Aftershocks: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Identity by Nadia Owusu

“To heal, I would need to look inward as well as outward. I would need to examine my memories. I would need to interrogate the stories I told myself—about myself, about my family, about the world.”

Unflinching and elegant Aftershocks is an impressive, engrossing, and deeply moving memoir by a promising author. In her memoir, Nadia Owusu explores the way in which her upbringing shaped her sense of self. Throughout the course of her non-linear narrative, which jumps from Ghana, America, England, Italy, Ethiopia, and Uganda, from her childhood to her adulthood, identity, loss, fear, madness, longing, belonging, abandonment, and Blackness are underlining motifs and, as the title suggests, Owusu uses earthquakes related terminology—foreshocks, faults, aftershocks, mainshocks—as a lens through to which she reassesses her past experiences and her shifting perception of herself.

“I ached for lasting connection, for a place where rejection was not inevitable. No matter how many times I stood on bare floors, surrounded by blank walls, telling myself I belonged everywhere and to everywhere, emptied houses never stopped feeling like ruin.”

Rather than providing a straightforward linear retelling of her life, Owusu’s narrative jumps from memory to memory, in a way that felt natural and far from confusing. She dwells on different periods of her childhood and her teen years, in particular, on her relationship to her father (who she idolized), her mother who after marrying for all intent and purposes disappeared from Owusu and her younger sister’s lives, and her rocky relationship with her father’s ‘new’ wife. Owusu is both observant and incisive when it comes to examining herself, her family, and the countries she lived in. As the daughter of a Ghanian father and an Armenian mother raised across numerous and vastly different countries she is time and again forced to question who she is, how others perceive, how she fits within a certain society. Those instances recounting her time in Rome were particularly hard to read as I was born and grew up there and could easily imagine the kind of way in which Italians would have exoticized her Blackness (my best friend growing up although white had dark skin and was often taunted and called ‘dirty’ because of it). I also found her relationship with her father, who died of cancer, to be incredibly moving. I truly respect how self-critical Owusu is when revisiting her childhood as she does not paint herself as the hero nor the villain of her own story. She has hurt and been hurt, she grieved and loved, she longed for a mother figure yet she also pushed her stepmother away. Owusu is also cognisant of her own privilege, for example, when she observes the poverty and violence present in Ethiopia. While the people she writes of are rendered in vivid detail, some of what she recounts is obscured, by pain or distance, so that each moment she writes appears in a unique light.
Because her father worked for UN Owusu grew up in many different countries. When revisiting her memories of her many ‘homes’ she not only writes about her personal/family history but often delves into a country’s own history. For example, when remembering her time in Ghana, she dedicates many passages to exploring Ghana, its people, its rich history, and its myths. It was truly illuminating. I also found her discussions on language and code-switching to be deeply captivating. Owusu’s nuanced approached to race, racism, and Blackness makes for some thought-provoking reading material.

Towards the end Owusu’s earthquake metaphor does seem a bit strained, one could even say affected, but I could see why she is so obsessed by it. It allows her to understand the topography of her own mind and body, and the marks left by the trauma, grief, and abandonment she experienced growing up.

Aftersohocks is a striking memoir that moved me tears. Owusu’s prose, by turns graceful and direct, combined with her distinctive storytelling (her non-linear structure, her shifts in pacing and style, her earthquake metaphor, her ability to depict time, place, and person) make Aftersohocks into a powerful and not soon to be forgotten memoir.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang

While browsing a charity shop I picked up this collection of short stories. What drew me the most to Home Remedies was its cover (bright pink in my edition), and while I wasn’t expecting to like every single story, I hoped that I would find a few to be memorable. Sadly, none of the stories drew me in. Wang examines some serious—and potentially compelling—themes (generational differences, dislocation and deracination, familial expectations vs. personal identity) but her stories never led anywhere interesting, they meandered without focus, loosing themselves in details or exchanges that did not really contribute to the overall storyline, only to reach anticlimactic conclusions.

The collection is divided in three sections (‘Family’, ‘Love’, ‘Time & Space’), each containing 4 stories. One would think that these stories somehow focused on the topic of the section they are in, but they don’t. Take the story ‘The Strawberry Years’, I don’t think it had anything to do with ‘Love’, and yet it was in that section (the story is a surreal ‘someone is taking over my life’ kind of thing). One would think that a father-daughter story would fit in the ‘Family’ category but no, we find it in ‘Time & Space’ instead. But this is a minor, and I recognise, ultimately superficial ‘quibble’. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much if I found any of the stories interesting or affecting…but they left me cold. The author’s prose presented us with some pretty phrases, and some lucid imagery, but her characters and their experiences felt flat. Characters who belong to older generations are traditional, conservative, hard-workers. Younger characters are materialistic, lazy, opportunistic, and keen to emulate Western ways.
I read Home Remedies less than a week ago and I can hardly remember any of its stories.
Anyway, just because the author’s style did not really resonate with me doesn’t mean you should skip this one.

MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars


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Everything Here is Beautiful: Book Review


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Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

★★★★✰ 4 stars

  “Where are you? Where the fuck are you, Lucia?”

Being punched in the stomach would have been less painful than this.

Lee’s depiction of mental illness is both incredibly vivid and deeply disturbing. Lucia is the focal point of the narrative: she is a free-spirit, full-of-life, a romantic with a big heart. However in her early twenties, something changes. Miranda is in many ways the opposite of her younger sister Lucia and after their mother’s death, Miranda struggles to understand what exactly is happening to her once so happy sister.
Not only does Lee masterfully utilises different point of views in order to give all of her characters an ‘equal’ voice but she also gives us a glimpse of what an ‘outsider’ thinks of Lucia’s situation and of her friends and family. After a particularly severe episode Lucia is hospitalised and we see what the nurses and doctors think of Lucia herself, and of her loved ones (Miranda, Manny—Lucia’s boyfriend— and Yonah, Lucia’s husband).
Each point of view brilliantly renders the individuality of a certain character. The chapters from Lucia’s perspective (which could be both in 1st and 3rd person) were incredibly jarring. A series of staccato sentences, broken up thoughts and impressions, really made me feel what Lucia was experiencing. In spite of how disturbing this feeling was, it was hard to take my eyes away from Lee’s vivid prose.
Another thing that stood out to me was the way in which Lee describes different places and cultures. Each of the main characters has a rich and multi-layered background. And the people that orbit around the main ‘cast’ were just as distinctive. With only a few words Lee is able to imbue her characters with history, personality and realism.

“There’s a word for this in Portuguese: saudade. It’s not exactly nostalgia, there’s more of a longing in it, for a feeling or way of life that may be impossible to recapture—that may or may not have even existed in the first place. An indolent dreaming wistfulness is how I’ve seen one writer describe it. Now that’s a great word.”

The narrative traces Lucia’s life, and the way in which she attempts to escape from her diagnosis. Fearing the loss of her individuality, Lucia tries to reject labels and or diagnosis, which are presented to her as inescapable sentence. Those she cares for try in different way, and with different—if not terrible—results, to help her. More than once the characters and their narratives confront the increasingly blurred line between Lucia and her mental illness. Would Lucia still be herself if it wasn’t for mental illness? Is her personality a result of her schizophrenia? Where does Lucia begin and where does her disorder ends?

“Later, in hindsight, they would come together on this: to wonder when it had become impossible to distinguish which parts of Lucia fell under her own juridistinction and which belonged to her illness.”

Lee does not provides with an answer. In her portrayal of Lucia—and of mental health in general—she never resorts to a didactic or dogmatic explanations, but rather she lets her narrative—which follows different characters during different periods of Lucia’s life—relate how Lucia’s illness is perceived by her and those around her.

 “I’m human first, aren’t I? Aren’t we all?”

We could clearly see that Miranda has the best intentions and tries her best to help Lucia, yet, we can also see how Lucia and others might find Miranda ‘controlling’.
We could also see how Lucia begins to disconnect from her everyday reality and those around her. For example, she is unable to recognise Manny’s terror at being deported or Miranda’s own concern about trying to have a child of her own.
The relationships between the various characters are all too realistic. Misunderstandings can foster resentment and tensions. In spite of all of this pain and hurt, there are some truly beautiful moments of tenderness and compassion that convey the underlying love and affection between these characters.

“You could say: This is the way tow people drift apart.”

Equally harrowing and evocative, Everything Here Is Beautiful is a heart-rendering debut that really that really packs a punch.

“I try not to think about it. I don’t take it personally. People say things, people do things, these two are not the same, I know that. I hope she’s happy, that’s all.”

There are a lot of ‘disturbing’ and painful things: Lucia’s mental illness, how her diagnosis alienates her from her sister, what Lucia experiences during one of her psychotic episodes, what others feel in witnessing Lucia’s dangerous behaviour. And perhaps all of these distressing moments make those rare moments of calm and or peace all the more beautiful.

“When she wakes, she feels something inside her like a venom, a flare in her chest, a burning sensation just beneath her skin. The serpents. A thought flickers. She extinguishes it. When she slows her breath to listen, the air is quiet. It is only her.”

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