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'Aftershocks' Is A Powerful Memoir Of A Life Upended — Then Pieced Back Together

Simon & Schuster

When Nadia Owusu was 7 years old and living in Rome with her father, stepmother and younger sister, two events occurred on the same day that upended her world.

The first was a disaster she didn't experience personally, but heard about on the radio: a catastrophic earthquake in Armenia, where her mother's family had lived before they sought refuge in America. The second was the sudden appearance of her mother, standing nervously at the front door, gripping a pair of red balloons in her hands.

Owusu hadn't seen her mother for three years, but now there she was, along with her silent second husband. They'd been vacationing in Italy. Her mother whisked Nadia and her sister off for a day of fun, before she vanished again.

As happens, especially in the minds of children, those two events became soldered together in memory. Here's how Owusu puts it in her new memoir: "When I was seven, my mother showed up with an earthquake and red balloons. I remember her shaking hands and I remember the shaking earth. In me, private and seismic tremors cannot be separated."

Owusu's lyrical and tough memoir is called Aftershocks; and though, at first, it may seem like an overly dramatic conceit for Owusu to tell the story of her life in terms of tremors, seismic shock waves, and fault lines, those metaphors quickly come to seem apt, even restrained.

Owusu's memoir is a classic "search for identity" story, one that's complicated by the fact that the ground beneath Owusu's feet is so unstable. Owusu's out-of-the-picture mother is white and Armenian American; her beloved father is Black from Ghana. His work with the United Nations gave Nadia and her siblings a cosmopolitan upbringing — Italy, England, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda — but no fixed sense of home.

Being biracial intensifies Owusu's apartness. And, then, there are the abandonments that fracture her life. Her mother's unexplained departure when Nadia is 4 is followed by the death of her father when she's 13 and, almost simultaneously, the refusal of her mother to take in Owusu and her sister. Instead, Owusu lives, tempestuously, with her stepmother until she leaves for college in New York where, not surprisingly, in her late 20s she experiences a breakdown.

Owusu devotes a portion of this memoir to surveying the ruptured histories of the many countries she's connected to, but it's her striking personal story and charged language that makes Aftershockscompelling. Speaking of her father's death, Owusu comes to realize that "grief is slow internal bleeding." Reflecting on the stories she'd heard about the opposition of her father's family in Ghana to his marriage to her white mother, Owusu passes on this critical folk adage: "Any river loses its identity when entering the sea." Feeling her breakdown approaching, Owusu describes stumbling out of "the speeding purgatory" of her subway train, running into her apartment and spending seven mostly sleepless days rocking in a ratty blue chair she picked up off the street. There she forces herself to confront questions about her "upended, dislocated body and mind. ...[A]bout the geography and geology of my experience — about who I was and how I'd ended up in the blue chair. ... [A]bout finding my way out of it."

Aftershocks, Owusu's father had told her on the day of the Armenian earthquake, are "the earth's delayed reaction to stress." Owusu's breakdown is one kind of aftershock; this well-wrought, often powerful memoir is another.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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