Nadia Owusu is a Ghanaian and Armenian-American writer and urbanist. She was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and raised in Italy, Ethiopia, England, Ghana, and Uganda. Her first book, a deeply moving, genre-defying memoir entitled Aftershocks, was published to acclaim in early 2021 and topped many book of the year lists – including President Obama’s. She is also the recipient of a 2019 Whiting Award, bestowed annually on emerging American writers.
I spoke to Owusu last November, as part of a series of talks I was hosting on the themes of identity and place. I began by asking about her multinational upbringing as the daughter of a Ghanaian United Nations official, and the impact this almost nomadic existence had on her sense of identity in her youth.
“We moved every couple of years due to my father’s work with the United Nations. He was born in the Kumasi area of Ghana and my mother was born and raised in Watertown, Massachusetts, which is itself a major Armenian-American community. I am from these seemingly very disparate cultures and felt somewhat disconnected from both of them because I have never lived in Ghana, and have never been to Armenia, or indeed Turkey, where my mother’s side of my family comes from.” She therefore remained something of an outsider even in familial environments; there was always a missing thread in her cultural awareness that distanced her from the collective.
“We also moved every couple of years, and just when I was settling into a place, making friends, learning the codes and rules of a new society, it was time to pack up my things and leave. This created in me both a sense of displacement and uncertainty of where I belonged, but also a desire to move towards some sense of belonging.”
Owusu connects this desire to both an internal longing for clarity, but also a demand on the part of wider society for individual identity to be fixed and unambiguous. This is particularly difficult to negotiate for mixed heritage people such as herself, because a ‘definitive’ solution involves shutting yourself off from part of yourself. “As a child, you struggle to answer those questions”. There was a certain joy in the uncertainty, in the act of discovery, in being exposed to multiple cultures as both an outsider and insider.
But there was also frustration derived from external social pressures to conform wholly to one identity or another. Her father encouraged her to consider herself as Ghanaian as anyone, and take pride in that identity, but her own interactions with members of his family often reaffirmed that the matter could not be closed so easily. “How could I be Ghanaian and not speak Twi or know how best to cook fufu?”
Owusu’s relationship with her father, Osei Owusu, unfolds across Aftershocks, and he emerges as an individual of clear convictions, which she connects to his background in the tradition of pan-Africanism, and as a member of Ghana’s independence generation in the late 1950s. Owusu’s half-brother was named Kwame, in honour of the country’s first president and prime minister. I asked her how she had navigated her father’s perspective on the world since his passing.
Owusu describes her father unequivocally as “the great hero” of her life, and although she was only fourteen when he died, frequently finds solace in her vivid memories of conversations with him on issues from duty and responsibility to her own confusion regarding identity. She recalls that, at the time, many of the answers he provided left her further frustrated or uncertain. In Aftershocks, we see her revisit these exchanges and, in the process, reconstruct a different dimension to her father.
The work does, in places, read as a testament to him, in particular a celebration via exploration of the ideals he fought for throughout his life. “It felt really important for me to write about him in such a way that readers could understand who he was… so much of my worldview and dreams were built on his”. One way Owusu does this is through her analysis of the legacy of colonialism in Africa. For her father, and now herself, “the question became what is the identity that we can forge from this history” produced by centuries of systematic exploitation and violence. Can these societies ever hope to move on from the postcolonial era?
For Osei Owusu, the new Africa could never hope to escape its “colonial mentality”, an ingrained sense of inferiority that formal independence alone could not dispense with, without rediscovering pre-colonial histories and indigenous value systems. With her father, Owusu’s family travelled widely in Africa during her childhood and adolescence.
One of the most moving chapters in Aftershocks is set in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she lived from the ages of eight to ten – in the midst of the country’s long civil war. Living in a guarded compound with other expatriates working for international organisations, the conflict felt simultaneously immediate and distant – a relative seclusion briefly shattered when two soldiers forced their way in during heavy fighting close to the capital, in search of suitable conscripts.
Uncertainty around identity therefore also, in a way, marked her father’s life. He felt a sense of fellowship with the people of Ethiopia or Tanzania, being one of the few Africans in the UN delegation. Yet he was also, like the rest of his family, always something of an outsider, and treated as such by many locals. His ideals, however, remained unshaken. It was imperative for him that his children thought about “what responsibility we felt, not just as human beings, but also particularly as Africans. It was really important for him that my sister and I thought of ourselves as part of the African diaspora.”
This is a sense of purpose that has emerged through her own work as an urbanist. She draws a parallel between her father’s pan-Africanism and her own work with African-American communities in the United States. Both are attempts to build solidarity and agency in the global African diaspora. “I am often asking how people interact with each other and place and what places look like and why”.
Owusu suggests that being something of an outsider to American society – she arrived in the country for college at eighteen – has aided her in her work in the United States. “People would tell me, when I said I’d just arrived from Uganda, that I must be so lucky to be in the United States. America can be isolated in its thinking in many ways”.
