Processing Trauma: On Nadia Owusu

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.

Sprawling Messes Are What I Aim For: The Millions Interviews Chris Ware

The product of 18 years of work, Chris Ware’s graphic novel Rusty Brown is set in a parochial school in 1970s Omaha, Neb. The book will be published in Sept. 24 by Pantheon.

Ware’s book takes a plunge into the daily consciousness of his characters—third grader Chalky White; his sister Alice, perpetually bullied middle-schooler Rusty Brown; his remote father, Woody Brown; cruel stoner Jordan Lint; and Joanne, a black teacher with a powerful secret—in a methodical, unsentimental, lyrical rendition of their lives.
Meticulously drawn and designed, each page is a testament to Ware’s distinctive visual syntax and to a story that is both heartbreaking and heartrending. In this email exchange, Ware responded to questions about the creation of the book and his  process.
The Millions: You’ve been working on this book for 18 years. When did you imagine Rusty Brown as a book? Your editor Chip Kidd said that the last hundred pages or so are unpublished. How long did they take you?

Chris Ware: I drew the first page of Rusty Brown a week after finishing [my earlier graphic novel] Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000). I knew it would be a long book, but as in the embarrassing cases of my other experiments, never thought it would go on as long as it has, or metastasize into such a sprawling mess. Then again, sprawling messes are what I aim for, since they most accurately reflect real life. After a few years of working on it along with other projects (I started Building Stories [a PW Best Book in 2012] and finished that somewhere in the middle) it became clear that it would stretch well into a many-years-long project and I decided to make that a defining characteristic of the book rather than a humiliating secret.
I’ve changed as a person while working on it, reflected both in how I draw and in how I write, and the nation has changed as well, all of which I’ve tried to acknowledge and incorporate into the “feel” and plot (for lack of a better word.) Then again, this sort of “staying the same while changing” is no different from the way in which we all live, trying to fix what we consider important moments in our minds yet inevitably changing and rewriting them, while making plans which always change or fall apart in the face of unpredictable fortune and tragedy.
TM: How autobiographical is Rusty Brown?
CW: Well, comics are the art of memory, and every word, picture, gesture, idea, aim, regret, etc. that’s gone into the story has somehow filtered through my recollection and selectivity, so it’s all somehow autobiographical. I did grow up in Omaha, and while I share qualities with all of the characters in the book, I’ve tried to imagine people different from myself and also to understand and empathize with them as much as possible, since I believe that’s really the only aim and hope for humanity and art, and also one of the points of the book, more or less.
With Building Stories I tried to write a book without a beginning or an end, and Rusty Brown is an attempt to write a book without a protagonist, despite its goofy title. Without going all college-seminar-y here, it’s inspired by the structure of a snowflake, the six-sided shape of which is determined by the molecular structure of a water molecule, and which cannot form without a central piece of flotsam or grit. Though that sounds really pretentious; sorry.

TM: Can you tell me something about your process?
CW: Every morning after recording the events of the previous day in my comic strip diary, I sit down at my table and try to avoid all of the distractions of the modern world day by turning off my computer and phone. If I’m starting from a blank page I might have some notes or ideas as to how the page is going to take shape, but those might also be completely jettisoned once I get going, since when I start drawing, new ideas and memories float to the surface based on what I’m looking at that rather than what I was thinking about; sometimes I might even remember a person or an incident I’ve completely forgotten, or a character “reacts” to something in a way I would not. In simpler words, it’s improvised, but no more improvised than it would be to sit down, stare at a wall and see what I could script and come up with—which, from experience, I find is always vastly inferior and banal compared to what the slow-release inward-looking process of drawing suggests.
I work in lumps of two pages each, since that’s how books are bound, and once I get two pages all “written,” which means drawn in pencil and which usually takes two to five days, I’ll ink it using a brush and ink, which usually takes a day or two. Then I’ll scan it in and color it, which takes a day. So generally it takes about a week to do two pages. Not a very efficient mode of storytelling. Then again, it allows for a certain slow percolation of ideas and story that perhaps other art forms don’t. The guiding rudder of writers I revere like Zadie Smith, Tolstoy, Joyce, Nabokov, etc. provide a humiliating reminder that I’m never trying hard enough or getting enough done, but Rusty Brown is my current best attempt to make a literary graphic novel that respects its reader, and unlike a film director or even an artist with multiple assistants, it’s all me doing it and none of it involves any collaboration or editorial adjustment. So if a reader doesn’t like it, then I’m solely to blame.
TM: Can you tell me about the book jacket for Rusty Brown?
CW: Not unlike the folding jacket for Jimmy Corrigan, this one is something of the conceptual inverse, designed to be folded into a different jacket for each of the book’s three protagonists. Once the second part is published for the other three, it could also be arranged into a larger diagram of how the six characters combine and narratively mortify each other. It, like the book itself, is loosely based on the structure of a water molecule. Perhaps I was in college for a little too long.