by Lydia Mangeni Stewart
Derek Owusu takes us on an emotionally awakening journey in this coming of age debut novel. With it’s beautifully unique style, it challenges the inclination of readers to compartmentalise; to secure a piece of writing to a genre, form or literary tradition. That Reminds Me could only have been written in this way. Unsystematic, authentic and poetic – this novel, succeeds in its painfully honest exploration of a young Ghanaian boy’s journey into adulthood.
A novel about K, a boy whose youth is spent between his adoptive parents in fields and woods until age eight but is subsequently plucked out of the ‘security’ of his foster home. K, must now forge relationships with his biological family in a new & unforgiving metropolitan sphere, Tottenham. His many challenges, including being harassed about his skin colour and heritage are portrayed as being devoid of anger. Furthermore, with humility, it allowed me to relate to K in a way that reflected my own experience as an Asylum Seeker trying to assimilate in an unfamiliar territory. 'I’m told my breath smells like an African, I take the insult with baptised eyes, seeing who I am, unable to rebut it because as I lift my hand to cup my mouth, I can smell last night’s soup still on my finger tips'.
In just 113 pages, Owusu will question identity, belonging, addiction, sexuality, violence, family and religion. He is able to introduce many of the nuances that exist within the African community, the idea of maintaining your pride at all costs is exemplified through K’s reflection of his living situation; money is tight but no one likes to admit this, 'nobody left our home without a story of relative poverty to relay – the truth is, we were all black working class, but pretending we couldn't relate.' The novel also creatively evokes historical events like the London riots of 2011.
Central to Owusu’s story is its indefinability. Split into five poignant sections (Awareness, Reflection, Change, Construction and Acceptance), That Reminds Me showcases the resilience to be found in momentary flashbacks, whether about significant milestones or uneventful everyday experiences. The mention of 3210’s and Nokia face-off phones, messages on MSN, underground ‘shoobs’/grime raves with ‘...hands hovered waiting for the mic-like pincer index and thumb ready for the draw', Blackberries, or the smell of cocoa butter and DAX gel makes the novel simultaneously personal and widely relatable.
Owusu’s mosaic-style structure creates a fascinating narrative, gluing you to the pages constituted by snippets of K’s memories. His writing captures the metaphorical journey that K is seemingly on, one that is not about a destination of unity, but reflective and honest. Owusu illustrates a character who learns to become comfortable in brokenness, and, more importantly, acknowledges brokenness as an inherent part of the human condition. Unbelievably poetic and raw in its portrayal of K’s horrific experiences, there are moments where it is difficult to ascertain whether the words on the page are descriptions of reality or K’s imagination – but this is purposefully done. In only ever giving us limited insights into K’s experiences, we arguably glean more about him than if we were reading an extensive description traditional to a bildungsroman novel.
Conversational snippets make this novel feel more like a personal diary you are reading, an opportunity one should feel privileged to have.
Expressed in K’s story is an applicability that is ineluctable. This is a story about being human as much as it is about race. It is not just melancholy memories of K’s experiences, there is humour, heart-warming moments that gives a window to who K really is; a gentle soul whose depiction of his brother’s birth evokes the empathy that K yearns for. '...he has to be, my saviour - my reason for living'. We experience K’s consideration for others despite his traumatic life; teaching his brother to walk, assisting an old woman with her luggage or enjoying a lover's embrace.
I connected to this novel in an extensive way, from the issues K endured to Owusu’s ability to capture the voices of other underrepresented people in contemporary literature. I was especially moved by a passage which shows K connecting to 'The Colour Purple' and how the characters and experiences of the story are absorbed into his own life: 'Suddenly, it wasn't just my suffering confined to my pad; I wrote Celie out of her story and added her to mine, with the last drops of ink gave us both a father neither of us had.' Similarly, this has been my experience with ‘That Reminds Me’, feeling a sense of familiarity with Owusu’s way of conveying his story and K’s cries to be heard; 'Anansi, the weight of the world can never fall on the sky, so this is why your father has no empathy for me. Does he sleep to my stories or are you weaving words without care? Creep to his bedside and wake him with these pleas, and I’ll wait for the raindrop that proves his sympathy'.
Each section is signposted by a pencil illustration of a spider’s web and as I read on, it became clear to see why That Reminds Me was shortlisted and selected as the winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize. The use of Anansi the Spider (one of the great folk heroes of the world) to contextualise and interweave the narrative, paying homage to his Ghanaian roots is ingenious. It has an authenticity that adds a mystical element to what is a semi-biography, wrapped in poetic prose, with a side of Owusu’s own stylised non-fiction masterpiece. As the narrative progresses, the web develops. In the last section, the spider sits proudly in the middle of the web, surrounded by his detailed creation. The spider’s web becomes symbolic of the narrative web Owusu offers us. Frank, fresh, awe-inspiring and complex - this is an apt image for K. Along with the illustrations, the insightful poetic, conversational snippets make this novel feel more like a personal diary you are reading, an opportunity one should feel privileged to have.
Derek Owusu, I thank you for doing this differently; presenting this short but impactful masterpiece that defies form, for giving readers ‘K’ and for allowing us to ‘hold the pen’.
Author’s note: 'This is the story of K. If you believe your life to be as fictitious as K’s, if you find yourself within the pages of this book, then you are holding the pen and not me'