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'Aftershocks' Tells Of A Reckoning With The Self — And With Memory

Nadia Owusu has lived many lives.

She's been the privileged child of a UN agency employee, ferried to school and back by chauffeurs while civil wars brewed outside walled compounds guarded by young men, where women called house girls cleaned and cooked for expats.

She's been a world traveler, experiencing life in Tanzania, England, Italy, Ethiopia, Uganda, and finally the United States, all before she turned 20.

She's witnessed and experienced the aftershocks of colonialism in several nations.

She's been orphaned by a mother who left by choice, a father dying, another mother trying and failing to give her the love and safety that she needed.

She's mothered her siblings as best she could. She's been a student at several international schools, a boarding school, later college and graduate school. She's been a server, a serial job applicant, a writer; she's been a daughter, an orphan, a girlfriend, a friend, a lover, a sibling.

She is a Black woman with a Ghanaian father and an Armenian American mother, her looks questioned everywhere, by everyone, seemingly no matter the land she's lived on. Her speech patterns have shifted to fit her surroundings — to protect herself or to feel more at home.

She is a woman with many homes and none, a woman who learned to allow madness in so that she could finally begin to acknowledge the pain of it all and learn that home is within her, in all her lives, in the fault lines and fractures between them.

Nadia Owusu's first full-length book, Aftershocks, is about all of these parts of what is her single, complex life. It is a nonlinear memoir which Owusu organizes around a central metaphor: earthquakes. It opens with the day that her birth mother, who had already left Nadia, her sister Yasmeen, and their father Osei some years before, came to Rome — where they were living at the time — for a brief visit. The same day, an earthquake in Armenia destroyed the city of Spitak. Owusu had never been to Armenia; her mother's family hadn't either, not for generations, her ancestors having been exiled from Turkey during the Armenian Genocide. Still, the child Owusu made the link, and when a teacher asked her what was wrong, she could not explain:

"How do I tell her about the trembling that leads to ripping, then to violent rupture; to whole lives and whole cities disintegrating; to piles and piles of rubble; to displacement and exile? How do I tell her that a day that begins with pancakes for breakfast can end in disaster; that, in an instant, an earthquake or a mother can arrive and change everything?"

In the following sections, Owusu moves back and forth through several main fault lines that she closely examines from varying angles. One involves her stepmother telling Owusu that her father died of AIDS rather than the brain cancer Owusu knew he had. Another involves the many ways in which she was racialized in the nations she lived in and made to feel foreign even in places she was taught to believe were home. A third examines her mothers, the long and complicated relationship with each.

There are other threads, or cracks in the earth of her life, that she weaves in and out of these narratives, so that at times there is a sense that we are wandering away from the main question a chapter opened with. Owusu always brings us back just on time, so that what seems at first like free association is revealed, instead, as potent context. The effect ties directly into another of Owusu's main themes: Storytelling is how we understand ourselves, others, and the worlds we live in, and any story that is too simple or that holds no contradictions is suspect, for that means it lacks the nuance necessary for a deeper understanding. In her capable writing, stories become nearly tangible objects she holds to the light, turns over and over, eager to discover a never before glimpsed sparkle or a surprising divot in their familiar shapes.

One of the recurring sections, "The Blue Chair," is a stirring exploration of Owusu succumbing to — and also embracing — the kind of breakdown that might sound terrifying to some but alluring, even necessary, to others. She spent a week almost exclusively in a blue rocking chair she'd found on the street and lugged up to her apartment in Chinatown, New York. It reminded her of her father — and it became a haven. She read, and she wailed, and she ate a little and drank a lot of alcohol during that week. She became a body that needed only some, very particular things that she allowed herself, especially as her mind was turning over all that she no longer had, the certainties and homes and lands and languages and parents she had lost. Owusu's depiction of this breakdown is not about redemption or even strictly about healing. It's instead about a reckoning with the self, with memory, with the stories that she thought could keep her safe.

Stories cannot keep us safe, but they can do other things. "A story is a flashlight and a weapon," Owusu reminds us. "I write myself into other people's earthquakes. I borrow pieces of their pain and store them in my body. Sometimes, I call those pieces compassion. Sometimes I call them desecration."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.