Family Fault Lines: On Nadia Owusu’s “Aftershocks”

By Anita GillJanuary 12, 2021

Family Fault Lines: On Nadia Owusu’s “Aftershocks”

Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu

THERE IS A common saying not to speak ill of the dead, but what about glorifying them? Can complications arise from such reverence? For 28-year-old Nadia Owusu, her father, who passed away from cancer when she was 14, was exempt from criticism. “For my father, over the years, I wrote several elegies,” she writes, now 39, in her new memoir, Aftershocks. “In them, he was canonized. I needed to believe in something big and pure and godlike. Because I could not bring myself to believe in a god I had never met, a god my father hadn’t believed in, I chose to believe in my father.”

By contrast, Owusu barely tolerates her stepmother, Anabel, the woman she remained with after her father’s passing. After 10 years of estrangement, Anabel meets the 28-year-old Owusu for dinner. The conversation gets heated, and Anabel blurts out a secret about Owusu’s father that tarnishes her pristine image of him. Shattered by the news, Owusu wanders the streets of her adopted city of New York and comes across a blue chair, which she drags to her apartment and occupies for a week while unpacking her father’s past. “If I could not find belonging in my story of my father, in my grief, where could I find it?” she asks. “If I belonged nowhere and to no one, then what was I? Who was I?”

Answering these questions takes an entire book, for within Owusu there are numerous worlds. She is the daughter of a Ghanaian and an Armenian American. She is the child of a United Nations worker. She is a transplant born in Tanzania who spent her formative years in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Italy. She is the elder of two sisters whose mother left the family. She is a descendant of the Ashanti tribe through her father. And after her father’s death, she is a young woman creating a sense of self after great loss.

Abandoning a straightforward chronology, Owusu has organized her memoir according to the theme of seismology. Brief prefaces define key terms that govern the various sections. “Topography,” for example, gathers stories that explore the world in which young Owusu lived. “Faults” examines childhood events that occurred on shaky ground, omen that a big quake is coming. Then there are the “Mainshocks,” the actual traumatic events, such as the death of her father and her eyewitness account of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Early on in the book, Owusu explains her method:

I believed the vibrations and alarm were caused by an instrument in my brain. My seismometer, I called it. I called it that because I had, since my mother arrived with an earthquake when I was seven, been obsessed with earthquakes and the ways we measure them: the ways we try to understand the size and scale of impending disaster.

First triggered by an unexpected visit from her biological mother when she was a child, Owusu equates her anxiety with a piece of scientific equipment intended to warn of impending disaster. For a young woman whose foundations were shaken several times in her life — including numerous moves to locales with literal tectonic rumblings along with the more metaphorical tremors of civil unrest — her approach effectively portrays the inner angst of individuals who have grown up amid trauma and have learned to be vigilant, to read the slightest shifts as foreboding. Owusu’s narrative deftly demonstrates a keen sense of others’ emotional states, in particular Anabel’s. In the scene at the restaurant, Owusu is sharply aware of the masks her stepmother wears and the emotional triggers that could set her off.

It takes a skillful hand to weave complex concepts so seamlessly into a narrative, and Owusu executes this masterfully. By relating the events of her upbringing, she is also telling the story of her father and the history of the countries that had become home to her. In her conversations with her father, she learns about the history of African nations and their struggles to carve out an identity separate from the West. Owusu acknowledges her privilege in living safely within high-walled compounds, while local citizens faced food shortages, poor education, and military uprisings. “I can only talk about the civil wars in Ethiopia and Uganda from a remove, from a protected place,” she writes. “My walls were high and barbed with wire and cut glass.” As the daughter of a United Nations World Food Programme employee, she had the freedom to escape immediate danger, but she could not evade the lingering emotional scars.

While Owusu displays a reverence for her background, she also addresses some potentially harmful cultural practices. In one scene, African ladies stand and wail outside her house in Rome, a ritual meant to help her father’s spirit become an ancestor instead of a ghost stuck in limbo. “The theatricality of the mourning ceremony horrified me. I couldn’t grieve, because other people’s flamboyant, feigned grief was all around me.” In narrating this personal experience of cultural conflict, Owusu shows how mourning as a collective performance tends to neglect the individuals who require attention and care.

Unable to find stable ground, Owusu centers her narrative on her body, which she brilliantly reclaims in these sections. Whether it’s coming to understand her sexuality or examining herself through the lens of race, Owusu takes the reader deeply through her thoughts and experiences. In one section, she narrates several traumatizing events in the third person, in order to distance the event; at the end of the passage, she returns to the first person and reclaims herself. “‘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.” In her experiences with men, she recognizes how the male gaze can be predatory and possessive, and she resists this objectification and appropriation. In terms of race, Owusu considers her blackness against the backdrop of the numerous countries in which she has lived, in a way that serves as an indictment of the systemic biases prevalent in American society.

Nadia Owusu currently works at a nonprofit in New York City that focuses on urban planning, her career path clearly echoing her father’s vocation for helping communities. She was the recipient of a 2019 Whiting Award, granted in great part for her ability to craft eloquent sentences that distinctively convey the depth of her thoughts and feelings. In Aftershocks: A Memoir, her first book, you will journey across countries, hear numerous languages, and feel how deep a loss can go.


Anita Gill is a writer, educator, and recent Fulbright Fellow to Spain. She currently serves as the nonfiction editor for Hypertext Magazine

LARB Contributor

Anita Gill is a writer, educator, and recent Fulbright Fellow to Spain. She currently serves as the nonfiction editor for Hypertext Magazine.


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