In Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” the character Pilate Dead is missing a navel, making her an object of both suspicion and awe.
She was, as she says in the book, “cut off from people early,” left without a trace of her physical connection to her mother. Pilate becomes a drifter, untethered to any one place, but her independence isn’t the same as freedom. As Nadia Owusu writes in “Aftershocks” — a gorgeous and unsettling memoir of Owusu’s own peripatetic childhood, along with the bewilderment and breakdown that came after — it’s only when Pilate learns about her family’s ancestral home in Virginia that she becomes free.
“The idea of roots setting a person free is counterintuitive, but deracination from the past, from land, from family, from mothers, makes for an unstable present,” Owusu writes. Her book is an attempt to understand what it means to be rooted and rootless, to have not one mother but two: a birth mother who left the family when Owusu was barely a toddler, and a stepmother who could be possessive and cruel.
Owusu’s birth mother was Armenian-American; her father was Ghanaian; her stepmother was from a small village near Mount Kilimanjaro. Owusu herself was born in Tanzania. Her father worked for a United Nations agency, and Owusu lived all over — Tanzania, England, Italy, Ethiopia, Uganda. She moved to New York at 18, and studied urban planning: “I was fascinated by place because no place had ever belonged to me.”
“Aftershocks” is thematically structured an earthquake, including the rumbling foreshocks and the shuddering ground after an upheaval. The narrative swings back and forth in time, from Owusu’s earliest memories to a week she spent in her room a decade ago, when she was 28, barely moving from a blue rocking chair she had pulled off the street and hauled up to her Manhattan apartment. “I have written for meaning rather than order,” she says in a prefatory note. She keeps returning to her chosen metaphor, looking for the fault lines, closing in on the epicenter. “The softer the soil, the stronger the shaking,” she writes.
Her seven days in the blue chair were occasioned by her stepmother telling her that her father hadn’t died of brain cancer, as Owusu had believed, but of AIDS. Owusu had idolized her father; she calls him her “Baba-Mama,” the parent who believed in her, who loved her. He died just before she turned 14; she remembers him slipping in and out of delirium, crying out for his own mother in his sleep. They were living in Rome at the time, because her father happened to be stationed there. But Ghana, which she visited, didn’t feel like home to her either. The ancestral mourning rituals that his family forced her to endure made her feel even more alienated.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Owusu was raised to feel as if she could live anywhere. “I know how my parents believed their love and the birth of their daughters to be a part of something important,” she writes, “a movement fueled by borderless love.” Her father’s family lamented his decision to marry a white woman. “Any river loses its identity when entering the sea,” they said. The marriage failed; Owusu had to struggle to piece together who she was, where she belonged, whom she loved. Was her father’s family right?
They were and they weren’t. “Aftershocks” knits together the author’s own experiences with the histories of some of the places she has lived. She has seen poverty and suffering and civil wars, but always at a remove, while ensconced in the privileged bubble of expat life. She was in high school in Kampala, Uganda, when there was a string of grenade attacks in the city, but she doesn’t remember feeling worried. “What was the worst we could imagine while watching ‘Melrose Place?’” she writes. Her view of herself is exacting and remorseless. “I did not fear for my life because I knew my life would be protected over the lives of others.”
Her identity, though, felt malleable and tenuous. Its shifting terrain meant she could empathize with different experiences and hold multiple truths at once, rejecting the concepts of essentialism and supremacy. But it also left her feeling unmoored. At 12, while attending a boarding school in England, her desire to belong was so overwhelming that she allied herself with the white girls who tormented the only other Black girl at the school.
Elsewhere in the book she writes of the kind of split loyalties that were fostered and exacerbated under colonial rule — another fault line. The more Owusu looks, the more fissures she finds. Even the independence movements had their cracks, where incommensurate motives rubbed up against each other. She recounts the tangled legacy of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister and her baby brother’s namesake: “He was freedom fighter and dictator; father of the nation and pillager in chief.”
Owusu begins to reconsider the stories she told herself — how she viewed her stepmother, Anabel, as a one-dimensional figure for decades, because her story “required a villain.” How she idealized her father to the point where her brittle notion of him couldn’t withstand the shock of what her stepmother told her about his death. “As a god, my father couldn’t have hurt my mother or Anabel, couldn’t have had affairs, couldn’t have died of AIDS,” she writes. “I have work to do on myself. I need a new story.”
Sitting in her blue chair in Manhattan, Owusu decided to put on a Coltrane album. Her father had loved Coltrane and tried to get her to listen to his late work, but “the skirmishing horns and keys” unnerved her. Decades later, hearing the music’s sublime cacophony, she felt something she hadn’t felt before: free.
“My father knew the time would come when my questions would threaten to overwhelm me, when the answers available to me would be unbearably insufficient, when harmony would be out of reach,” she writes. “I should have listened sooner.”