Nadia Owusu on Processing Trauma

September 28, 2020 | 1 book mentioned 4 min read

In January, Simon & Schuster will publish Nadia Owusu’s Aftershocks: A Memoir, which traces her nomadic childhood, the early absence of her parents, and the enduring impact of experiences that have shaped her as a person and an artist. Born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to an Armenian American mother and a Ghanaian father who worked for a U.N. agency, Owusu lived in England, Italy, Ethiopia, and Uganda before the age of 18, when she moved to New York City. And while, she says, she “loved the countries I lived in,” she “never deeply understood them, and grew up far from my parents’ cultures.” To that feeling of displacement, add the trauma of Owusu’s mother abandoning the family when Owusu was two, and the death of her adored father when she was 14. Owusu struggled emotionally, especially after coming to learn more about the circumstances of her father’s illness and death.

“To heal,” Owusu writes, “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. My unsolved questions were about my mothers and my father. They were about loss, longing, and fear; about my abandonment…But they were also about the borders and boundaries and fault lines on which we all live. They were about fractured surfaces and tectonic forces; about energies unleashed.”

“I started writing about a decade ago,” Owusu says, “not for a book—just writing, trying to understand. I spent time following my curiosity, connecting the countries I’d lived in to the story of my life.” At the international schools she attended, Owusu says, the history she studied was mostly about the West; she knew very little about African history. Owusu was interested in family history and also wanted “to dig into the bigger histories, to process my traumas, not as a project but for myself.”

Now 39, Owusu works full-time as the associate director for learning and equity at Living Cities, a racial economic justice organization in New York City. Deciding to take her writing seriously, Owusu applied to the Mountainview low-residency MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University and started writing memoir. “I found the heat in my musings,” she says. “I trusted my teachers that this material was urgent.” In the second year of the program, she wrote her “first real draft.”

Some chapters were published as standalone pieces: Owusu’s agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff at DeFiore & Company, tells me she first encountered Owusu “through an essay she wrote for Catapult, titled “The Wailing,” depicting the days just after the death of her father, whose presence and love were colossal in her life.” Kaffel Simonoff was impressed that Owusu was able “to conjure such a strong sense of character in such a short span of pages. I reached out and we began a correspondence.”

“The Wailing” became part of the memoir, and the next piece Owusu sent to Kaffel Simonoff, “First Earthquake,” became the opening entry. “It was so clean,” Kaffel Simonoff says. “Line by line, word by word. Nadia writes with such incredible empathy and emotional accessibility. It’s rare to find a writer with her mix of ferocious rigor and warmth and grace.”

In the summer of 2017, Owusu sent a full draft to Kaffel Simonoff, and by fall they had made the commitment to work together. “Nadia came in with all these brilliant interlocking pieces,” Kaffel Simonoff remembers, “and when we spread them out on the conference table, the aftershocks metaphor was there.”

“Meredith got what I was doing,” Owusu says. “I liked her ideas about structure and trusted her feedback. She did deep research into earthquake aftershocks! We didn’t use most of it, but it was interesting, and I felt I had a good partner connected to the work.”

Kaffel Simonoff sent the book to U.S. publishers in April 2018, and within the first few days meetings were set up with several editors. But the fateful one was with S&S publisher (now CEO) Jonathan Karp and senior editor Ira Silverberg, who told me, “I trust Meredith. She sent me the manuscript and I immediately said, ‘We have to have this!’ ”

“There was so much chemistry between Nadia and Ira,” Kaffel Simonoff says. “We did not anticipate taking a preempt, but shortly after we left we got an offer that knocked us out. It was clear that this was the right home.” According to Kaffel Simonoff, S&S bought North American rights to Aftershocks for “a healthy six figures.”

Silverberg did most of the editing. When he left S&S, Carrie Goldstein had it for a time, and finally Dawn Davis took it over in March 2019. Davis, founder and publisher of 37 Ink, says, “When Meredith asked me if I would take over Aftershocks, I was very interested in the places in it, and I love Ira’s taste. I was happy to protect and be custodian for something he loved. It was an honor, not a favor. This is a classic narrative.” She adds: “There’s the heart of a poet in Nadia’s language. It’s one of those books you start underlining as soon as you start reading.” Davis will be leaving 37 Ink for a new position at Bon Appétit but says she may be a consulting editor for the book.

Aftershocks will publish in the U.K. in February with Sceptre, and rights have been sold in the Netherlands and Sweden. And then there’s the 2019 Whiting Award that Osuwu won on the basis of the memoir’s manuscript.

“I was in shock when I got the news,” Owusu says. “They called but I didn’t answer. I thought it was spam, and then I checked my emails too late to call back. I didn’t have a book out, so I was completely surprised. When they told me I had won, I said, ‘How?’”

Bonus Links:
Nadia Owusu on Validating Each Other’s Experiences
Making Sense of Trauma: The Millions Interviews Melanie Abrams
Trauma Is the Thing We Inherit

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

is an author and an editor-at-large at Publishers Weekly.

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