Finding Firm Ground: A Conversation with Nadia Owusu

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Whiting Award winner Nadia Owusu’s debut memoir, Aftershocks, is described as “a poetic genre-bending work that combines literary memoir and cultural history to grapple with the fault lines of identity, the meaning of home, the complexities of family, and the ripple effects, both personal and generational, of emotional trauma.”

Owusu’s memoir opens with a memory of her mother’s departure. Seven-year-old Owusu watches her mother get in a blue Fiat and leave with her new husband. Owusu’s mother has just vacationed in Venice and stops in Rome, where Owusu lives with her father and sister, for a brief visit before making her way back to Massachusetts. “She can’t even bother to spend time with her daughters,” Owusu’s father says after her mother departs. For Owusu, that moment and the earthquake that occurs in Armenia on the same day are interminably linked, and is at the heart of her obsession with earthquakes and the ways scientists predict and measure disaster. Her mother’s departure is a little quake in itself.

Throughout her childhood and early adulthood, Owusu continues to measure the losses in her life—her father’s death when she is thirteen, a secret her stepmother reveals after her father’s death, her mother’s pattern of rejecting her first two daughters—by the seismic magnitude scales that describe the overall strength of an earthquake.

If your life is perpetually shaking, how do you find firm ground? If the place you call home is constantly changing, how do you lay claim to an identity? I spoke with Owusu about her journey through the quakes in her life to finding firm ground.

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The Rumpus: You’ve written a book about race, identity, and rootlessness at a time when the United States is grappling with its own identity and the type of country it wants to be. How do you see your book contributing to what we’ve seen unfold in the United States this year?

Nadia Owusu: The driving force behind the writing of Aftershocks was my burning awareness that the stories about myself, about my peoples, about Ghana, about Africa, about Armenians, about America, about Blackness, about colonialism, about slavery, about gender, about sexuality, about borders, about belonging, and about who gets to tell stories, do not serve me and have never served me. They do not serve and have never served so many of us.

There is a story that America tells itself about who we are as a country, and that story is about our own exceptionalism, goodness, and superior morality. Left insufficiently, and in some cases wholly, uninterrogated are the ugly truths: That we are a nation built on genocide, colonization, and enslavement. That racism did not end with the Civil Rights Movement or the election of Barack Obama; that racism is in the groundwater. We need to have a real reckoning with our history and present, and face the truth about who we are—all of it, not just the good parts. That is what the Movement for Black Lives that has swept the country and the world is about. We need to see ourselves and each other more clearly. Only through that sort of reckoning do we have any chance at repair, healing, and coming together to effectively address challenges like climate change, global pandemics, and systemic inequities.

Writing the book was part of a personal reckoning for me. In addition to looking at history differently, I also needed to turn the mirror on myself; to implicate myself in uncomfortable ways; to consider how I have embraced narratives that harm others but serve me. But, that work doesn’t end. It’s an ongoing daily practice, and we need to do it at all levels—from the personal to the political. We can’t move and change things in the world that we are unwilling to move and change in ourselves.

Rumpus: When did the idea of writing a memoir start to emerge?

Owusu: I started writing pieces of what became Aftershocks about a decade ago, in my twenties. I wasn’t writing with an ambition to publish them. The book truly started as a way for me to reckon with my own history and identity, and to process my feelings of isolation, dislocation, and disconnection. I began writing from a place of grief, but through the process, I found that I was really writing toward love—love for my family and for the places they came from. Self-love. Like many writers, I write to think through questions that I’m carrying. And, for me, some of those questions were: Who am I in the world? And, where do I fit into the histories of my family?

It wasn’t until about four years ago that I started to wonder if I might make art out of the pieces I was writing. Looking at the pieces through that lens was both terrifying and exciting. At first, I wasn’t sure what shape the art might take. For a while, I thought I might use the material to write either a novel or short stories. But, through trial and error, and with some kind nudging from mentors and friends, it became clear that the pieces really wanted to become a memoir.

Rumpus: Earthquake as the metaphor for the upheavals in your life runs throughout the book. Tell us how you came to associate the rumblings of the earth with abandonment.

