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Book Column Dec 19 (1)

Meeting Derek Owusu, the first novelist on Stormzy’s #Merky Books

The author discusses his debut novel That Reminds Me, a searing exploration of childhood, identity, race, and mental health

Does our childhood inextricably shape the person we are today? It’s this question that sits as the crux of writer and poet’s Derek Owusu’s debut That Reminds Me, the first novel out on Stormzy’s publishing imprint, #Merky Books

The book follows a young Ghanaian boy, known only as K, who is sent away from London to be adopted by white foster parents in Suffolk, only to return to the city at seven to parents he no longer recognises. Spanning themes of identity, family, and belonging, Owusu chronicles a true-to-life phenomenon known as farming, where West African families paid white families in the 1960s to temporarily foster their children privately outside of local authorities while they worked and studied. It’s something Owusu himself experienced first-hand, but stresses that the story isn’t autobiographical.   

Research in the years following has found that this practice left children failing to have their cultural needs met, with consequential struggles with their identity. It’s somewhat fitting then, that the book’s protagonist K runs through his memories from childhood, to mental collapse, and recovery.

Owusu’s emotionally searing novel arrives at a time when we’re starting to see more and more British black men’s voices in literature, with other vital perspectives from Inua Ellams, Nels Abbey, Dean Atta, and Michael Donkor. That Reminds Me is told with a fragmented memory, at times, it’s so intimate that it feels as if we’ve intruded into K’s most innermost thoughts. He navigates romantic relationships, estrangement to both the city and his family, and addiction. 

It’s not the first time the former Mostly Lit podcast host has spoken with such raw, unflinching honesty – Owusu edited and contributed to SAFE: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space, a landmark anthology which sheds light on the Black British male experience

Below, Owusu discusses the journey to That Reminds Me, why we need more British Black male voices in literature, the effects of foster care, and what it’s like to be part of #Merky Books. 

You said that you wrote That Reminds Me when you were in a mental health facility as a way to come to terms with your own mental breakdown and the events that led to it.

Derek Owusu: I needed to create a character who was almost like my alter ego and track events that could potentially lead to a mental breakdown. I read a lot of Freud, and on personality disorders, and how they come about. That’s how I created the character of K. When I was writing it, I learnt about myself which was a great feeling because I do think the best way to make sense of life is to write about it. 

When it comes to mental health issues, we talk about anxiety, depression and suicide usually after it happens but there’s so many serious mental health issues people aren’t talking about like personality disorders and how they can be demonised. I hope some of the passages make people uncomfortable but I also hope to create empathy. 

Why is the protagonist only referred to as K?

Derek Owusu: I called him K deliberately because he could be anyone. He’s trying to get used to society - he knows one way of living and then has to learn another way of living. And when he gets older, he starts exhibiting traits of borderline personality disorder (BPD), has to get used to another reality and try to understand himself and his family. It was also because he’s Ghanaian – in Ghanaian culture, the names with K are boys’ names that depend on the day they were born.

There are some similarities to me and K: we both have BPD and grew up in foster care – which I wrote as a way of honouring my foster mother – but that’s about it really.

At 11-years-old, K is moved from his white foster family in a village in Suffolk and then taken back to inner city London after his foster mother develops cancer. One thing that feels distinct is that K doesn’t use the word ‘trauma’ to talk about the effects of foster care and returning to an unfamiliar culture.

Derek Owusu: When I researched childhood, I read that the first seven years are crucial and everything that happens after that is consequence. So, the book had to cover the first seven years. I haven’t written those first seven years of K’s life as trauma, but it is trauma. Being taken away from his real mum, put in a completely different culture, and then later returning to London – that’s two types of trauma, and that’s what I try to convey. 

I wanted to pay respect to my foster mum, but I also wanted to highlight certain things about foster care, particularly if a white family is fostering a black child. They need to know how to take care of their hair, their skin, and how some diseases are more likely to affect a black child.

“It’s always been the right time to hear from Black British men in literature. I really want there to be a big Black canon of amazing literature and for all these names to be spoken about 100 years from now” – Derek Owusu

I wanted to pick up on the point that it’s written in a fragmented, disjointed style – is this meant to mimic memories?

