As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, authors Louis Chude-Sokei (Floating in a Most Peculiar Way) and Nadia Owusu (Aftershocks) discussed their memoirs, extraordinary stories that trace the authors’ lives through entangled relationships with loved ones across landscapes and cultures in Africa and America. Each author has worked to build and recognize their own identities, writing their own stories to determine where they belong and what belonging even means for a member of the African diaspora in America. Moderated by Kwame Otu.
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“This is autobiography at its best. In stories of the multiple blended accents, atrocities, musics, prejudices and foods of London, Biafra, Jamaica, D.C., South Central L.A. and elsewhere, Chude-Sokei confronts the nightmare of history—along with the persistent, sometimes joyful adventure of awakening from it.” —Robert Pinsky, Poet Laureate of the United States, 1997-2000
“Throughout the book, Owusu writes poignantly about belonging and assimilation…as she grapples with identity and her willingness to erase the most vibrant parts of herself in an attempt to belong. Owusu is unflinching in examining herself, which is commendable… In the end, Owusu ultimately answers what home is. Her definition is pure and restorative to read. ‘I am made of the earth, flesh, ocean, blood and bone of all the places I tried to belong to and all the people I long for. I am pieces. I am whole. I am home.’” —The New York Times
Thanks to the Charlottesville Sister Cities Commission for their support of this program.
JANE KULOW: Hello, and welcome to Finding Home: Memoirs, a program in the all virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. A couple of notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize using the closed captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will for details about how to buy them from our book seller for this event, UVA Bookstore, visit vabook.org where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the festival’s ongoing work at vabook.org/give. Thank you to our sponsor, the Charlottesville Sister Cities Commission and Sister City Winneba in Ghana for their support of this program.
And thanks to our community partners for sharing information about this event, the Carter G. Woodson Institute at UVA and the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center at UVA. Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers.
Louis Chude-Sokei, author of Floating in a Most Peculiar Way is the editor-in-chief for the Black Scholar and director of the African American studies program at Boston University. His writing and scholarship on the literatures and cultures of African diaspora has been recognized internationally.
Nadia Owusu, author of Aftershocks, is a Brooklyn based writer and urban planner. She’s the recipient of a 2019 Whiting Award. Her lyric essay, So Devilish a Fire, won the Atlas Review Chapbook Contest and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the literary review, and electric literature.
And our moderator, Kwame Edwin Otu, is an assistant professor of African American and African studies at the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African American and African studies at UVA. His forthcoming book is Amphibious Subjects: The Contested Politics of Queer Self-making in Neoliberal Ghana. Thank you all for joining us tonight. Kwame, over to you.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Thank you so very much, Jane, for this wonderful introduction and it’s such a delight to finally put faces on Nadia and Louis. Welcome to the University of Virginia. Welcome to Charlottesville, Nadia. Welcome to Charlottesville, Louis. I’m truly honored to be having this conversation or at least to be putting conversation with you. And I’m interested or invested in the fact that we are actually on a panel called Finding Home. Home is really critical for everybody, but especially for Black people and Africans in the diaspora. The very idea of home has always been there, has been present. And I like the fact that in your work both of you approach home in a very interesting way. Not in the fashion that somehow has become so all too familiar, this understanding of home as an immovable domain, home as a linear, a place we go to, a place we always return to. But in a way I like the kind of multilinear dimensions you afford home. I’m particularly interested in your titles.
For me, one thing that I really took from the title is Nadia is talking about aftershocks. So then when I think about aftershocks, I’m thinking about earth, land, I’m thinking about the terrestrial habitat. The reasons talking about floating, I’m thinking about water, I’m thinking about air. I’m interested in really getting to why these particular metaphors … How do they allow you in your journey or how do they allow you to make sense of navigating home or this desire to find home? Aftershocks, which is a Teres Creole analytic and floating, which could be aquatic or a burial. I’m really just interested in that.
LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI: Nadia, would you like to or should …
NADIA OWUSU: Sorry. Thanks for that question. It’s really nice to be here with you both. Yeah, so in terms of the metaphor and the title Aftershock, so a little bit about my story just to give people some background. My mother left when I was two and my sister and I were raised by our Ghanaian father who was the great hero of my life. And he worked for a UN agency, so we moved to a different country every couple of years. And so the notion of home was always very complicated for me. And when I was seven and we were living in Italy, after a long absence my mother showed up at our house on the same day that I learned about a catastrophic earthquake that destroyed the city of Spitak in Armenia. And my mother is actually Armenian American, but she was not much in my life. I remember my father always listened to the BBC World Service and so I remember the announcer on the radio talking about the possibility of aftershocks. And that was the first time that I had heard of the word.
And so I asked my father what aftershocks are and he said that they are the Earth’s delayed reaction to stress. And then that same day my mother, who I hadn’t seen since I was four, I was seven at this time, and my mother showed up at our house in Italy. She lived in the United States. She had remarried and she had two daughters. And she was not much in my life. We spoke on the phone and sometimes she wrote letters, but all of that is to say my mother’s arrival on the same day as an earthquake in Armenia where her roots are got conflated in me and created this metaphor in some ways that I lived inside of without being very aware of it until I started writing this book. And actually I started writing the book just for myself as a private project and it wasn’t until I realized maybe I can make art out of this. And I sent it to a friend and she actually pointed out to me that I was writing in seismic terms a lot and that I was referencing earthquakes.
And I hadn’t really noticed it because it was so natural to me because the earthquakes have been a guiding metaphor for my life. And in some ways her telling me that helped me to see the ways in which your notion of home, the notion that you raised of home not being linear, that using the metaphor of an earthquake, particularly because I already had that private shaking in my own body, made sense because the story of an earthquake is not linear and it’s not easily understood except in retrospect. So what we thought was the earthquake actually is the foreshock and then you have to reshuffle the story. And because my life was so hopscotched, I was living in a different country every couple of years, my father is Ghanaian, my mother was Armenian American. My life was not linear either and so I felt that that was really fitting, and it gave me a way to lean into my story and move towards understanding the story in retrospect through that metaphor.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Thank you so very much, Nadia. That was great. Louis?
LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI: Yeah, it’s wonderful to be here. Not just at the festival, but on this panel with folks who my instincts tell me relate very much to the kind of vision and sensibilities that I’m trying to express. Thank you for the back story, Nadia. I want to add to that with some of my own. My mother was a Jamaican woman who migrated to London as a part of the very famous generation of West Indian immigrants called the Windrush generation, the ones who created multicultural England as we know it today. My mother went there as a nurse after World War II and my father was there. He’s from Nigeria. He was a military man who was going to the prestigious Sandhurst military institution. He was one of those Africans that were picked to take over after the British left. So, he was being trained along with my godfather and a whole cohort of West Africans to become those who took over after the British left. Of course, Jamaicans and the Nigerians were not supposed to have anything to do with each other and they happened to fall in love. And six weeks later she’s in Nigeria.
My father was very much a part of the succession that led to the Nigerian Civil War, the Biafra War. And so my title has a lot to do with this history of the Biafra War because after my father died we became refugees at the end of the Biafra War when Biafra collapsed. And we were refugees smuggled out to Gabon. And according to family legend, the song that allowed me to sleep easier when I was a refugee child in Gabon was David Bowie’s Space Oddity, which features the line floating in a most peculiar way. I don’t know how that true that is, but that legend stayed with me throughout my life. And as I migrated to Jamaica and then to the United States, I found myself always obsessed with that song, to find out if it was true. And then I found myself really listening to other songs by this weird voice and this weird person that was then attached to science fiction, which was my childhood obsession.
