This memoir is one that I have sort of had on the back burner for awhile (after seeing a glowing review around its publication from @bookofcinz), and the time was finally right. Short intro here, but really that’s the whole story, so I won’t belabor it.
“We become the stories we are told.”
In Aftershocks, Nadia Owusu combines memoir with international cultural history and identity within Black womanhood, in (an incredibly creative) combination with a book-long metaphor around fault lines, earthquakes, and the titular aftershocks. Owusu details her blood (and non-blood) related familial history, from Ghana’s colonial past to the Armenian genocide and escape, from living with extended family in England to her stepmother’s Tanzanian roots and family, from attending American schools in Italy to moving and living on her own in NYC for college. With each location, she explores both the sociocultural and political histories and contemporary realities of the place itself, along with the space she occupies (occupied) within that: her own heritage, inheritance and experiences within these places as layers of her identity and influence on the person she is/becomes. She shows how each was formed…and how it then became the thing that contributed to who she became. And as the title indicates, this is all intertwined with both literal (natural and earth based) and emotional-relational (in her individual life) reference to seismic events and their after-effects. An incredibly ambitious framework.
While reviewing memoirs, I absolutely try to comment on the delivery of the “story,” as opposed to judging the life itself, but in this case, I have to just say that Owusu’s life was incredible to read. The breadth of experiences and places she spent her formative years was fascinating. And while I know that that lack of “home” or “belonging” is also, in part, what led to some of her later mental health concerns, it was just truly fascinating to read. I also want to recognize, as Oswusu does herself, that home is both a place and a people, so the intergenerational familial drama, and the fracturing within her home life, in combination with that transigent life, is what really created the instability re: her mental health. And she catalogues that interplay to perfection in this memoir. The way she plays loosely with time is *both* jarring to follow, topically and sequentially, and a deftly used literary device to impart her mental reality to the reader. There were times I loved that jumping around, and times I was more shocked by it, but overall, I respect the decision and what it did for the book. And, in all cases, the threads of tremors/earthquakes/aftershocks that were woven in, whether literal or metaphorical, comprehensively bound it together.
A few final notes. My least favorite sections to read were the “present day” pieces, the ones built around the week she spends at home in the “blue chair,” dealing with an acute mental health break. They were short, and I understand their presence and how they fit (and very much feel for her and what she was grappling with), but for whatever reason I just struggled a little more while reading those. On the other hand, I particularly enjoyed a number of Owusu’s reflections: on language(s) and their place in cultural belonging and/or distance; on the dissonance of being protected in a space of fear/terror alongside the easiness of letting yourself fall into the comfort of safety and not worrying about things outside that bubble (on her time spent abroad as an expat in countries experiencing civil war/violence), and on the way that her skin color and heritage meant something different (in regards to both interpretation and in the way she was treated/interacted with) every single place she lived. I also cannot really articulate how moved and impressed I was with her unflinching self-awareness, and willingness to call out and share even the “worst” of herself, her thoughts and actions/reactions to things, that most of us would do anything to not have people know.
This was a formidable memoir, insightful and educational and personal and (to repeat) unflinching. In one of Owusu’s final sections, she “pours libations,” recognizing and honoring (or at least simply accepting) everyone in her life that made her who she is, both the good and the…less supportive. It was a phenomenal way to bring this book, and the astounding reflection on a life to date, to a close.
There were a lot of passages I highlighted while reading/listening to this. Here are a few:
“It has always been difficult for me to say the word home with any conviction. When I was a child, I often felt like an outsider among my own family. Between me and them were borders – geographic, spiritual, cultural, linguistic. And no sooner had we arrived in a place than we had to prepare to leave it. My father used to say that no matter where lines were drawn, all human beings, all living things, are connected. We all belong everywhere on this small planet. We all belong to one another. […] I was not supposed to ache for the people and places we left behind.”
“In me, private and seismic tremors cannot be separated.”
“History is a story, my grandfather said. I offer a friendly amendment: history is many stories. Those stories are written, spoken, and sung. They are carried in our bodies. They billow all around us like copper-colored dust that sometimes obscures everything. In those stories, we grasp at meaning. We search for ourselves, for our place, for direction. We search for a way forward: a woman warrior, a complicated man, an invitation home, a meteor, a lake, a child landing, with a splat. Destruction and creation. Changes in light, terrain, and atmosphere. Delicate new freedom. Hope.”
“Some things are out of the gods’ control. And some matters require more from us than hope or prayer. They require us to see and support one another. They require us to defend one another. We must all, in the end, make peace with that.”
“Our voices, I think, are not just the vehicle through which we express ourselves, but also affect how we process and translate the world, how our dreams are made.”
“Knowing and accepting the inevitable are two different things.”
“I was fascinated by place because no place had ever belonged to me; nor had I ever belonged to any place.”
“How easy to forget that people not so far away lived in terror.”
“An earthquake is the ground breaking and the heart breaking. It is frictional forces and literary device. A fault is a weakness. A woman’s body is a weakness. A wound is a weakness I can’t help but pick at. Some wounds never heal. 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.”
“Judgement and shame are used to stop people from poking their fingers into the cracks of sacred stories, from peering into what is hidden underneath. We all have sacred stories, whether we like to admit it or not.”
“When our stories require us to pass judgement, to inflict shame on ourselves and others, to set ourselves apart, we cause harm.”