A catastrophic earthquake hit the Armenian city of Spitak on the same day that Nadia Owusu, a 7-year-old living in Rome with her Ghanaian father, is abandoned by her mother again. Owusu's mother is Armenian American, and she is passing through Rome on her way back to America with a new husband.
Seared in Owusu's memory is the ghostly image of her mother walking away from her that day. "In the moonlight," Owusu waxes, "[my mother] is a phantom ship, drifting out on obsidian waters, toward a place where the sky and ocean meet, disappearing over the curvature of the earth, and the moment is so evanescent, so intangible, that I am already wondering, a wisp of her still in sight, if she was ever there at all."
Decades later, when Owusu revisits her childhood in the newly published memoir "Aftershocks," she links the two seismic events and explores the way, like an earthquake, her own abandonment is also about "trauma and vulnerability."
But Owusu does not stop there. She employs this quaking metaphor with its terminology — faults, foreshocks, mainshocks and all — as an overarching, self-excavating structure, weaving personal stories together into a compelling, international tale of a biracial woman's quarter-life marred by mental illness and devastating losses.
Around the age of 14, Owusu loses her beloved and devoted Ghanaian father, a United Nations employee, to cancer. Before then, she and her sister crisscross the world with him, from the piazzas of Rome to the stool houses of Kumasi to Dar es Salaam and its sweltering heat to poverty-stricken Addis Ababa in the middle of a civil war.
There is a solo stint in boarding school in England where Owusu becomes entangled in anti-black racism, contending with her light-skinned privilege. Along the way, Owusu's father marries Anabel, a feisty Tanzanian woman with whom Owusu develops a kind of love-hate relationship — and indignities compound in cross-national spaces where roles and identity overlap, especially in the wake of her father's painful death and her mother's confounding absence.
By the time Owusu arrives in New York to attend college, she is unmoored, bewildered by love and desire, depressed and headed disastrously toward a nervous breakdown. Here the book, which mostly rejects the linear form for more organic storytelling, buckles under the weight of the dramatic and overwrought. Yes, there is plenty of urgency and intrigue, but there are lost opportunities to reject pat analogies for deeper reflections on how maddeningly complex we are as humans, especially those who defy easy categorizations of race and belonging.
Nonetheless, Owusu has produced a memoir that is well-written and timely, having documented the minutiae of her early years as if her very own life depended on it. And by the end of the memoir, as the earth seems to steady under Owusu's feet, we come to understand this to be profoundly true.
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based critic and writer.
By: Nadia Owusu.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $26.