And so although it was never able to be verified, my family always said and my mother always said, “Yes, we sang that song to you as a child.” And I know that when I came to the United States, when I first discovered that song is written by a person by David Bowie, my life radically changed because, back to the guiding metaphors that Nadia brought up, floating made sense to me. It always made sense to me. Home for me, turns out, is the process of navigation. It’s not a place, it’s navigation itself. It’s some experience of never landing because there’s never a place that you can affix yourself to. The only things that made sense to me in my childhood, moving from Gabon, Nigeria, Jamaica, the United States, and in between and around multiple communities, the only thing that was secure for me was music and science fiction. And so much of that is how the book is told, is narrated, my relationship to music and science fiction as we migrated all around the world, much like Nadia and her family.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Thank you so very much. Also particularly interested in the women in your lives, right like your aunt. I’m thinking about Nadia’s aunt and stepmother and I’m thinking about your Aunt Harriet. And is it a bigger aunt in Jamaica? And the fact that the presentation of Black women in the narrative is just quiet. It’s unconventional in the way that strips from them in a positive way, that Black women have agency in this text, that they are there. They are playing so many roles that we do not see. So was this your intention to perhaps jettison whatever single narrative we have about black women. Was it part of the desire to portray this kind of representation? Was it intentional?
LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI: Nadia, or should I go ahead? Okay, I’ll say this, it’s unintentional and intentional. It starts out as unintentional simply because, forgive the essential statement, we’re Africans. And our worlds are overwhelmed with women. Aunties, as I say in the book, aunties upon aunties upon aunties. And one of the things that holds the world together for me in the memoir is wherever we travel and migrate, there’s a bunch of new aunties. Some related by blood, some by friendship, some by just extended family, kinship networks. And so aunties are just everywhere and I went out of my way to make sure that they blurred into each other, that no matter where you go there are these aunties, whether they’re Afro-Caribbean, or Nigerian, or African American, or from Nevis, or from different islands. To a child, it’s just everywhere you go there’s aunties.
But as a writer and someone aware of how Black women are represented, I want to make it clear that African women not only always have agency, they always are very much they set the template for how culture is maintained. And I don’t mean that in the classic old school feminist way that women are the home. I don’t mean that at all. They’re also the market, they’re also self-defense, they’re also who beat people up for me when I was a kid. So that was very important for me, but it was also crucial for me to tell the story of a young boy who does not understand that. He spends his life looking for uncles and men. And so he’s believing that there’s something missing, but the narrative is telling him constantly there is nothing missing.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Right. Thank you.
NADIA OWUSU: Yeah, Louis, that resonates with me so much because for much of my life the story that I felt defined a lot of my life. And this is in part because of stories that I’d internalized from reactions from other people when I said that my mother left or when they found out that I was being raised by a single father. And then when my father remarried, that I had a stepmother, but the story was one of abandonment and that I didn’t have a mother, but that wasn’t actually my experience. When I went back to reflect on my life, I had a counsel of mothers, all of the aunties in my life. My Auntie Harriet who mothered me, took me into her home, raised my sister and me along with her daughter, Laura. She was a single mother. She lived in the UK and kindred to your family, Louis, in that she was also a nurse. And she raised my sister and me like we were her own daughters until my father was ready to take on this job of raising two girls on his own and then with my stepmother.
So, looking back on my story and telling my story in my own terms as opposed to the stories I’ve been given, I realized that, no, actually that’s wrong. I had many mothers. I wasn’t motherless. I had many mothers. I had my Aunt Harriet, my Auntie Violet, my Auntie Frieda, all of the aunties who are not related to me, the aunties who maybe were related to me, but I don’t know how, my grandmothers. All of those women raised me and were such forces of strength, and creativity, and love. And that really surrounded me and I had a lot of role models to look up to and to see who I could be as a Black woman as well. And I would also say my father mothered me, too. I think that men can also be mothering if you think about it as a verb. And so I was able to then reject that narrative that I was given of being motherless or even the notion that families like mine are broken families, which is the story that we’re often told. My family isn’t broken. It’s expansive.
When my mother left and my father died when I was 13, my extended family stepped in and offered homes to me and my sister. And that’s a story that is more important than the story of abandonment. That’s a part of who I am, but it’s certainly not all of who I am.
LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI: And building on one thing about this cultural context, and that is basically losing track of who’s related by blood or not. At a certain point, you just stop asking, but one thing I wanted to add is the story of mothers and mothering in the memoir is not always a good one. There’s discipline, there is pain, there is trauma, there is violence, there is confusion, but as a young person, as a young boy becoming a man because this is gendered in that way, it’s also a story about someone who just doesn’t understand what women are going through to raise you across borders. And so I do try to convey that even though there are things going on that the young boy doesn’t understand or is resentful towards those women for. The problem is him not knowing, not so much the women not doing.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: I think there’s a lot of transgression, too. And I really appreciate, Nadia, you bringing up your father mothering you because we don’t usually get that kind of portrayal. And so seeing your father who is also atheist, if I’m right. So I think this takes me to my next question on religion because it looks as if both of you are coming from very divergent perspectives when it comes to religion. So then how does that play a role in this quest that you’re pursuing to find home in this kind of tussle back and forth, this tightrope you’re walking?
NADIA OWUSU: Yeah, so my father was an atheist. I mean, he was raised an altar boy in the Anglican church, as many Ghanaians are, but as he grew up decided that he wanted different kinds of stories. And he would always talk to me about he felt like those stories were too simple and that there was nothing wrong for searching for the divine or searching for grace. And, in fact, he even encouraged me to make up my own mind. I did my confirmation and went to Sunday school, even though he didn’t believe. And he would go to church when my grandmother forced him to. And he very much emphasized, like, “I want you to make up your own mind, but also I want you to have access to a lot of different belief systems.” And so introduced me to many faiths and told me stories from many faiths, but for him he said that it was enough for him to be marveling at the wonders of the universe, that that story was miraculous enough that he didn’t need a creator meddling in it. And then also my father had a very pan-African worldview, as well, which he very much raised me in.
And just as he would often bristle when, for example, his American colleagues at the UN would say are you watching the American election and my father would say, “The Ghanaian election is going on. Are you watching that?” But in the same way with religion, he would always say we had our own gods before the white man arrived. And our stories are morality tales in the same way. And so he would share those stories with me, too, but emphasizing there’s usefulness in those stories, just as there’s usefulness in the stories in the Bible. And I’m not going to tell you what to think, but use what makes sense to you from all of those stories. Which I think was very helpful for somebody who did grow up on borders and boundaries and straddling cultures as I did to be able to embrace so many of the stories that were coming at me and many of the homes that I lived in in complicated ways. I never had an uncomplicated sense of belonging, but I was able to navigate many stories, many lands, many cultures, many languages.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Thank you.
LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI: In my case, despite being born in Biafra right before it became swallowed up by Nigeria, we’re Igbo people, and Igbos are largely Catholic. So, I was christened Catholic, but the narrative of religious tension in my memoir is because when my mother migrated to the United States, I had to be left behind in Jamaica and I was adopted by a Seventh-day Adventist family who were pretty strict. And I don’t know how familiar people are with the Seventh-day Adventists, they’re very strict. They can, in fact, be quite grim at times. And the family I grew up with was the kind of family that if you weren’t in the church you weren’t to be socialized with. So our close friends had to be in the church, the people we did business with were in the church, the people we interacted with were in the church. So I had to be in the church, but because I was adopted temporarily until my mother sent for me, I was also not officially a member of the church. So I was this sort of token Sunday worshiper, which is one of the insults they use for people who are not Seventh-day Adventist.
So, it was also the legend in my … not the legend, the fact, that my mother became a Seventh-day Adventist because it’s one of the best colleges on the island at the time. And so she was always suspected of being a false Seventh-day Adventist and she only pretended to be one so that she could get into the college. Between you and me, that was probably true, but it was never confirmed by her. And so there was always this tension around who’s inside, who’s not inside. Are you a member of the church? Are you not? Then we moved to the United States and then my mother was basically like, “Whoever will take you to church while I’m working, you can go to church.” And so religion for me became something I had to struggle with because of the Seventh-day Adventist experience, which was very fire and brimstone, very fundamentalist. So by the time I got to high school and college, I began to explore Marxism, or radical politics, or Black activism, et cetera, I was responding primarily to the god of Seventh-day Adventists.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: At this point, thank you so much. I would like to remind members of the audience to share questions, if they have any, for our very brilliant, intelligently smart panelists. So, please, if you have any questions, you can go ahead and ask the authors. I think I’m quite amazed at just how beautifully you have dismantled the unsettling binaries in your narratives. I’m now thinking about just how you collapse the diaspora and the nation. And I see this particularly invoked in how does really Nadia’s or Louis, your work, can somehow give me a sense of the independence in African nations. And in Nadia’s case, in Ghana. That Ghana’s independence was not just a local affair, that it was like an entire constellation. It involved so many movements. It was very pan-African in character, but also you are also, in both narratives, you have a way of amplifying the internal squabbles, that independence does not just come on a silver platter. So in Nadia’s case, I’m thinking about the NLM versus the CPP of Ghana and, in Louis’ case, diaspora itself in the position to the post colony of Nigeria and state.
