Born to a Ghanian father and an Armenian American mother, Nadia Owusu spent her childhood in Italy, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and England, before moving to the United States at 18, where she has lived ever since. Aftershocks is Owusu’s debut memoir, in which the Whiting award-winning author breaks time and space to construct a higher order of meaning — a meaning that bridges personal and generational trauma, war and natural disasters, racism, economics and slavery, religion, national policy, health epidemics, class, colorism, and linguistic hierarchies, biases, bigotry and memory. In the following interview with Owusu, I ask her to talk about the process of documenting all of the things that interest her in a radically reinvented form.
Arman Chowdhury: I wanted to first ask you about the narrative structure of Aftershocks. I wonder if you could share at what point during your writing or thinking process you came to realize that, conceptually, the stages of an earthquake were a more effective way to frame your memoir than, say, recounting stories and histories in linear time? I ask because the framing itself operates with a decolonial consciousness, and because the book takes great care in teaching readers how to approach the text, explaining in one prefatory note, for instance, that terms such as foreshock, mainshock, and aftershock have no strict scientific definition, implying that we are always renaming and recontextualizing our past according to our present frame of mind and circumstances.
Nadia Owusu: Thanks for this question. I do think of my book as having a decolonial consciousness.
Aftershocks started as a private project. I was coming out of a period of deep depression and had a strong sense that, to stay on the other side of it, I needed to write myself a new story to live in, because the one I’d been given had become uninhabitable. I had no intention of publishing it, and in fact was working on an ultimately failed novel at the same time.
Instinctually, I knew that the work I’d set out to do in my private project could not be done along a straight line. That’s not how I experience time. My father belonged to the Ashanti tribe of Ghana, and the Ashanti worldview—despite colonization and the spread of Christianity—continues to hold that our ancestors are present in our lives. They watch over and interfere with us. In many African cultures, time is circular and there are circles within circles. We move in and out of them. The past and present coexist.
Years into the writing, once I decided that I was going to try to write a book, using the raw material I started writing for myself, I knew that I wanted to maintain the project’s essential character. It’s a memoir, but it’s also intended to engage deeply with history. It needed to move back and forth between my more private griefs and struggles to larger forces. I wanted to show how history is always present in our day to day lives, whether we notice it or not. But I also knew that I’d need to give readers a railing to hold onto.
Earthquakes have always been a sort of guiding metaphor for my life, ever since, after a long absence, my mother showed up on the same day as a catastrophic earthquake struck Armenia—her ancestral homeland. In early versions of the manuscript, seismic terms were everywhere, but I wasn’t aware of what I was doing. A friend who is one of my early readers pointed it out to me, and it was an epiphanic moment. Then, I began to approach the metaphor with intention.
Earthquakes have always been a sort of guiding metaphor for my life, ever since, after a long absence, my mother showed up on the same day as a catastrophic earthquake struck Armenia—her ancestral homeland.
AC: I can’t help but linger on the conceit of earthquakes. Throughout Aftershocks, certain images, facts, and revelations are invoked over and over. They reverberate like seismic waves and provoke a sort of psychic shuddering as we read, a sensation not unlike how we feel during actual earthquakes. Because earthquakes happen without warning, there’s almost always a moment of confusion when, before realizing that the ground is moving, we think that we are shaking from within. I wonder if one important question your memoir is raising is centered on this confusion. Are the waves that destabilize us, and threaten to define us, generated from within or beyond? Where does the internal end and the external begin, and is there even a separation between the two? Is it impossible to locate an epicenter for these tremors?
NO: Yes, I love how you’ve put this. I vividly remember my father telling me about how the trauma of the Armenian genocide was in my mother’s family’s DNA. I didn’t know anything about epigenetics—how trauma can change our genetic make-up and be inherited. I was seven. But that idea stuck with me. I think it’s very much connected to what you’re saying about earthquakes. Ancestral memories mingle with our own and affect how we experience and interpret the world. I’m often overwhelmed or destabilized by strong emotions and sensations in my body that I don’t fully understand. I’ll be out walking, and a smell or sound will cause my heart to race. Or someone will say something very mundane to me, but I’ll suddenly feel a great tenderness toward them. We all carry jumbled histories in our bodies. This can make us behave in both predictable and unpredictable ways.
Metaphor is a privilege, meaning metaphor belongs to those who, like me, came out less scathed.
AC: On the question of metaphor itself, you write, “Metaphor is a privilege, meaning metaphor belongs to those who, like me, came out less scathed.” You quote President George W. Bush proclaiming, “Our war on terror begins,” following the September 11 attacks. You write, “The word war has war inside of it. The metaphor was bloodthirsty…The War on Terror became a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, a war in Syria…No story, no metaphor, is innocent of theft, omission, or violence.” I wonder then, if stories and metaphors can heal but also harm, what responsibility do we have toward language when we are writing stories and depicting histories, not only of our own but also of others? More generally, how do you approach craft in your writing? Do you have a specific set of values regarding craft?
