Aftershocks is a memoir by Nadia Owusu. It explores identify and belonging, who we are and where we fit. There are the ties of biology and those of shared space, time, and experience.
This memoir chronicles Nadia’s relationships with her family, centering her relationships with her father, mother, and stepmother, a combination of love, fear, abandonment, longing abuse. While the role of father is singular, unfilled after her father died at the age of thirteen, Nadia has many mothers that impact her development and sense of identify.
Those letters [from my mother] taught me about longing. Reading them in front of my father taught me to hide it, often even from myself. I know now what a dangerous kind of denial that is. It leaves you ravenous.
Nadia shows us how her environment and the actions of the adults around her leads to particular choices and experiences, a particular identity. We get to see the compromises and concessions she sometimes has to make, the difficult choices.
“Me,” she says to her body in the mirror every day for years. “Mine,” she says, and “I.” She repeats me, mine, I until, finally, she catches a glimpse of her body that seems unfiltered.
While Aftershocks is a memoir, it also reflects on the effects of colonialism on Africa and black bodies. Nadia outlines a brief history of the slave trade, highlighting the perpetrators on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nadia was born in Tanzania to a Ghanaian father and an Armenian mother. She was two years old when her parents divorced, and five when she got a stepmother. Due to her father’s job working for the UN, they moved regularly, to Italy, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda. She also visited family in Ghana
Confused? Me too. I never know how to answer the question of my origin.
Nadia’s father was a constant in her life, remains a guiding force even after his death.
My father—only human—was more than enough for me then. I didn’t need him to be a god. He is still enough. I have faith.
Her mother was in and out of her life, never reliable. For example, Nadia did not see her mother from the age of 3 until she turned 7. Then her mother appeared at the door one day, the same day that a catastrophic earthquake killed thousands of people in Armenia. Of their conversation about the earthquake, Nadia writes:
How do I tell her that even when the earth stops shaking, cracks in the surface spread silently? Pent-up forces of danger and chaos can be unleashed at any time. I don’t know how to explain any of this, so I tell her I am afraid of the aftershocks.
Even when Nadia’s father dies, when Nadia is 13, her mother does not claim her, but rather leaves her with her stepmother, Anabel.
My mother abandoned me twice—the first time when I was two and the second time when I was thirteen and my father died. Even then, she did not claim me.
Anabel and Nadia had a stormy relationship, one of child abuse. Nadia doesn’t use that phrase, but shows us Anabel’s treatment of her. She doesn’t absolve herself from blame, instead showing all of the ways that she challenged Anabel’s authority and broke the roles. She was a child, in pain from losing her beloved father; the whole family was in pain.
We went out at night—danced, smoked pot, got drunk, kissed in the corners of nightclubs. Anabel also stayed out late. She started dating. She only occasionally asked where I was going, what I was doing. Only very rarely—usually when she was in a bad mood—did she tell me I couldn’t go out. On one such occasion, we argued. I called her insane. I was shocked to feel Anabel’s hands at my shoulders, shoving me hard onto my bed. I looked up at her. She raised her hand, yelped, pummeled my head with punches. I curled into a ball, protecting my head with my hands. She did not hit me hard enough to hurt me physically. It was not my body she wanted to bruise. I did not hit back. There was a line, I knew, that must not be crossed. The beating ended abruptly when eight-year-old Kwame wandered into the room clutching his stuffed frog. At seeing his mother hitting his big sister, he burst into tears. He screamed until Anabel picked him up and carried him out of the room. That night, he slept at the foot of my bed.
At 18, Nadia moved to New York to create her own space, a home for herself. She had both American and Ghanaian passports from her parents, but had never lived in America. When she arrived in New York, she was truly alone for the first time in her life. There, multiple events caused alarms and vibrations in Nadia’s life.
Much of my twenties were spent in a thick fog of the mind. When the fog got too thick to see out of, I often turned to reading and writing, mostly about mental illness. I paid attention to studies of orphans and abandoned children.
