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Nadia Owusu Examines Her Ghanaian-Armenian Identity In 'Aftershocks'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Aftershocks," a memoir by Nadia Owusu, opens with an earthquake. She hears about it over the radio and over pancakes when she's 7 years old, growing up in Rome with her sister, being cared for by her father, whom they love, after their mother has left their family but has returned to see them just for a day while she's passing through town. The earthquake is in Armenia a long ways off, but Nadia Owusu says my mind has a seismometer inside it.

"Aftershocks" is a memoir of a tough, interesting, multinational, multiracial upbringing and adulthood that ranges around the world, from Rome to Kampala to New York and dozens of stops in between. It's the first book from Nadia Owusu, a writer and urban planner, who joins us from Brooklyn. Thanks so much for being with us.

NADIA OWUSU: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: You say, early on, it's always been difficult for me to say the word home with any conviction. Moving on was what we did. Your father was a U.N. official. Where did you and your family live? How many places?

OWUSU: (Laughter) So I was born in Tanzania. My father was from Ghana. My mother is Armenian American. And because my father worked for the United Nations, we went back and forth between the headquarters of the agency he worked for, which was in Rome, Italy, to different countries in East Africa, mostly. So I lived in Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and then also went to boarding school for a while in the U.K.

SIMON: You loved your father. And having read your book, if I may, I love your father.

(LAUGHTER)

OWUSU: I'm glad.

SIMON: And alas, he died when you were 14. And - oh, this is hard to bring up with you, but your stepmother told you something that sounds like it meant it was - like it was meant to cause another earthquake in your life.

OWUSU: Yeah. So I have a very complicated relationship with my stepmother. It still is complicated. There was a lot of tension and sort of competitiveness for my father's attention. And she - I moved to New York when I was 18 for college. And, you know, she would come and visit occasionally. And we had kind of a petty argument. But through that petty argument, she sort of revealed to me that my father had not died of cancer, as I had always believed, but that, in fact, he had died of AIDS.

And I, still to this day, don't know whether that's true. But I kind of decided that it shouldn't matter. But at the time, I think, for so many reasons, it really was an earthquake in my life because my love for my father and my story of him, in which we had a very open, honest relationship that I could return to, was so important to me. And this revelation sort of made me question that story. And it really did sort of set me off on a tailspin to sort of try to understand what I could believe and what I could hold on to if I didn't have that story.

SIMON: Reading the book, I had the impression that you might have felt that way because AIDS might suggest promiscuity in your father as he traveled the globe, which just didn't fit up with the father you knew. Now, without giving anything away - I mean, if that was true, A, it's got nothing to do with his love for you, and, B, I - yeah, I can see why your stepmother - she can't hurt him anymore. But I don't know. Somehow in her mind, she thought she had to hurt you with that knowledge.

OWUSU: Yeah. I mean, I think it's a very self-centered thing that I thought I - in my story of my father, that I was the most important person in his whole world and that he couldn't possibly have had a life outside of the life that he had with me. And looking back on it as a grownup, you know, that's ridiculous. Of course he had a life (laughter) outside of the life that he had with me. And, you know...

SIMON: But he did love you and your sister.

OWUSU: Exactly. And he loved us so much. And no revelation changes that. And I think that that's ultimately where I came to and realized that no story anyone can tell me can change that love and that experience and that connection that we had with him.

SIMON: Yeah. A lot of this memoir is written from the confines of a blue chair that you got out on the street. How did that happen?

OWUSU: Yeah. So after that revelation - and I was also going through a breakup at the time and really just going through a period of depression and anxiety. And I would go on these really long walks around New York. And on one of those walks on my way back to my apartment, I saw this blue chair. And something drew me to it. And I dragged it home with me. And then ultimately it ended up being sort of a whole country for me that I retreated to for seven days while I went through this period of depression and anxiety but also sort of reckoning with this grief that I hadn't really dealt with and spent much of that time sort of sitting in that blue chair.

SIMON: Yeah. When you've sought professional help for what you even refer to as panic attacks, it strikes me that some well-meaning people don't quite understand why it's not helpful to say, it's not your heart. Don't worry. It's all in your head.

OWUSU: (Laughter) Yes. Yes, I ended up going to the hospital because I didn't know what was happening to me. And I've actually learned since that this is very common for people who suffer from panic attacks. The first time it feels like a heart attack, and you feel that something is definitely seriously physically wrong with you. But I do think that there often is that reaction. Like, just calm down. You know, but it is very different from like, I'm just having a little bit of worry. It's a very different, kind of much more physical experience.

SIMON: Jazz helps, doesn't it?

OWUSU: (Laughter).

SIMON: I was interested to read about that. I like jazz, too.

OWUSU: Oh, nice. Yeah, so my father listened to a lot of jazz and always did when I was growing up. And he was always trying to get me to listen to jazz and teach me about jazz. And particularly, the more avant-garde jazz I always kind of rejected because it's so dissonant. And it didn't make any sense to me. And my father would say...

SIMON: Hard to hum along with John Coltrane, you mean? Yeah.

OWUSU: Yeah, exactly. And I would - you know, my father would always say, you just have to listen differently. You know, it's like learning a new language. And I was like, I don't want to learn this language. But then later in life, you know, particularly as I was going through this difficult period, the dissonance just made so much more sense to me in terms of how I was experiencing the world. And I found myself sort of drawn to my father's music and actually ended up marrying a jazz musician. So there's still that connection (laughter).

SIMON: Oh, my word. Your father must be endlessly delighted.

OWUSU: I think he would love it.

SIMON: Yeah. Nadia Owusu - her memoir, "Aftershocks" - thanks so much for being with us.

OWUSU: Thanks so much for having me. This is lovely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.