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On Writing as a Form of Healing and Activism: An Interview with Nadia Owusu

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Nadia Owusu, a Brooklyn-based writer and urbanist. Simon and Schuster will publish her first book, Aftershocks: A Memoir, in January 2021 (pre-order today!). Her lyric essay chapbook, So Devilish a Fire won the Atlas Review chapbook contest. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, the Washington Post’s The Lily, Quartz, The Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature, Catapult, Epiphany, and others. She is the recipient of a 2019 Whiting Award. Nadia teaches writing at the Mountainview MFA program and is an associate director at Living Cities, a racial economic justice organization. We caught up with Nadia to learn more about her debut memoir, discuss ways to illustrate the fullness of Black women’s experience and explore methods for navigating anti-Blackness and preventing weathering. 

Tell us what first inspired you to start writing.

A decade ago, I was writing myself out of a period of depression and one of the things I realized was that I needed to be intentional about the stories that I allow into my body and the stories I tell myself. I was inspired by the stories of my ancestors and I wanted to nourish my relationships with them. My father was from the Ashanti tribe of Ghana, and my mother’s family were political refugees from the Armenian genocide during the Ottoman empire. I wanted to do that work to feel more connected to my history and the people who made my life possible. It was a private journey that helped me to acknowledge that the stories I learned about America, Black people, Africans, and the Armenian genocide were taught through the lens of whiteness. I started to write versions of those stories that served me and honored my family and where they came from. It started as a way for me to process and to overcome the private aches that I was carrying in my body, but eventually, I realized I could make it into art.

Tell us more about your new book Aftershocks. What are some of the key themes you write about and want Black women to explore?

I describe the book as a literary memoir with threads of cultural history to explore the complexities of family, the meaning of home, the multiplicity of identity, Black womanhood, and the ripple effects of personal and intergenerational trauma. My mother left when I was two, and my sister and I were raised by my father who was the great hero of my life. He worked for a United Nations agency so we moved to a different country every couple of years. Growing up, I didn’t have a very deep relationship with my mother, she was in and out of my life. My father passed away when I was thirteen and at that point feeling the loss of my mother’s abandonment and grieving the loss of my father made me see the world as very unsteady. Allowing myself to look at themes of home and family–from as expansive a definition as possible–really helped me recontextualize my own experience and place it in the larger narratives about what it means to be a Black woman connected to a diaspora who comes from a tradition of extended families. The book is about how we can interrogate the histories, cultures, stories, and places that we all belong to and want to call home.  

In the book, you talk about experiences with anti-Blackness across different continents. Can you say more about how Black women can navigate anti-Blackness here in the U.S.?

Anti-Blackness is a global phenomenon. I grew up primarily in the United Kingdom and  East Africa. The way that anti-Blackness shows up is different in each country, but because of the global capitalist economy that we live in, and the legacy of colonization and slavery, we’re all connected in this racial hierarchy that is a Western and white invention. Coming to the U.S. as a Black woman, although I was American because my mother was American, my experiences with anti-Blackness felt much more overt than in other places I had lived. I’ve been thinking about the weathering hypothesis where the stress of living in a racist society accelerates aging and health problems for Black people in the U.S. They’ve done comparison studies that show that even for recent Black immigrants the process of weathering accelerates the longer they live here. I’ve had my own experience of weathering since I moved here. I’ve dealt with chronic hives, anxiety, depression, exhaustion, and all of the Black women in my life have experienced some form of that. 

As Black women, how can we save ourselves and each other? To me, it’s radical care and love and honesty, lifting each other, telling each other to slow down, telling each other when our workplaces don’t deserve our labor, fighting for each other in terms of health care, housing, and clean air. I think of Audre Lorde’s essay “The Uses of Anger.” In it, she makes the case that yes, Black women are angry and that anger was brought into being by oppressions and humiliations that we face every day. That anger, if we focus it with precision and nurture our bodies with rest and self-care, can be a powerful force for progress and change for our own liberation. 

What is the role or the influence that Black women writers can have in social and political movements? 

Many writers also see themselves as organizers, movement builders, activists, and artists, and those disciplines have always fueled each other. Ntozake Shange once wrote that she writes for young girls of color who don’t even exist yet so that there is something there for them when they arrive. Similarly, Toni Morrison said that she always claimed her own experience as a Black woman as central, and then the world had to meet her where she was. I think that’s the long tradition of Black women writers engaging in activism and refusing to write for the white gaze, imagining new pro-Black possibilities, centering Black love and joy in stories, writing Black people who are complex and full of agency and making choices. Putting our complexity on the page and insisting that this is the Black story shows the fullness of our humanity. 

Who are your BlackHer Sheroes? 

Definitely Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Buchi Emecheta, Zora Neale Hurston, Octavia Butler, Lorraine Hansberry, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and so many others. I’ve always thought of them as a council of mothers. Especially having grown up without a mother, their work has provided so much guidance throughout my life. I turn to them again and again. 

Let me ask you the miracle question. You go to sleep tonight, you wake up and it’s November 2021. A miracle has happened for Black women. What happened? 

We’re free. We are free to live the lives that we deserve full of joy and beauty. We’re free to live into the fullness of our experience and our magic. We’re free to sleep and rest and nurture and nourish ourselves. We’re in deep community and relationship with each other across generations, and we’re claiming our experience as central and insisting on nothing less than that.

 

 

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