IIf you were to write a story of your mother, who left her ancestral home in Kumasi, Ghana, for London, the heart of the old empire, how could you do it? One option would be to sit her down, as Derek Owusu’s narrator does in the epilogue to his novel Losing the Plot, and ask her direct questions. Yet this approach has limits: when her son Kwesi asks her if she was delighted to be on the plane that brought her to Britain, the unnamed mother responds with a laconic “Yeah”. A follow-up question about what she thought of England elicits the more telling no “I don’t know. I didn’t think of it as anything.
This “factless interview”, in the words of the narrator, has never been able to trace the intimate and difficult details of her mother’s life from that moment of her arrival: I find that a certain type of African mother is also reluctant to their lives than an uncooperative suspect in a police investigation. Instead, the extra color the narrator desires is found through careful observation and poetic imagination as the novel’s code switches between a poetic voice and, in the footnotes, its demotic counterpart, interpreting also through English and the mother tongue, Twi.
After emigrating to Britain, the narrator’s mother leads an economically precarious life marked by indignities, where each day blends into the next, stretching between three cleaning jobs and raising a family. “She stops calling [home] and spends more time with her brood of thoughts. In her attempt to find meaning and identity – in her words, to “create life” in Britain – she joined an evangelical church. Yet, though she sits right at the front and is caught up in her Pentecostal attraction, she refuses to do the bidding of church leadership. From her purse, “she passes coins”, not the tickets they expect. “The tithe has taken its toll,” writes the narrator.
After living in Britain for three decades, she struggles to think of herself as British. Her attempts to connect her children to home (“Whose home?” asks Kwesi) and their Ghanaian heritage are largely futile. When she offers them a taste of her childhood in the form of a sweet bread, they are indifferent, “so she savors it on her own”. Yet in the strange British metropolis, there are times when she connects with others who share something of her ‘Ashanti soul’. Sometimes an “aunt” can get off her stool in the middle of a party, “move her fat ass back and forth into the hip life…”
Although notoriously quiet when it comes to declaring her love for her children, her deep affection is unmistakable. In a footnote, the narrator writes: “Listen, with Ghanaians, it’s impossible to tell when they love you. With the parents, I mean. Yet she shows it in the most practical way possible. She even studies youth culture, so she can understand the world in which she is raising her children.
Although the world this woman inhabits is mean and alienating, there are moments of tenderness expressed in a simple yet moving way. Sometimes she refers to Kwesi as son: “He prefers son to any other call, loves the drop in tone through these three letters, sounding stretched but comfortable in their balance, a name he is proud of, a brilliant designation so small but brilliant, a touching love reaction his whole body when his mother calls him with such a small word capable of throbbing all the air around him.
Owusu’s second novel, following the success of her award-winning first novel That reminds me, is not just a concise story of an African woman in London. In the final story, it is a love letter – sometimes dense, often moving – written by a son to his mother, “an immigrant woman who will die here alone and will only be able to rise with the work that her son has done well”. And by extension, it’s a living memorial to the millions of people working in care, cleaning and other low-paying jobs.