Complex and poetic, this memoir is an unwavering exploration of history, trauma, and the ways our families shape us.
Good to know
Nadia Owusu grew up all over the world—from Rome and London to Dar-es-Salaam and Kampala. When her mother abandoned her when she was two years old, the rejection caused Nadia to be confused about her identity. Even after her father died when she was thirteen and she was raised by her stepmother, she was unable to come to terms with who she was since she still felt motherless and alone.
When Nadia went to university in America when she was eighteen she still felt as if she had so many competing personas that she couldn’t keep track of them all without cracking under the pressure of trying to hold herself together. A powerful coming-of-age story that explores timely and universal themes of identity, Aftershocks follows Nadia’s life as she hauls herself out of the wreckage and begins to understand that the only ground firm enough to count on is the one she writes into existence.
Rome, Italy, Age 7
My mother’s hair is long, straight, and black. It blows behind her in the wind. She is walking away again. In the moonlight, she is a phantom ship, drifting out on obsidian waters, toward the 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. She does not turn to see me in the doorway. I am seven years old, bundled up in a pink sweater and down-stuffed coat, my bobbled hat pulled down past my eyebrows. My white socks are dingy and damp from the rain that seeped into the black canvas shoes I insist on wearing no matter the weather. I want to call out to her but am afraid she will not turn around. Or, worse, that she will, but still won’t choose me. She gets into the passenger seat of the blue Fiat her husband borrowed from an acquaintance. They are passing through Rome for a day, on their way back to Massachusetts. They vacationed in Venice.
Earlier, before my mother arrived without sign or signal, I woke up to the sound of rain. It was dark outside, so dark I thought it might still be night until I smelled pancakes. My father makes pancakes on Saturday mornings.
As I ate my breakfast, face buried in a shabby copy of Little Women, my father fretted. He tapped his foot, peeped at his watch, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. I wondered what was making him anxious and hoped that whatever it was wouldn’t require him to sit at his desk all weekend.
Why I love it
Author, The Groom Will Keep His Name
2020 was a difficult year. Between the pandemic and my grief over my mother’s death, all I sought was comfort, and I looked for it in books—old favorites that offered warmth and friendship and a world without borders. Then I began Nadia Owusu’s memoir Aftershocks. By the end of the first ten pages, the book felt already like one of those favorites, Owusu already like a friend.
To call Aftershocks an “origin story” is too simplistic. As a third-culture kid split between nations and identities (“Ghanaian-Armenian-American” doesn’t even begin to cover it), Owusu recounts not only the physical landscape of her life, but also its emotional terrain. From her absent mother’s reappearances, to her beloved father’s death, to familial revelations that shake her to her core, she envisions past experiences as earthquakes—the moments in her life when she felt as if the planet itself ruptured. What else to do but to measure their magnitudes, to study what came before, and what may come after?
I read this line and had to hide under my desk: “Grieving, I learned, was a process of story reconstruction. I needed to reconstruct a story so I could reconstruct my world.” Grieving, I’ve found, is a lot like immigrating—feeling keenly the loss of something and searching for meaning or solace in the space where there was once a family or a home, a parent or a country. In Aftershocks, Owusu illustrates a life marked by constant upheaval, and how she’s rebuilt after the quakes.
Member ratings (642)
What is home? A difficult question to answer for a young woman who has traveled her whole life. Struggling with abandonment from her mother, and the early death of her father, she sets to find out.
Whittier , CA
Owusu’s life was meant to be written, and she did it justice with her beautiful lyrical prose. I pour libations to you, Nadia, for this memorable piece of art.
Haunting memoir about race and the country we live in. I especially liked the comparison of mental health to an earthquake.
Lees Summit, MO
A great memoir by a mixed race woman with an unusual family situation who was raised abroad. A talented writer to watch.
Ive been loving memoirs and this one really hit home for me — great telling of this story and so raw and relatable.