Owusu: My mother left when I was two. My sister and I were raised by our father. He worked for a UN agency, so we moved to a different country every couple of years. When I was seven and we were living in Rome, after a long absence, my mother showed up at our house on the same day that I learned about a catastrophic earthquake that destroyed the city of Spitak in Armenia. My father always listened to the BBC World Service in the morning. I remember the voice on the radio talking about the possibility of aftershocks. I remember asking my father what aftershocks are. He said they are tremors that follow an earthquake; the earth’s delayed reaction to stress. Later that day, my mother took my sister and me to lunch. Then, that evening, she dropped us back at our house, and was gone again. Maybe because my mother is Armenian American, and because my father rarely spoke of her, the earthquake and my personal shaking at having her show up and leave so quickly combined and conflated inside me. I became obsessed with earthquakes and specifically the ways we predict and measure disaster.

Rumpus: While earthquake as metaphor begins with your mother’s visit and an actual earthquake in Armenia—where your mother’s family originated—the main shock is really your father’s death, is it?

Owusu: Yes, my father was the great hero of my life. I always felt my mother’s absence, but it was an absence that I had always lived with. I didn’t really remember her ever being around. Losing my father when I was thirteen was different. That loss brought so much of what I believed in and trusted toppling down. I began to think of my life as existing on fault lines and worrying that disaster was always lurking just around the corner. I was a global citizen and a person without a clear home. My father had always been my stability and my home, and now he was gone. Without him, I struggled to find steady ground, even in my own sense of self.

Rumpus: The title, Aftershocks, and many of the chapter titles are associated with what happens before and after an earthquake as well. At what point in the writing did you begin to use the earthquake as a way to organize your thoughts and the book?

Owusu: It’s funny because until I started thinking about the writing I had been doing as a book, I didn’t pay much attention to how often I wrote about earthquakes. It was just part of how I thought about and experienced the world. I was living inside a metaphor without acknowledging it. Seismic terms were everywhere in my early drafts, but other people—a mentor, my agent—had to point that out to me. Once I realized I was doing it naturally, something clicked in terms of the structure.

The story of an earthquake is not linear, not easily understood except in retrospect, and that is how I felt about my life story. Sometimes it turns out that what we thought was the earthquake was actually a foreshock. The story has to be reshuffled. And the thing about aftershocks is that we never know when they’re going to happen or how long they will last. That’s also true of how we experience trauma. The book is written thematically with the stages of an earthquake and seismic terms linking the threads. This was the way that made the most sense to me to write about my life.

Also, in many African cultures, time is not a straight line. It’s circular and there are circles within circles and we move in and out of them. The past and present coexist. That’s how I experience the world and time, which is quite different from many Western notions. But, I wanted to provide some anchors and posts for all readers to hold onto.

Rumpus: I love that idea that time is circular, and I can see how it helps to shape your memoir. So were you influenced by African literature and oral storytelling devices?

Owusu: Absolutely. Growing up, my father told me bedtime stories from the very ancient Ashanti storytelling tradition, including tales of Anansi the Spider. In those stories, the earthly and spirit worlds coexist. The ancestors are present in people’s everyday lives—guiding and interfering. I am also interested in the use of call and response techniques that are central in many African oral storytelling traditions. In some of the chapters of my memoir, I tried to evoke the essence of call and response through the rhythm of the language and the use of refrains.

Rumpus: Did your studies of urban planning and policy also have any bearing on how you chose to structure your memoir?

Owusu: I think my background in urban planning and policy helped me to hone the questions I was asking. When I think about cities, I am asking how people interact with each other and with place. I am asking who places serve and why. I’m asking what allows people to feel a sense of security and of belonging. And, in my policy and planning work, it is really important to reckon with and learn from history. What ideologies and philosophies were baked into the systems that exist now? What do we need to undo to make those systems fairer and more inclusive? I think a lot about decolonizing places. And, through my writing of Aftershocks, I thought about what it will take to decolonize myself; to free myself. That question is a consistent thread woven through the book.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about identity. You were born in Dar es Salaam to a Ghanian father and an American mother, lived in various European and African cities as a child, and moved to America as an adult to attend college. You write: “I loved growing up in many countries, among many cultures. It made it impossible for me to believe in the concept of supremacy. It deepened my ability to hold multiple truths at once, to practice and nurture empathy. But it has also meant that I have no resting place. I have perpetually been a them rather than an us. I have struggled with how to place myself in my family histories.” Tell us about your struggle with identity.

