As we find ourselves firmly planted in the 21st century, our ideas about how we identify ourselves, and concepts concerning interpersonal relationships have evolved and diversified. Nowhere can this evolution be seen better than in the model of the nuclear family. In spite of resistance from darker, more sinister sources, what makes a “real” family has grown in scope and acceptance. As the incomparable Lin-Manual Miranda stated, “Love is love is love…” And the love between a parent and their child is enormous, no matter what the specific configuration may be. I write these words with a wealth of experience on both sides. Children need their parents’ love. But what they also need, dare I write, in equal measure, is stability. Children are vulnerable.Very little is under their direct control. Hence, even the slightest changes in circumstances can create great tumult in their young lives.
In Aftershocks, Nadia Owusu candidly documents the tremulous nature of her early life. The daughter of a Ghanaian UN official, Owusu spent much of her childhood and adolescence globetrotting, living in both Europe and Africa. This upbringing provides her with a unique perspective and an acquisition of language and culture. But adversely, it often places her in situations where she must subdue her authenticity in order to comfortably adapt to her environment. Always shadowing Owusu, is the absence of her mother, an Armenian-American woman who abandoned the family when Owusu was quite young.
Owusu begins her memoir by describing her mother’s brief re-entry into her life. It comes the day after a deadly earthquake in Armenia. Although Owusu’s family at the time was living in Rome, she as a child heard the news of the event and immediately comprehended the connection to her mother. Fortuitously, later that same day, there was a knock at the door. It was her mother. She had come to spend the day with Owusu and her younger sister. It would be a cursory visit, filled with awkwardness and confusion. It would end with her mother leaving again, to start a new life with a new family in another country. A resonant aftershock.
Several years later, as a teenager, Owusu endures a major “earthquake,” when her much-beloved father succumbs to brain cancer. The loss is shattering. And Owusu spends the next years adrift, moving through dissatisfying romantic relationships and self-destructive behaviors. She attends college and graduate school in New York, and is further rocked by the events of 9/11. Eventually, Owusu’s life reaches an emotional crisis point triggered by a contentious argument with her step-mother, when a dark secret about her father is revealed. The revelation is unsettling, and threatens to destroy the truths Owusu holds onto so dearly. Her world is teetering. The deep cracks are surfacing.
Owusu is an amazing writer. She understands that the genre of memoir inherently requires a deeper honesty; requires emotional and behavioral dissection. It’s a task not meant for the faint of heart. In her presentation, she strives to be fair, often prefacing recounted events with “the way I remember it” qualifications. In the Author’s Notes, she states “…my memory is prone to bouts of imagination…I can only tell my version.” And this is significant because memory is delicate and slippery; becoming increasingly hard to grasp as we move further and further away from the moment in question. Owusu does her best. Admits to her wrongs. Admits to being wronged. She explores race and the disconnect between African-Americans and continental Africans. She delves into her own multicultural background, and how it was viewed differently depending on the country she was in. Ultimately, Aftershocks illuminates the importance of family, whether they’re present or not. They inform our lives in multitudinous ways. As children there are aspects of our parents’ lives that we aren’t fully capable of understanding. Nor are we all that particularly interested in understanding it. But with adulthood, comes a broader sensitivity, and a compassion for life’s many complexities. I highly recommend this book.