Fragmentary, authentic and poetic – Derek Owusu’s latest publication, That Reminds Me, succeeds in its painfully honest exploration of a young Ghanaian boy’s journey into adulthood.
When plucked out of the security of his foster home, eight-year-old ‘K’, Owusu’s protagonist, must forge new relationships with his biological family in a lonely, metropolitan sphere. Reading the dust-jacket protecting the memoirs contained in this hardback semi-biography reveals that, in just 113 pages, Owusu will question “identity, belonging, addiction, sexuality, violence, family and religion”.
Integral to Owusu’s story is its indefinability. As readers we are inclined to compartmentalise, to secure a text to a genre, form, or literary tradition. In the critical reception of Owusu’s piece thus far, the terms ‘novel-in-verse’, ‘semi-biography’ and ‘rhythmic prose’ have all been posited. Whilst these terms are helpful, I admire Owusu for his ability to defy such classifications.
Split into five poignant sections (Awareness, Reflection, Change, Construction and Acceptance), That Reminds Me shows the vitality to be found in momentary flashbacks, whether about significant milestones or mundane everyday experiences. The mention of chocolate cornflake cakes, messages on MSN, getting the annual MOT, Nokia mobiles, Cornettos or the application of Deep Heat makes the novel simultaneously personal and widely relatable.
The most appealing aspect of Owusu’s narrative is the mosaic-style structure constituted by snippets of K’s memories. K is not on a journey with a destination of unity in mind. Owusu portrays a character who learns to become comfortable in brokenness, and, more importantly, acknowledges brokenness as an inherent facet of the human condition. 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 precisely the point. In only ever giving us limited insights into K’s experiences, we arguably learn more about him than if we were reading an extensive description conventional to the bildungsroman novel.
Each section is signposted by a pencil illustration of a spider’s web. As the narrative progresses, the web develops. In the last section, the spider sits proudly in the middle of the web, surrounded by his intricate creation. The spider’s web becomes emblematic of the narrative web Owusu so delicately offers us. Fragile, awe-inspiring and complex: I could not pick a more apt image for K. Along with the illustrations, the insightful snippets make this novel feel more like a diary you are reading in secret, an opportunity one should feel privileged to have.
Inscribed in the paratext of the novel is an 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”
Encapsulated in K’s story is an applicability almost inescapable. This is a story about being human as much as it is about race. When asked by researchers at Penguin Books for the best piece of writing advice he had ever received, Owusu answered with, “For goodness sake, just write in your own voice, Derek!” I can only commend Owusu for not only fulfilling this advice but capturing the voices of other underrepresented people in contemporary literature. I sincerely believe this book has an accessibility inviting to all readers.
In regard to Derek Owusu himself, I thank him for defying form, for giving readers ‘K’ and for, most admirably, allowing us to ‘hold the pen’.