Derek Owusu is a British writer of Ghanaian descent. He has edited and contributed to Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space. While That Reminds Me is his first solo work, which won The Desmond Elliott Prize 2020. He took part in the recently concluded Emirates Airline Festival of Literature that was held while complying with all Covid-19 protocols.
How is Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space, an anthology of writing by 20 Black British men in 2019, relevant, when the Black Lives Matter has been nominated for the Nobel peace prize amid one of the worst times in the history of mankind?
I think Safe… will always be relevant no matter what movement is gaining prominence in the global psyche. It is a book about the experiences of human beings, ones whose narratives can enrich the lives of others through connection and understanding and open the eyes of those who may consciously or unconsciously treat Black men as second-class citizens or even sub-human.
Should literature transcend racial prejudice and similar binaries?
By its very nature, literature is transcendent. Of course, it takes many eyes to transform words on a page and often the author has nothing to do with it. Even the most violently racist novels still manage to find their way into our classrooms, with new interpretations being offered up plastered with phrases like ‘the human condition’.
What are the complexities of being a black man in the UK today? How is it different from say, the Enoch Powell era?
Well for one, there aren’t racists who politicians liked to call Teddy Boys and police officers liked to call ‘son’ riding around London looking for ‘darkies’ to terrorise and draw blood from. But at the same time, there is still a looming fear that exists because you know those people are still walking the street, holding the same views. But I wouldn’t say being Black man in the UK is complex, I’d say it was frustrating and disorientating. I have written before about how tiny moments of ignorance, prejudice or simply racism can take their toll on the mental health of minorities, but it also affects physical health. The author Musa Okwonga likened racist micro-aggressions to physical attacks on the body. I think this is true.
How much of your personal experience appears in That Reminds Me that was published in 2019?
I’d say it’s about 20 per cent of my personal experiences. I would take a small moment, or something someone has said, and blow it up into a memory for my protagonist K. I’m always asked this question and I sort of understand why, but it’s not really relevant to appreciation of literature in my opinion. And besides, I don’t think any author can write a novel without putting sprinkles of his own experiences into the text.
Tell us more about your novel-in-verse literary form in That Reminds Me.
The form of That Reminds Me really comes from the memories. Memories are, of course, without narrative structure and are often distortions of actual events. So, in that sense, as much as my protagonist can be said to be narrating his life through memories, he is an unreliable narrator. Each verse in the novel is a snapshot of a moment or a few moments strung together with the meaning embedded inside somewhere. This idea ‘screen’ memories I took from Freud. To me, memories are like polaroid so that’s how I tried to convey them on the page. And memories often present themselves to us in different points of views. Sometimes they are in first person and sometimes they’re in third person. I played with this idea and wrote memories in both ways, leaving it up to the reader to decide why some recollections are experienced from a distance and some are not.
Would you consider that you suffer from a borderline personality disorder?
Yes, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in 2018, and this disorder forms the basis of my novel.
Why do you think mental health issues are glossed over?
I think certain mental health issues are not talked about enough. This may be due to fear or misunderstanding the disorder. Conversations around mental health are definitely moving forward, albeit slowly. And I’m glad to be part of the dialogue.
Ghanaian folktale is a recurring theme in your work. Tell us how Ghanaian folktale is different from other West African nations.
I’d say there are many similarities. Most West African folktales focus heavily on the oral tradition — how well the story is recited and how easily it can be retold, and also the moral lesson for that story. Many have a trickster God, like Anansi who I evoke in my novel. And Gods associated with the natural world, seasons and the sky. We all share elements, it’s a communal narration with each nation adding their own vibes and beliefs.