The voicemail from my mother had to be deleted, as did the record of her phone number, as did the cheerful messages Anabel left about meeting again before she returned to Pakistan. Anabel, as usual, was ready to move on. I could not. Not this time. I went back to bed for the rest of the day, and the day after that. Yet, even in sleep, the vibrations persisted.
I did not enjoy reading Aftershocks. Enjoyed would be the wrong word. Rather, it gave me a glimpse into a world, a foreign world of depression where I was a visitor. I appreciate the perspective, the view inside. What would I have done? How lucky am I that I didn’t have to make those choices. How sad the cracks and rifts that accumulate until the inevitable break. Look how the body carries the history of war and suffering so that a child, a human has to contend with that too and not just their own experience; the past stretches its fingers into the present, the future.
- When Nadia was seven, her mother visited her, and she learned of a terrible earthquake in Armenia. Her great-grandparents had escaped from Turkey during the Armenian genocide of 1915-17 and were ethnically Armenian.
- Nadia lived in England with her aunt from age 3 – 5 and attended boarding school in Surrey for a year when she was 12. She was brought back home as her father was dying.
- Anabel and Nadia have a difficult relationship. There were many ways that Anabel did not take care of her and made her suffer. Yet, Anabel let her stay with her after her father died, and her mother didn’t offer.
- Her mother remarried twice after she divorced, first to a Somalian man and then to . Anabel got to see her occasionally as a child but never lived with her again outside brief visits. When Nadia was in her 20s, they reconciled.
As I was making my way out of the fog of my twenties, I called my mother. It was time to end our estrangement, time to try to heal our wounds.
- The family had to leave Ethiopia after a coup, after soldiers stormed their home. This was the time frame in which Eritrea and Ethiopia were separated.
- At private school, Nadia learned that proximity to whiteness is an asset. She used her knowledge to differentiate herself from the other black girl at boarding school, choosing belonging with the powerful group.
- Nadia experienced the terror of September 11th first hand.
Both of us were covered in gray dust. There were abandoned shoes and purses and shopping bags strewn everywhere. There were masters of the universe weeping on their knees.
- Nadia and Anabel had a superficial relationship but would always meet when Anabel came to New York. On once such occasion, when Nadia was 28, they had dinner together. Over an argument, Anabel told her father wasn’t such a saint, that he’d died of AIDS.
- During a mental breakdown, Nadia sat in a blue chair for 7 days. At the time, she was completing a masters in urban planning and policy. She read, listed to Coltrane and experienced the aftershocks and tremors of the earthquakes in her life.
Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Cade Bambara. They had advised me, consoled me, sustained me, saved me before. I needed them now more than ever. And, I turned to memoirs of madness.
Quotes that Resonate
I approached mourning him with fierce intention. Grieving, I learned, was a process of story construction. I needed to construct a story so I could reconstruct my world.
It was clear, then, that self-selection into a group did not necessarily lead to acceptance.
This idea of the importance of burying our bones also shows up in What Storm, What Thunder.
We must have, or we will always search for, a place to bury our bones.
Everyone argued over things they would later throw away. Everyone argued over things they would later throw away.
Contradiction, to me, spoke to the existence of context and complexity, and beyond that, to the reality that, no matter how much we know, there is much that cannot be known.
Whiteness can rebuke, revoke, exile, largely with little consequence to the white people wielding its power. And its power need not be named. “She was just too angry. Bad for the culture. Unproductive,” they will say as they close your personnel file and post a job description to replace you, making sure to note that diverse candidates are welcome to apply. We can name whiteness and call it out, and face the consequences, or we can sit on our hands, bite our tongues, watch our grammar and enunciation.
A story is a flashlight and a weapon. 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.
Nadia ends Aftershocks with the pouring of libations. She has climbed to the rooftop of her apartment building, and she pours libations to the ancestors and to the family members that have impacted her life. It is a cleansing, an ending, a beginning. Then, she explores the concept of home, taking us through a chronology of the places that have shaped her, homes.
Look into my eyes. See my glowing skin. My pores are open. I am made of the earth, flesh, ocean, blood, and bone of all the places I tried to belong to and all the people I long for. I am pieces. I am whole. I am home.