How Nadia Owusu Discovered the Story She Needed To Tell
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on the Thresholds Podcast
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan talks to Nadia Owusu, author of Aftershocks: A Memoir, about the familial revelations that inspired the book, about her journey through (and reclamation of) madness, and about coming to embrace the forces that have shaped her life.
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From the episode:
Nadia Owusu: I was working on this for probably a decade, doing a lot of research just for myself. It started with the journals that I was writing when I was in this period of deep depression and then coming out into the world and realizing, oh, I never—you don’t get a lot of African history in school. Even when I was at international schools in Africa, we didn’t really study a lot of African history. I never studied the Armenian genocide, for example. There was so little that I knew about those histories. And so then coming out into the world and realizing I really need to understand these stories that have so shaped me and these forces that shaped my life, and doing that research for myself.
I was doing that for about a decade just for myself. It was this kind of private project that I would add to; I had a folder on my computer. And then somewhere along the line I started writing a novel, through which I was fictionalizing some of the events of my life. And I went into an MFA program, a low-residency MFA program, thinking that the novel was what I was going to work on and that that was going to be hopefully a book that I would put out into the world. And I had a deadline coming up, and the novel, it was really not working—I think in part because I was so involved in this private project, and that was really where my energy was. But I was afraid of writing that or turning that into a book. I wanted to hide behind what I was doing with the fiction.
It just wasn’t coming together. I had a deadline and the pages that I had were so awful, I felt like, “I can’t send these as my submission. It’s just too bad.” So then I went into the private project and I extracted a section of it and I edited it and shaped it and sent that instead. And my mentor was like, yeah, this is what you need to write. Stop writing that novel. Maybe you’ll write another novel after this, but this is clearly the story that you need to tell right now.
Nadia Owusu is a Brooklyn-based writer and urban planner. She is the recipient of a 2019 Whiting Award. Her lyric essay So Devilish a Fire won the Atlas Review chapbook contest. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Granta, the Guardian, Bon Appétit, Electric Literature, The Paris Review Daily, and Catapult. Aftershocks is her first book.