A 2019 Whiting Award recipient, Nadia Owusu ’05 is making her mark in the world of literature.
Tony Kushner, David Foster Wallace, August Wilson, Jonathan Franzen—Pace University alumna Nadia Owusu ’05 joined this illustrious list of great American writers recently, upon receiving a 2019 Whiting Award for her nonfiction work Aftershocks, coming next year from Simon and Schuster. The $50,000 award, which all four of the noted literary giants previously received, is given annually by the Whiting Foundation to ten emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. Writers are awarded “based on early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come.”
“This year’s cohort of writers is very strong,” Owusu says. “I’m grateful to be recognized, and being placed in a community with all of these writers who I admire is a real honor.”
She describes Aftershocks as a genre-bending memoir that explores identity through examinations of cultural history, motherhood, and what it means to be a Black woman. Owusu’s father is from Ghana and her mother is Armenian, but she is truly a citizen of the world. Her father worked for United Nations’ World Food Program, and growing up she spent time in Rome, London and East Africa.
“That experience has informed the way that I view the world in that I can see how different communities are impacted differently by policy, laws and history,” she says.
Owusu came to Pace University’s New York City campus to study political science after graduating from an international school in Uganda. It was her first time living in the United States, and she describes some of her most vivid memories of the University in Aftershocks. The book includes her account of moving into her room in Maria’s Tower, as well as her experience on 9/11—she was on her way to class when the second plane flew into the South Tower (Two World Trade Center) and spent the day walking around stunned with a classmate.
“I think that what I really took away from my time at Pace was the idea of following my questions,” she says. “I was able to follow a path of inquiry that made sense to me though my assigned work and dig into questions that really resonated with me. That thinking continues to inform my work, and my life.”
After graduating from Pace, Owusu embarked on a career focused on service and community development. In 2011 she earned a Master of Science in Urban Affairs with concentrations in public policy and community development from Hunter College, and she currently serves as the associate director, learning and equity for Living Cities, a 27-year-old collaboration among some of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions established to create and implement innovative approaches to improving the economic wellbeing of low-income individuals.
At Living Cities, Owusu spearheads efforts to support local governments across the country to address racial inequities and leads a research agenda aimed at enabling more cities to test, adopt and apply best practices to close racial income and wealth gaps.
Aftershocks was written during her off-hours as part of her thesis for an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Southern New Hampshire University’s Mountainview Low-Residency Program. Owusu’s first publication, a lyric essay chapbook, So Devilish a Fire, published in 2018, is a winner of The Atlas Review chapbook series. Her work has also appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Literary Review, and Catapult.
“I’ve always loved writing,” Owusu says. “Mostly it’s a way that I process the world, but I have always been very much aware that history is a story, and that it’s important for people whose experience is not seen as universal to tell their stories.”
Once Aftershocks is complete, Owusu has plans for several short essays and is formulating an idea for a novel, which could become her first major work of fiction.