and mind, about the geography and geology of my experience, about who I was and how I'd ended up in the blue chair, about finding my way out of it.

Aftershocks, Owusu's father had told her on the day of the Armenian earthquake, are the Earth's delayed reaction to stress. Owusu's breakdown is one kind of aftershock. This well-wrought, often powerful memoir is another.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Aftershocks" by Nadia Owusu.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about what it took for women to break the glass ceiling in the medical profession in the U.S. Our guests will be Janice Nimura, author of a new book about an important figure in women's history and medical history, Elizabeth Blackwell. She got into a lesser-known medical school in the 1840s when the male students decided it would be an entertaining prank to admit her. She proved she was no joke. She became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "AMERICAN DREAMS")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with assistance today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "AMERICAN DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.