Derek Owusu Review: Losing the Plot
Owusu’s latest work, Lose the plotimagine what life was like for her 18-year-old mother when she arrived in London from Ghana in 1989. Her fictional narrator’s mother trades the “dusty paths of Jamasi” for the gray pavement of Tottenham, “a village of disguised loan shops,” to escape the military regime of Jerry John Rawlings. She becomes a single mother navigating an inflexible racist environment that threatens to crush her dreams of a “new life” and identity. title is a house of mirrors for the pun lover: “losing the plot” refers both to the loss of the ground plan of this place called home, to the “ragged notes” of depression, and to experimentation of the author with the narration.
That reminds me has been described as a novel despite its fragmented structure and prose sliding into poetry. Lose the plot is equally slim and hybrid in shape. It is divided into three parts: Landing, Landing, Customs and Immigration. The presentation of the book, with its narrow text margins – which give space to each memoir (varying from a few lines to a few pages) – and its language (which often demands to be read aloud), suggest that it could reside on poetry shelves. Still, it will confuse those who wish to attach a definitive gender. The text is annotated with side notes, as if the narrator were leaving WhatsApp voice notes for the reader, and its tone is personal: family. These interjections are poignant and not without humour. They breathe frankness into the steamy windows with poetry, sometimes with an understatement: “Being an immigrant is stressful”.
The contrast in tone between poetry and familiar parallel notes demonstrates Owusu’s complex exploration of linguistic identity. In many ways, Lose the plot is the child of his essay “Mother Tongue: The Lost Legacy of the Diaspora”, published in 2017, in which he echoes the words of James Baldwin that “language is the most living and crucial key to identity”, mourning his mother’s decision not to teach him Twi, his first language (and the language spoken by an estimated 8 million people in Ghana). He thinks she “probably sensed” that he was unidentified as a newborn and should not recognize himself as Ghanaian; highlighting this in Lose the plot, Owusu includes a telling side note: the narrator’s mother “has no problem telling me that I am not Ghanaian. She became a citizen even before I was born.”
The text is peppered with Twi and references to her narrator aspiring to speak the language, and her mother’s frustration over it. In juxtaposition, he imagines her learning English as soon as she arrives in the UK with obronis (strangers) “twisting and polishing his tongue”; how “his beat words will have to do”; and how:
She tries to translate idioms and sayings
– words placed according to how they are pronounced like
Opposed to their expression
This mother tongue theme looms in a vignette of attachment when the mother goes out with her daughter:
She stops the buggy and faces her baby,
sticking out the tongue
playful, acting, hoping, clicking,
She finds it difficult to cross her eyes,
but hears an indulgent chuckle in response.
The narrator responds with corresponding forgiveness (for not having learned Twi) to the cadence of his mother’s English:
He prefers son to any other job, loves
the drop in tone through these three letters
looking stretched but comfortable in their
balance, a name he is proud of…
For those of us lucky enough to be safe in our home, Owusu leaves no doubt about the harsh 24/7 reality of stress endured by immigrant communities. The mother continually catches up with her new identity. In one of the most moving images, she is pictured in the bathroom after a shower, her head wrapped in a ‘hair towel’, staring at the condensation on the mirror, the drippings likened to her tears like:
She brushes her teeth out of time with
his reflection (…)
She lives in a perpetual struggle to pay the rent, as well as to find a permanent place she can call home, “constantly giving away the key being the motive of her life”. Yet: “My mother never really complained… Always going somewhere, holding back… This woman would never rest”. She works endless shifts as a cleaner:
His bleached palm spins clockwise, fast,
trying to clean up who or what came
It is impossible not to draw conclusions from his bleached hands, an image repeated several times throughout the text. Or a similar emphasis on the word “stretch” (“she’s thin from stretching”; “she looks up at a slowly swelling blister / eye so the skin can stretch”; “she holds and stretches her skin”) and other repetitions (of “settling”; “investigating”; “imprinting”; “scalding” and “scouring”) that suggest the eagerness to integrate into a society often racist. She is unable to live freely: Owusu surrounds her in a “large closed building” and “compressed” in an elevator. She develops a fear of looking up, as “unbearable is the weight of the sky”. The all-consuming pressure to be fair has become “unbearable”.
The record of his mental health is clearly described. She has become “the prey of the world waiting to be taken”; her “smiling cheeks” round as “cherries” are replaced by a “fading body” and a “frail identity”. As a teenager, the narrator learned to recognize the signs of his mother’s depression:
He saw it all, could tell she hadn’t felt
for months before, no shock, no reaction
as he watched the plantain oil burst on her
The followers of the psychologist Jean Piaget will undoubtedly come across the hyper-vigilance of the narrator as an example of “assimilation”: witnessing his mother’s behavior from childhood will prefigure her beliefs and perceptions in adulthood. And as an adult, after a night without heavy drinking, he falls flat on the street and “jumps to his feet…and wonders how far this is/and my home. Whose ?
The narrator’s mother may not have kept Ghanaian culture alive with Twi, but Ghanaian radio station Broadwater Farm often plays in the background. She cooks Ghanaian dishes for her children and her cooking permeates the text as it hangs on their walls; we want to scratch the text to feel its pepper soup, its Fufu and its ties. Owusu puts olfactory imagery to good use. Less appetizing is the stench of bigotry. When the narrator is a child, he is invited to a party. They arrive at the birthday boy’s apartment and knock on the door. Someone checks who it is, and when her mother answers, the voices behind the door are “quiet, laughter suppressed”. Unfazed, our narrator looks through the mailbox and calls his friend. His gaze meets that of a woman who “figures her lips” and spits on him. He wipes his face, “still able to smell the scent / around his nose as it continued to fall on his / lips”. That the boy smells the ball of the woman’s saliva intensifies the viciousness of the image.
We are told that her mother’s fingers smell of “baked-on bleach” before learning that her hands were bleached from the cleaning. And the reader is brought to the mother’s bedside with the scent of “Plum, Peach and Orange Blossom” in the air as she:
lying in bed unable to move anything but
his wrist suspended, perfumed and exposed,
although a few moments ago she got up ready for
work, sneaking through the red door
Owusu allows us to feel her depression more acutely by allowing us to smell her perfume, Red Door by Elizabeth Arden (and note her pun on her middle note: “rose”). Arden’s blurb promises that their “signature scent will unlock your world…get you noticed instantly…create an impression of style”: perfect, you’d imagine for someone creating their new identity.
In the epilogue, the narrator is replaced by Owusu as he interviews his mother in the spring of 2019 “to ask her some questions about life” upon her arrival in the UK. She’s hilarious and ruthless, and it proves a “factless” interview, punctuated with plenty of laughs (and mild frustration on Owusu’s part). The only tangible fact to glean is their obvious love for each other. Meanwhile, later in life, and in a cruel twist of irony, the narrator’s mother remains atrophied with just “a few drops” of memory while “a Union Jack / swings outside the house in which she will die”. During a visit, he gives her a bottle of Red Door, presumably hoping to unlock a treasure trove of memories:
She lift the top and spray, both move
their heads around the room to catch the
Never has Elizabeth Arden received such sublime product placement: they owe a fortune to Owusu.
Owusu’s complex layering of form and language (in all its meanings), and the blurring of the author and his mother’s lives with that of their fictional counterparts, reflect the complexity of identity and memory. in the most unique way. He cuts exquisite form in the most poignant fabrics: diaspora, history and self are sewn seamlessly yet worn so lightly. Lose the plot will forever be etched in your memory because Owusu is also the best perfumer. Remember: “Man cannot be arrogant and self-aware at the same time; feel sorry for people like that.