From that day on, Owusu, who is half Ghanian and half Armenian and was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, became obsessed with earthquakes, both as geologic events and as a template for her own life’s shocks. “My mind has a seismometer inside it,” she writes. The natural disasters remind her of jazz, particularly the unpredictable, improvisational wildness of John Coltrane, and thus these two themes appear in “Aftershocks” as compasses of sorts, guides to the memoir’s nonlinear, constantly shifting structure.
The book follows the wide-ranging life of its writer, who from a young age felt a series of shocks that would define her life: the divorce of her mother and Ghanaian father when she was 3; the death of her father when she was 14 from cancer and, as she learns in shock later, perhaps AIDS; her late father’s partner, Anabel, attempting to take over as her mother; and Owusu’s profound sense, as she moved around the world as a multiracial child, that she never belonged anywhere, too light-skinned to fit in with other Ghanaians, too dark-skinned to blend in in Turkey, too briefly in Dar es Salaam or Rome or Addis Ababa to feel deeply rooted in any. “I speak three and a half languages that do not belong to me,” she writes.
The memoir begins, appositely, with her mother, whose departure changed the course of Owusu’s life. “My mother left before I was old enough to grasp what the leaving meant,” Owusu reflects. “I had never been forced to face the rejection.” From then on, Owusu and the rest of her immediate family moved around the globe as her father took on new jobs, which often helped pay for her schooling. Like many people unsure of their identities, Owusu initially played the part of a chameleon of sorts, adopting the characteristics of wherever she was and adapting to them.
In this way, she learned to code-switch, shifting her accent from a British-inflected lilt to the soft twang of a vague American; she also shifted her identity. Once, as she recounts in a telling passage, she was one of only two Black students in an English school, and, to fit in with the popular, wealthy White girls, she made fun of the other Black student, who, like her, was from Africa. She loathed herself for this later, yet her inclusion of this incident is important, allowing her to discuss the privileges she grew up with: the means to pay for schooling; the ability to, if not pass as White, be accepted as less Black and, therefore, less of a threat to White people. This idea, she notes aptly, reflects the extreme degree to which the scourge of anti-Blackness may pervade our thinking, even for other Black writers.
These themes and events, combined with horrific memories from her youth — Italian men groping her when she was a tween, or a terrifying scene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when armed soldiers briefly occupied the base where she and her father were staying — form a hallucinatory, harrowing tale. We witness, in sections both tantalizing and tragic, Owusu’s struggles with mental illness. The book becomes a form of attempted self-care, repair through revelation. This is no ordinary jeremiad or jejune recounting of events; instead, it is an evocation of a feeling, of what it feels like to be constantly in search of a place to call home, constantly in search of peace amid trauma.
“The idea of roots setting a person free is counterintuitive,” Owusu writes in a passage that is perhaps most like a key to the text as a whole, “but deracination from the past, from land, from family, from mothers, makes for an unstable present. We must have, or we will always search for, a place to bury our bones.”
As a multiracial, multinational writer myself, this sense of uprooting and uncertainty feels real and resonant, and it is in her capturing of this curious sensation that Owusu shines brightest as a memoirist. Those of us who have lived in multiple places will always feel, at some level, a question as to where, if anywhere, is definitively home, and what, in turn, we may call ourselves, because no one national label feels wholly right. Home becomes a broken vase. The dead are buried, so often, in the world they called their homes; what of the dead who have only fragments of such a world? This is the pain that animates “Aftershocks” from start to finish, only in Owusu’s case, it becomes larger than a question of national identity.
Addressing all of this is no easy feat, and Owusu succeeds overall but occasionally stumbles. Her prose is often beautiful and lyrical, as well as limber, for she alternates between many modes with surprising ease. From chapter to chapter, her style shifts, offering a blend of travelogue, first-person trauma narrative, third-person descriptions of sexual assault, and polemics on anti-Blackness and colonialism. To some degree, the memoir pulls off these linguistic metamorphoses by virtue of its overarching themes of earthquakes and jazz, suggesting that these nonlinear, improvisational models are the only way to tell her story.
At the same time, despite my love for challenging nonfiction, this structure sometimes feels too disorienting, if not vertiginous; I lost track of people and places more than once, and several sections spiral through topics, places and voice changes so quickly that it becomes overwhelming.
Still, Owusu’s brilliance as a prose writer keeps me hooked even in these moments of uncertainty. This is a seismic reimagining of what a memoir can look like, structurally and stylistically, and its tremors linger long after the book is finished.
By Nadia Owusu
Simon & Schuster.
299 pp. $26