This is really quite historical. It is not just a memoir about you, it is also a national memoir, but also it is a diasporic memoir. And I think that is really what stuck out to me, that you are just really getting rich, tripping these binaries apart. How are you able to accomplish that?
NADIA OWUSU: Thank you so much for that. Yeah, that was really important to me. I’ve always had this awareness that we carry history in our bodies and that we are history living and breathing. And I remember very vividly my father telling me about, for example, how the trauma of the Armenian genocide was in my mother’s family’s DNA. And when he explained why she left, that was part of the story that he told me. Yeah, my father’s job at the UN meant that we lived in other African countries. My father as a Ghanaian, we would move to Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania. And then he ultimately also married a Tanzanian. And so I had all of these African histories in my life and my father was actually also very committed to ensuring that I studied that African history. Even when we were living in Africa, because I went to international schools, I wasn’t learning about Africa. I was learning about Europe and maybe a little bit of Asia. And the one story of Africa that was in my world history textbook was Egypt and the ancient Egyptians were depicted as really European looking.
And my father was just infuriated and so he created his own curriculum to teach me about African history. And in particular he focused on the independence movement, starting with the independence movement in Ghana because he was, of course, as a Ghanaian very proud of that role. But he also was very clear about the complexities of that story. And especially because that story is so often told from a western perspective. He really wanted me to understand that to make a nation out of many tribes that is coming out of colonialism, the complexity of that, and the ways in which interference made that project even more difficult, western interference. And so it was always told to me as a really complicated story. And when we were living in Ethiopia, for example, the country was going through a civil war. And so there was history being made all around me. And my father made sure that I knew it because we were not studying that history in school. And, again, he was infuriated by that. So we was very much engaged with the history of Africa and particularly with a pan-African ideology.
And that, actually, going back to your previous question about home, that pan-African idea of connection across the diaspora between all Black peoples, it gave me something big and loving to believe in and to belong to. And that was a really important guiding force in my life as well. And so as I set out to write the book, which in many ways was a private project for me to narrate myself closer to those histories that my father started to teach me. Because I largely had a western education and he died when I was 13, I didn’t get to then dive into as deeply as I think he would’ve liked. And so in some ways to honor him I chose to really engage with that history as I was writing that book. And to narrate myself closer to those histories and to narrate myself closer to him in some ways and to the lessons that he was trying to instill in me. So that was really important. And it also helped me to contextualize my life and to understand the forces that made my life possible.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Right. Thank you so much for that response.
LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI: Thank you, Nadia. In many ways, we share a lot in that regard, but it’s also quite different for me in the sense that a lot of my book is about the failure of the pan-African dream. The failure of it, which doesn’t mean the erasure of it, that we should ignore it. The book begins with genocide. It begins with a Nigerian man being told by his family not to marry this Jamaican women and the Jamaican woman being told that Africans are primitive and we should stay away from them. They marry anyway, which is a failure. On the part of both families, it was seen as a failure. She goes to Nigeria and within a few years there’s a genocide. And my father and my godfather are the leaders of the Afro movement. They’re thinking we’re fighting for the black man, the rise of the black man. My mother remembers Ghana’s independence when she’s almost near on her death bed. She can sing Lord Kitchener’s song Birth of Ghana, which she often did.