Derek Owusu: Yes, the book was deliberately written that way. Often, I repeat two of the same memories to give the feeling of remembering over and over again and distorting the memory. I wanted each verse to feel like a snapshot, a Polaroid on paper because that's how I see memories. You don't know what happened directly before or after the photo was taken unless they’re photographed too.  

And with recalling memories and describing them, we usually leave out the bit before and the bit after unless we feel they are equally as important. Often, we tend to think certain memories are random and useless. We say to ourselves, why do I remember the most irrelevant things? But I think any memory that can be recalled, has meaning and is significant to who you currently are. That's why some of my fragments may seem like random descriptions of actions, but they are meaningful to who K is by the end of the book.  

You’re part of Stormzy’s Merky Books family too. What that means to you? 

Derek Owusu: It’s amazing. Stormzy and I have similar goals when it comes to literature: get more people reading. I found literature at 24 and it was a revelation. I want to share the feeling with as many people as possible as early as possible. 

I feel privileged to be published right now as there are lots of great reads by POC authors right now. Nels Abbey’s Think Like a White Man is hilarious. Raymond Antrobus is an incredible poet and his book is one of the best I’ve read this year. I’ve never read poetry that’s about deaf culture - I didn’t even know there was such a thing. Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené’s Slay in Your Lane is something that everyone should read and Ysra Daley Ward is a great voice. Jay Bernard’s Surge and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.

It’s always been the right time to hear from Black British men in literature. Black women have created a space within literature for Black men to then come in and do it well. We’ve got JJ Bola and Okechukwu Nzelu but I really want there to be a big Black canon of amazing literature and for all these names to be spoken about 100 years from now.  

“I wanted to make sure (that I) infuse Ghanaian culture in every chapter” – Derek Owusu

Addiction in its various forms is explored – whether that’s alcohol or self-harming – in raw, unflinching detail. It’s unapologetic. How much does That Reminds Me reflect the lived realities of being a Black man with declining mental health?  

Derek Owusu: It touches on alcoholism, something I’ve never heard people talk about openly in the Black British community, especially with men. A lot of our fathers were very African and stoic but they drink every single day and will never think they have a drinking problem. 

I wanted to touch on how we use alcoholism to deal with issues in the past. I never explicitly say K is drinking because of one reason. Instead, I just show you what has happened in his life. There’s a snapshot of K drinking and you can make your own assumptions.

What kind of relationships did you want to elevate? In the book, we see family ties don’t just have to be blood ones.

Derek Owusu: I wanted to make sure the family aspect was very present and how you can love people in different ways. The prominent relationships I wanted to show in the book were the ones with women. The way I write about the women are completely different to the ones I write about the men, except my little brother. One way I showed how K loved his foster mother was watching TV just to keep her company and so she felt she had someone to talk to. And when I wrote about K’s mum getting up to clean in the morning, I wrote it with tenderness. 

It’s really important in Ghanaian culture to call people aunty or cousin even if they’re not your blood relation because it shows respect and we all believe we come from the same place, so I wanted to make sure that was in the book and infuse Ghanaian culture in every chapter. I don’t explain anything in the book – some Ghanaian writers have a glossary but I didn’t do that. If you want to know what it means, research it.

What is something from this novel that you’d like to revisit in future projects?

Derek Owusu: I’m just finishing off a book that I was writing at the same time as That Reminds Me. It’s a book of short stories capturing people with different lives and trying to bring Tottenham alive. 

My second book, Teaching My Brother To Read which will be published in 2021, started off as a way to connect with my little brother and get him into literature. I pay him £50 per book he reads and then we discuss it, how it relates his life, and what the common interpretation is. My brother and I are very close, he's my best friend. 

This is a book that charts a young man’s descent from childhood to mental collapse and recovery. My final question is, what’s the message?

Derek Owusu: That experience through life creates adult behaviours, especially with mental disorders. It’s the past that shapes the future but you can come away from it. I showed this through the character of K. 

That Reminds Me is published by #Merky Books, out now