First Person

Photo: © Abi Olayiwola / Adobe Stock.

Let me show you my home. It is the subterranean water body of my mother. I drift in her voice and amniotic fluid. When she steps into the light, I am in the light. When her sun sets, my sun sets. As she moves, I move. I somersault, dive, kick, poke, remind her I am inside her, becoming. Through our placenta, I taste her blood, mingled with Aleppo pepper and mint.

Let me show you my home. It is a city on the Indian Ocean. The fishermen drag their dhows onto white sand at dawn to unload the night’s tilapia, squid, and snapper. At dusk, they disappear back into the blue.

Under the shade of a thatched umbrella, I slurp from a straw in a coconut while my father plays soccer with the boys who sell them. We have been here all day, blackening. Tomorrow monsoon season might start, later than in years past. But tonight, live music at Oyster Bay. Women and palm trees will sway and rustle. For me, mishkaki—skewered chicken and goat with chili and lime. For my father, nyama choma and beer. On the drive home, we will ride in the back of a pickup. We will pass the Aga Khan mosque and the Lutheran church. The smell of bougainvillea and jacaranda trees will come rushing at us on the wind.

Let me show you my home. It is my father’s embrace. Strong biceps press into my rib cage, firm hands on my back. My feet are lifted off the floor. I fly, without fear, over my father’s head. I know he will hold me up until I land in sheets. “See you in the morning,” he says, and I have no reason, yet, not to believe him.

Let me show you my home. It is a country cottage with a red door. In the spring, bluebells carpet the earth beneath the surrounding forest of oak trees. Even on sunny Sundays, just in case, Auntie Harriet makes us wear our Wellington boots and yellow anoraks. We pick wild blackberries along the Cuckoo Trail and stop to smell the daffodils. Sometimes, a shepherd and his sheep are crossing. He whistles and the sheep baaa their way to be auctioned at the market.

This used to be a rope-making town, a supplier to yachters, sailors, and hangmen in all of Britain and her colonies. There is still a rope factory, but there are no hangmen. There is a library where we go after school to read Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl.

Let me show you my home. It is built on seven hills. It is eternal: ruins but not ruined, aged but vivacious.

Look around when you walk. Everywhere there is writing on the wall. SPQR is carved into stone (Senatus Populusque Romanus, or “The Senate and People of Rome”). Next to it is an alternative series of words to make up the acronym, likely spray-painted by a visiting Milanese or Neapolitan: Sono Porci Questi Romani (“They’re pigs, these Romans”).

My classmates ride skateboards into the metro to tag their names in the tunnels. I prefer to ride my bicycle along Via Appia. Among the tombs, I hop off. Grass grows between ancient flagstones. Above: pine trees. Below: catacombs. Let’s raise a Pellegrino toast to the dead, and to the still growing.

Let me show you my home. “Would you like chicken or beef?” ask the attendants. We are all wrapped in matching gray blankets. Our feet nest in matching gray socks. The air recirculates. Outside the cool glass, clouds grow heavy. There will be turbulence while we sleep. When we wake, croissants and jam and fresh starts. But tonight my home is a jet-propelled cabin in the sky. My home is moving away and moving toward. On the screen, a dotted line charts our course.

Let me show you my home. Can you smell the eucalyptus? Can you smell the roasting coffee? We make some of the best in the world. The women grind it with their pestles and roast it, making sure to waft the sweet earth of it into your nostrils.

During the Epiphany, we go to Lalibela to watch pilgrims reenact the baptism of Christ. Priests parade in robes of rich velvet. They wave incense. Drums and bells fill the air and lead us to the Fasilides Baths.

In the shantytowns, there is no running water. At our house in the UN compound, we boil cholera out of everything. But today, rich and poor, young and old, faithful Christians and faithless travelers, will jump in with whoops and squawks, and be renewed. Anabel and I hold our breath, hold hands until the splash.

Let me show you my home. It is a family that used to be five and is now four. We are built of love and hurt and rage and silences. We have not yet found the right material with which to patch the roof, to stop the absence from trickling in.

Let me show you my home. Many of the streets have no names or multiple names, but not to worry. You will learn to tell your motorcycle taxi driver to make a left at the mango tree or right at the rolex stand. A rolex is not a watch. It is chapati with eggs, onion, and tomatoes. You won’t have much use for watches anyway. Time moves differently here. We meet in Kabalagala for waragi and wolokosso (loose talk). Join us. As the proverb goes, where they eat flies, eat them.

Let me show you my home. It is my grandmother’s porch. We sit here all day and people stop by to say hello and to watch Nana argue with the house girl.

“Are you thirsty?” Nana asks. “I’m thirsty but Afua, useless girl, keeps forgetting to bring my drink.”

“Would you like some water, Ma?” asks Auntie Freda.

“Did I urinate in your bed? Why am I being punished?” Nana bristles.

“She wants a beer,” I explain. “When she says she’s thirsty, it means she wants a beer. I’ll get it. I could use one, too.”

“Finally,” says Nana, “a real Jantuah.”

Jantuah is her maiden name. It is also her highest compliment. She has never called me a Jantuah before: “American,” “sort of Arab,” her “precious half-caste granddaughter,” but never a Jantuah. Everyone laughs at what was, to them, just typical Nana. But I can barely contain my glee.

In the kitchen, I help myself to a handful of kelewele. Then, two cold beers in hand, I go to claim my seat on the porch.

Let me show you my home. The glass and steel grow up and out: towers, sprawl. This city is ever-changing. We must keep moving to keep up. This is why we do not sleep.

You can find me at the bar with a book. The bartender knows my name. He knows my drink. He has read the book I’m reading. He is a poet.

For years, my bedroom had no windows. The cracks in my bathroom grew slimy mushrooms that smelled like chlorine. It was what I could afford. In that apartment, I dreamed of skylights and potted plants. Now my window looks down on a courtyard I don’t have access to. It is filled with the garbage that can’t be put on the street to be picked up till Thursday.

Any day now, I will make a living. Until then, I pay what I can at the Metropolitan Museum and look forward, all week, to bottomless mimosas at brunch.

Let me show you my home. It is a border. It is the outer edge of both sides. It is where they drew the line. They drew the line right through me. I would like to file a territorial dispute.

Let me show you my home. It is a live fault. The fault is in my body.

Let me show you my home. It is a blue chair. I sought asylum here. I marked my application temporary. For myself, I am writing reconstruction, not elegy.

Look into my eyes. See my glowing skin. My pores are open. 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.


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 Washington Post’s The Lily, The Literary Review, Electric Literature, Epiphany, Catapult, and others. Owusu grew up in Rome, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Kumasi, and London. She is an associate director at Living Cities, an economic racial justice organization, and teaches creative nonfiction at the Mountainview M.F.A. program. Aftershocks is her first book.

From Aftershocks: A Memoir, by Nadia Owusu. Copyright © 2021 by Nadia Owusu. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.