NO: My work as a writer is political. I have no qualms about that.
In her essay “Poet as Teacher—Human as Poet—Teacher as Human,” Audre Lorde writes “I am a human being. I am a Black woman, a poet, mother, lover, teacher, friend, fat, shy, generous, loyal, crotchety. If I do not bring all of who I am to whatever I do, then I bring nothing, or nothing of lasting worth, for I have withheld my essence.”
Audre Lorde pushed her writing students to scrutinize the parts of themselves they most feared, and to use what they learned from that practice to shift power in the world. I believe in that. And, I believe in what Chinua Achebe said about what it means for Africans to “repossess” our stories. I think this goes for anybody whose land and histories have been stolen and colonized: Repossession needs its enabling stories and the writers to compose them, “drawing as it must, from every resource of memory and imagination and from a familiarity with our own history, our arts and culture; but also, from an unflinching consciousness of the flaws that blemished our inheritance.” In other words, we must seek to tell the truth, even the difficult truths about ourselves and our homes.
I’m also interested in the ideas of thinkers like Tina Campt and Saidiya Hartman whose work pushes me to practice writing as though the future that I envision is not only possible but inevitable, even while engaging honestly with ongoing injustice and violence.
AC: How conscious were you of the audience while writing the book? Did you fear being misconstrued? The memoir is full of instances where the narration takes a step back from personal or family story and references literary texts, social theories, cultural histories, colonial histories, and injustices in postcolonial societies, almost as a means to seek refuge, to look for answers. These references are often juxtaposed with Nadia’s (your) frame of mind or the choices she makes at a particular moment. In the chapter African Girls, for example, you invoke Frantz Fanon and Toni Morrison while Nadia navigates the “racial pecking order” in a boarding school in England. I wonder what prompted you to engage the works of other thinkers in such depth, and if it is it related to the question of audience, of sensing a need to contextualize Nadia’s actions to readers.
NO: Because I began Aftershocks as a private project, I didn’t think about audience at all for many years. I had a strong sense of purpose that was connected to what you’re saying about contextualizing, only I was doing it for myself, not for anyone else. Like many writers, I write to think through questions I’m carrying. And, with the project that became Aftershocks, some of those questions were: Who am I in the world? And, Where do I fit into the histories of my family? Especially because I grew up outside of my parents’ cultures, Ghanaian and Armenian, I wanted a deeper understanding of where they came from. This required research. And, ever since I was very young, I’ve often turned to books to help me make connections and to find comfort or courage in them. So, this is something that is just natural to me and my process.
I write to think through questions I’m carrying. And, with the project that became Aftershocks, some of those questions were: Who am I in the world? And, Where do I fit into the histories of my family?
AC: At the end of the memoir, we witness Nadia transformed. She uncovers certain beliefs and biases within her that she hadn’t known existed. With new self-knowledge, she begins to see her relationships to her father, her mothers, her siblings, and people closest to her under a new light. She enters a state of terraformation. I wonder if writing this book, too, was a transformative/terraformative experience. Would you say it changed you as a writer? As a person? And where do you go from here? What questions have been on your mind lately?
NO: Yes, absolutely. I learned so much from doing this work. And, although I started writing it from a place of grief, as I went deeper, I found that I was writing toward love—for myself, the people in my life, and the many places I’ve called home in complicated ways. I’ll never have an easy sense of belonging, but I embrace that now as a beautiful part of who I am. There were times when I was so afraid of my longing that it hardened me and closed me off. Now, more often, it makes me softer and more open. In terms of where I go from here: I plan to keep doing this sort of liberatory work, not just in my writing but in other parts of my life as well. I’m working on a novel now, and while it is not autobiographical in a direct way, some of its questions and obsessions build on what I was asking in Aftershocks. I find that when you ask questions, you often come up with deeper questions rather than answers.
Nadia Owusu is a Ghanaian and Armenian-American writer and urbanist. Her first book, Aftershocks, topped many most-anticipated and best book of the year lists, including The New York Times, The Oprah Magazine, Vogue, TIME, Vulture, and the BBC. It was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Nadia is the recipient of a 2019 Whiting Award. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Orion, Granta, The Paris Review Daily, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, and others. By day, Nadia is Director of Storytelling at Frontline Solutions, a Black-owned consulting firm working for justice and liberation in partnership with philanthropic and nonprofit organizations. She teaches creative writing at the Mountainview MFA program and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Arman Chowdhury is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Notre Dame. He is a prose writer from Dhaka, Bangladesh, interested in studying and writing fiction that challenge traditional modes of literary realism and that frustrate the desire for a stable and coherent world. He studied Creative Writing and Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University. At Notre Dame, he is also an Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHUM) Fellow and a Graduate Affiliate for Literatures of Annihilation, Exile & Resistance. His work has been supported by The Loft Literary Center, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.