But she is in the midst of the civil war in Nigeria, hearing that this is the Black man rising up against colonialism, but my mom says to them, “Well, aren’t the people killing us Black, too? Aren’t they the Black man?” And that question of violence internal and its relationship to the external colonial and post-colonial violence runs all the way through the book when we arrive in Jamaica as Africans. Primarily in the moment when Jamaicans have discovered African pride. The Africa that they’ve discovered is not genocide or civil war. And so they’re conflicted about their relationship to us, the refugees. And then the book migrates to the United States, where we arrive in the United States as West Indian, West African immigrants amongst African Americans who don’t know what to make of us at all. So I do pay a lot of attention to the prejudices within the pan-African dream because all of the family members, even when they were prejudiced, believed in the pan-African dream. Even if they were saying horrible things about Ghanaians or horrible things about African Americans, they still believed in a pan-African dream. And that contradiction between dream and reality, prejudices and fantasy, is really what runs through this book.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: It’s also very interesting, Louis, because there’s a lot of foreshocks, main shocks, and aftershocks in your book, too. And I think just what you’ve described, as the genocide happening on the level of the country, can’t be detached from colonization itself and can’t also be detached from slavery, for example. So that, again, there all these main shocks, aftershocks, and foreshocks that clearly rattle this linear kind of narrative that we are also obsessed by. So there are a couple of questions in the Q&A section. I’m going to read them out. And, Nadia, there’s a question for you. Which goes as follows and I quote, “What does the picture on the dust jacket cover represent?”
NADIA OWUSU: Sure. So if you look closely at it, you can see that the woman on the cover is wearing a kente-inspired dress off the shoulder and also has kente cloth woven through her hair. And so that represents my connection to Ghana, but then also the woman is facing away. And the book actually opens with my mother walking away and moving both toward and moving away from, which I think is a big part of what the book’s about. So I think that’s what is represented there.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Thank you so much. The second question is for all of you. In all your travels, did you come across people who had more of a sense of belonging of home?
LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI: More than we did or … I don’t understand.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: I mean, the question just going in the chat. So I think more than you … Did you actually come across people who actually had a stable sense of belonging? I think that your question is, is there really such a thing as a home? Does someone have a whole some sense of belonging? Is it possible to be complete? That’s been something I’ve been thinking about. There’s a lot of incompleteness going on in the text. So it possible to be complete?
LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI: At this point, though, it’s interesting. That’s why I wanted to actually get the question right because it’s an important one. And, again, I can’t speak for Nadia, but one thing I already feel akin to Nadia with is that we’re turning stories about people who might seem to be spread out and scattered, might seem to be fragmented and incomplete, but we’re actually … Forgive me, Nadia, for speaking on your behalf. We’re actually quite comfortable and we’ve become it. At least I feel that I’ve become it. And what I’ve discovered is the reason that one feels comfortable is because I feel that almost everyone actually feels homeless on some level. I’m not entirely sure that completion or full residence is possible unless you’re deeply deluded about your relationship to the world around you.
NADIA OWUSU: Yeah. I mean, I would completely agree with that. I think that it’s interesting. Obviously, I didn’t plan for my book to come out during a global pandemic, but I think it coming out during a global pandemic, just the forces that are discussed in the book of disconnection, and dislocation, and isolation, and the binaries that many of us are forced into in some ways. And going back to what Louis was saying about the failure of the pan-African vision on the one hand the hope of it on the other. When my Ghanaian father married my Tanzanian stepmother, it was a whole scandal on both sides. And that is all to say that the resistance to those binaries and the acceptance of multiplicity and of dislocation and disconnection as a part of life. I think we’re all feeling that so much right now, but I agree with Louis that I don’t think that there are many people who have a very perfectly defined and comfortable relationship to belonging and home.
I think our lives might be a more extreme example of what it can look like, but I think our lives in some ways provide an example of what it can mean to embrace that multiplicity and to embrace the complexity. And to accept that as a home in some ways.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: So in a way you are echoing Louis’ point of home is a process of becoming, that home is really a process rather than a sedentary state of being.
NADIA OWUSU: Exactly.
LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI: Another thing in mind, even in advance of the pandemic, Nadia, we have seen more displaced people on planet Earth in the last two generations than in history. People all over are displaced and we’re getting to a point right now where the number of those who are in the place where they are “from” are dwindling. So this kind of narratives of displacement and these questions that you’re asking, Kwame, they’re increasingly universal, but some would say they probably always have been.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Right. And I think that leads to be the third question by Yvette. Nadia, I think this is for you. I’m curious about how you would want your readers to read, to read your mother’s story? Is there more to the story that isn’t revealed in the memoir? Do we forgive her? Do you want your readers to question the story your father told us? Is there a second book being written that explores the relationship with your mother and sisters?
NADIA OWUSU: So I’ll take that last question first. I’m not currently writing another memoir. I’m currently working on a novel, but of course there’s more to the story. There’s always more to everyone’s story and a memoir is not an autobiography. It’s the story of a particular point in your life or exploring questions that you’re carrying and themes. It’s not taking you from the beginning to the end of a very esteemed life. And that’s the work of autobiography, but this book really is about coming to terms with complexity, with the shaky Earth, with loose roots that you can’t quite grasp onto. That is the story of that book. And so if the question is, is that what I hope that readers take away, that it’s complicated that things are not tied in a bow at the end, yes, that is a part of my story. And the story of my relationship with my mother is not over. It’s an ongoing story and it will be an ongoing story as long as we’re both alive. And after that through the other people in our lives.
And I can offer that part of the journey of writing this book was getting me to a place where I was ready to reach out to her and to begin a process of reconciliation. And that’s a work in progress and it’s a long process. And we’re in each other’s lives and we’ve had difficult conversations. We’ve had loving conversations and she’s a big supporter of me telling this story, but her story is her own. So I’m not going to give the answers as to the reasons for her leaving. That’s her story or, if I do decide that I want to write another book, perhaps I will ask at that point if that’s a story she’d be willing to have me tell. Yeah, my life doesn’t end on the last page of the memoir. And so I’m still learning, and growing, and moving into relationship with the people in my life.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Thank you. I’ve got another question, this time for the two of you. How do projects of finding home help us find our voices? How do projects of finding home help us find our voices?
LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI: I think we’ve all agreed that home, for us anyway and possibly for an increasing number of people on planet Earth, is a narrative and a process. It’s not a place. Another way of putting it is finding home is finding a story. And to tell a story requires a voice. Sorry to sound cryptic, but that’s the formula that I would have. The project of finding home is to find that story that defines home for you and the process of finding home. Which, as Nadia has pointed out, it is endless. It doesn’t end on the last page, but in order to tell that, for example, the structure of my memoir, and I think memoirs in general, they allow you to shape the telling in ways that your own memory worked. And that is your voice or that is how you find your own voice and your own narrative. How do you remember? How did Nadia remember those things? And in what order? And how did she choose to put it down in another order? To me, that is the finding of voice.
NADIA OWUSU: Yeah. I mean, I think that that’s so well put. What Louis just said, it was intentionally what my project was. When I started this as a private project, it was an intentional process of taking the stories that I had been given, whether by my father, which in many cases were very loving stories, or by the world that in some cases were not so loving stories, that maybe did me harm, and examining them with rigor. And bringing my own analysis to those stories and in some ways writing myself a story that I could live inside of, because the ones that I had been given were not working for me. And so that, to me, is why I wrote a memoir. I was following my curiosities and my need to create a new story that served me, that honored my family and the places and people that I belonged to. And not in a simple way, in an honest way that was willing to look at the difficult things, but that also opened up possibilities for a way forward that I was choosing for myself.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Right. I want to quickly ask another question before the panel closes. So, then you’ve both contended with race. I think it’s a very critical dimension of the narratives and of the memoirs. And I would really like to understand the ways in which you navigated, telling a story. Not only of interracial cleavages, but intra-racial cleavages. Of course, in the US in particular, where all three of us are actually seen as immigrants, if you will, we are not called expats. When white people travel to other part of the world, they are called expats and they are in class positions all three of us are in. They are called expats even if they are not really expats. So I’m interested in particular in how you contend with narrating interracial and intra-racial cleavages that somehow animates your life.
LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI: One thing I wanted to do, because I have an academic background, and I am a scholar, and I’ve written academic books, I wanted to not operate within the academic frame because, to be quite frank I don’t believe that the academic frame, even the Black critical racial frame, allows us to get at the internal tensions, and competitions, and hostilities because we are expected to maintain a dominant narrative of solidarity at all times. So, we tend to then lie or exaggerate. I wanted to tell it in the context of memoir where we can be really intimate about the pain we cause each other, while at the same time maintaining anti-racist perspectives. I think it’s really important to be able to tell those stories, but also to tell stories of multiple types of Blackness that may or may not communicate or connect. Jamaicans vis-a-vis Africans, Africans vis-a-vis African Americans, Black British versus …
Also, because that’s my experience, I find it nonthreatening to be open about these tensions. And I find it troubling that so many people insist on keeping them quiet and fragile. I don’t think we’re fragile. I think we’re able to have these conversations and still move forward cross culturally. In fact, I believe we have to have those conversations, not maintaining those myths.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Right. Thank you.
NADIA OWUSU: I share that goal and particularly in terms of showing the intimate ways in which racism shows up within Black communities. And not just in relationship to white people or white spaces, but how we’re all navigating these stories. For example, the story with my family and with a dark-skinned Ghanaian father moving to Ethiopia with two lighter-skinned daughters and the confusion that that created among Ethiopian people. And many of the Ethiopians that we encountered at that time didn’t necessarily even think of themselves as Black, but they also saw me as more kindred to them, but my father was not. But to me, he was my father. And so that was very confusing as a child. What does this mean, how I’m being seen? And then going to boarding school in England and being one of few Black students in a very white boarding school and aligning myself with white people, because I was aware of the way that that racial arrangement and my white adjacency would give me privileges. And I knew what I was doing. I was a child, but I was aware of that arrangement.
And I felt shame about what I was doing. And I think it’s important to acknowledge those complexities and the ways that we all participate because, for me, recognizing that ugliness and internalized anti-Blackness in myself and working to undo it has to be part of my work. And so that was another element of the story that I told. And in the same way, the tension between the Tanzanian family and my father’s Ghanaian family, that’s also engaging with anti-Black stories as well. And so there is a lot of complexity there. And I think as Black peoples we have our own conversations that we need to have. Outside of whiteness and white supremacy we have our own conversations that we need to have. We can’t move anything in the world that we won’t move in ourselves. And so that was really important to me.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: No worries. Thank you so much, Nadia.
LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI: Nadia, I’m thinking. Coming out of a pan-African context that failed, but also stayed alive and was also inspirational to so many people, I discovered when I got to the United States, after growing up in Jamaica during the Rastafarian movement, where everyone celebrated Africa, but didn’t actually like Africans. Africa was a symbol, the African people were a different thing entirely. And coming to the United States and becoming a teenager in the early 2000s when it was Afrocentric hiphop and at the same time hostility to Black immigrants, it just seemed to me that the pan-African dream did in fact imply in the earlier part of the 20th century, work. It implied that people had to work at it. I think that what’s happened since then is people just assume that we should just take it for granted. And I think that what Nadia and I are talking about again, to assume this kinship here, is that we can’t just assume solidarity. We got to work for it. And one of the ways we work for it is by handling some of these unpleasant things.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Yeah, thank you. It looks like your answers respond to the last question that has been asked. And, Jane and Sarah, I wish we had a whole hour because this has been such a delicious panel. And next time just let’s have a lot. So it’s time for us to wrap things up. Thanks, Louis and Nadia, and to everyone who is watching. Please consider buying the featured book from your local independent book seller or using the link provided. You can also check out other events in all virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at vabook.org. Without further ado, I’d like to really thank you so very much for this pleasant conversation. And I’m hoping that in the foreseeable future we’ll be able to meet and have a chin wag in person.
LOUIS CHUDE-SOKEI: That has to happen. Thank you, Kwame. Thank you, Nadia.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Thank you. Great, bye-bye.
NADIA OWUSU: Thank you so much. This is lovely.
KWAME EDWIN OTU: Great.