Having lived in both Africa and America, she was quick to recognise the “global nature” of blackness and colonialism. Experiences close at hand, such as her brother Kwame’s encounters with stop-and-frisk policing in New York City encouraged her to make these connections. She has since pushed the American organisations she works with to take a more international perspective and look for solutions and best practices in unexpected places.
Leading on from this, I ask Owusu what role she believes history can and should play in our lives. I am reminded of the deeply personal, extensive research that underpins Aftershocks’ asides on issues as diverse as systemic racism in American policing and forced migration in the wake of the Armenian Genocide. Did her reading of history elicit comfort, greater understanding, or reconciliation with her identities?
The question of how our histories shape “who we are and how we feel in the world in our bodies” recurs throughout Aftershocks. “I asked my father why my mother left our home when I was two, and I remember him telling me that the trauma of the Armenian Genocide was in her blood”. This is an idea that has echoes in the science of epigenetics, she notes – behaviour and environment can cause changes that affect the way genes work. But the broader principle is itself significant. Present-day conflicts, even the most personal, can often be traced to distant, half-remembered pasts. Exploring these connections is an uncomfortable, but poignant and even rewarding undertaking.
Owusu explains that the book started out as a private project, with a novel as her main focus. Ultimately, she changed tack. “My fear of sharing my own personal stories with the world was holding me back… the novel I was writing at the time was a way of avoiding these painful historical truths”. Aftershocks is driven by a “need to make sense of my own story… and the many losses of home and friends” due to her family’s transient existence.
“The grieving for those things is something that I had avoided throughout much of my adult life… I had this sense that my own personal griefs were deeply connected to these larger stories and larger histories and that we carry these stories in our bodies and that we are actually made of history”. Grief inspired by a “sense of disconnection” appears to her a sentiment common to many third culture kids.
Her research also revealed the extent of “mistreated or erased” history, and the general inadequacy of many mainstream narratives on the global south. “If I believed all those sources then I would see Africa as a very hopeless or helpless place, but that was not my experience of living there, or what I knew of my family’s story.”
Like her father, Owusu found herself seeking out the precolonial histories of Ghana, which revealed “the space between the official stance and the truth”, including with narratives on her own identity. Particularly valuable were oral histories, such as interviews of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, and the stories that her own Ghanaian grandmother had passed on to her.
“When I tell people that I am half Ghanaian and half Armenian-American, the reaction is often ‘woah, how did that happen? Those places are so far apart from one another!’. But I later discovered that they are actually connected, both via colonisation, oppression and displacement but also a deep commitment to storytelling, and through joy and resilience.” Making these connections did prove clarificatory. “I used to describe myself as sort of rootless, but now I consider myself instead as having very broad roots and wide branches, and being able to claim all the places I have belonged to and loved”.
There is, however, another side to Aftershocks. It is a forthright attempt to deconstruct personal trauma, principally the passing of her father, her remote connections with her mother and tenuous relationship with her stepmother. The use of earthquake-related vocabulary extends beyond the book’s title; seismology offers an organisational structure and a language through which to describe the roots and impact of trauma across her life. It is not simply stylistic. Owusu recalls a conversation with her father in 1988, upon hearing of the devastating earthquake in her mother’s ancestral homeland of Armenia. The aftershocks referred to in the news report, he told her, were the “earth’s delayed reaction to stress”.
One of the toughest journeys Owusu recounts involved processing the reason behind her father’s death. Her stepmother, with whom she had a difficult relationship, told Owusu some years later that he had died not of cancer, as she had always believed, but of AIDS. Aftershocks takes us through her attempts to process this information; even if she has always questioned whether this is true, it made her interrogate own assumptions about her father and their own relationship.
I ask how she negotiates the question today. She responds that the experience of writing Aftershocks was key in changing her perspective, insofar as it left her more “comfortable with complexity”. It also caused her to confront her own biases. “If I believed that there is somehow a ranking of illnesses that it is acceptable for people to die from, what did that mean for my ability to go out into the world as a compassionate person and connect with people?”
This did not negate altogether the frustration and confusion associated with lingering uncertainty, but the reevaluation necessary for the writing process allowed her to “locate the joy” in her relationship with her father, and realise “how irrelevant the question of how he died was”.
How, then, did sitting down and writing her own story changed her relationships with her other relatives? “The book began to push me to consider the fullness of the humanity of my relatives… the choices I’ve made, the mistakes I’ve made. That didn’t mean not acknowledging the ways that I was still hurt or grieving but it did mean being more curious about their lives, and questioning the biases and judgments I was imposing on their stories… that was a really healing process for me”.
Aftershocks is intentionally difficult to define, and this is what I love about it. Among other things, the book offers a lucid dissection of trauma, a search for belonging, a reflection on race and colonialism. Reading it over last summer, what I found most compelling was the uncompromising honesty in Owusu’s writing, and the remarkably powerful way in which the intensely personal and the political are intertwined. It is a book for one and all, without qualification.
Her next project? A novel, due out next year or the following. She’s at the “throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks” stage, but plans to let the creative process develop organically – to leave the way open for serendipity, just as she did with Aftershocks.
Aftershocks is available at Blackwells and a range of online bookstores.