Owusu: For much of my life, I had this deep longing to belong. Just as we were settling into a country—learning the language, making friends—we had to prepare to leave it. And, there were times when I felt like an outsider in my own families. I didn’t speak Twi, my father’s language. Because I’m Black, when I was visiting my mother’s family in the States, some people assumed I was adopted. There was always a fear of rejection. At the same time, I have always felt lucky to have gotten to see so much of the world and to have ties to so many places.

Rumpus: I am fascinated by the way you weave your family history—your father’s Ashanti heritage, your mother’s family’s journey from Armenia to escape genocide—as part of the discussion of identity. There is tension between your heritage and how you are seen in the world—as African, as Black, as light-skinned, and in Ethiopia as Ethiopian (separate from Africans). Your father had a strong sense that you were Ghanaian, regardless of where you were born or had lived. Do you now have a strong sense of where you call home?

Owusu: Yes, I have always been hyperaware of how I am perceived. At times, this has been a survival mechanism. If I know how I’m being perceived, then I can know what is expected of me. Oftentimes, these perceptions have very little to do with how I see myself. At the same time, I feel fortunate that my father had a very Pan-African worldview. I have always felt a lot of pride in the strength, creativity, and solidarity of Black peoples across the diaspora. It allows me to feel connected to something big and loving. Over the years, I have come to define home and family really expansively. I claim all the places and peoples I have lived among and loved and tried to belong to. My love for them makes them mine in a way. But, it has taken me a long time to get here.

Rumpus: How have you come to find your sense of home?

Owusu: This is going to sound precious, but it’s true: writing Aftershocks really helped me to lay claim to all of the parts of who I am. I wrote myself a story of home that I could live in.

Rumpus: You write about the idea of roots setting a person free being counterintuitive. At the same time you write that “deracination from the past, from land, from family, from mothers, makes for an unstable present.” Can you let us in on what you mean by an “unstable present”? Is it tied to your exploration of madness?

Owusu: Yes, there were times when I felt stateless, motherless, and uncertain about who I am. At other times, I felt overwhelmed by all of my identities and trying to live into the expectations that came with them. This reality, this instability, made it more difficult, I think, to process trauma and grief. I struggled with depression and anxiety and with finding firm ground.

Rumpus: I’ve often heard writers talk about the difficulty of writing memoirs, of digging deep within themselves. What was the hardest part of writing Aftershocks?

Owusu: There are chapters in the book written from inside an episode of deep depression and anxiety that exiled me from my own life. Writing those sections was really difficult. I wanted to try to get on the page what I felt in my body, and the excruciating commingling of sharp clarity and confusion. Although I often hear writing about mental illness described as raw, I found that those sections required an enormous amount of intention. I wrestled with every word and sentence. Trying to describe those experiences in the ways I described other events didn’t work. I needed different language and rhythms. I needed to let go in a way that scared me. I did a lot of movement work to get there—getting out of my chair and just moving my body, allowing myself to just feel. When I did that, there was pain. I wept. But, I also found tenderness for myself—for who I was then. And, that tenderness extended to others in my life, too. The revisions of the manuscript I did after writing those sections were really important.

Rumpus: And the most rewarding?

Owusu: Just getting to revisit and sit in joyful memories, especially memories of my father. In some ways, I feel like I got to know him better through writing the book.

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Photograph of Nadia Owusu by Beowulf Sheehan.


Donna Hemans is the author of two novels, River Woman and Tea by the Sea. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including Slice, Shenandoah, Electric Literature, and Ms. Magazine. She lives in Maryland and is the owner of DC Writers Room, a co-working studio for writers. More from this author →