Derek Owusu: ‘Mental health issues that people find scary … › books › nov › derek-owusu-that-reminds-…

2 Nov 2019 – His new book, That Reminds Me, is published by Stormzy’s #Merky Books and is a novel-in-verse that explores identity, belonging, his experience of growing up in foster care, and his mental breakdown last year. Owusu edited the anthology Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space …

With a new book out on Stormzy’s imprint, the writer discusses men’s emotions, Ghanaian families and paying his brother £50 for each novel he reads.

‘The NHS have been amazing. They saved my life a couple of times’: Derek Owusu.
 ‘The NHS have been amazing. They saved my life a couple of times’: Derek Owusu. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Derek Owusu was born in London in 1988. His new book, That Reminds Me, is published by Stormzy’s #Merky Books and is a novel-in-verse that explores identity, belonging, his experience of growing up in foster care, and his mental breakdown last year. Owusu edited the anthology Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space (2019) and is a marketing executive for audio at Penguin Books.

How did That Reminds Me come about?
I started writing it when I was in a mental health facility last year and I created the character of K to try to understand going through a breakdown. I started writing fragments of memory and initially it was going to be a poetry collection, and then it turned into something different. I sent it to Stormzy’s manager and she loved it. I wanted to convey the symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD). Before my BPD diagnosis, I just thought I was strange. My emotions were always fluctuating. I was often angry. When I was diagnosed it was a relief. It’s important to share awareness with the people around you so they know what you’re going through. The NHS have been amazing. They saved my life a couple of times.

That Reminds Me is rich in Ghanaian folktale culture…
I really wanted to incorporate a lot of that. Anansi is the god of stories – I’m telling Anansi my story. I remember my aunt telling me some Anansi stories when I was 9 or 10, but I didn’t take them in. In my 20s, I bought loads of Anansi books. History, folklore, and culture gives you pride and happiness through a sense of connection.

Tell me about the anthology you edited, Safe, and black British men reclaiming space…
It’s about space to be human and let all of your multitudes shine. Black men are often seen in two-dimensional ways as historical racist ideas have been passed on, and the media doesn’t help – reinforcing these ridiculous stereotypes. We often conflate black British men with African men, and it was important to get nuances on paper. 

How do you feel about space for black men in the literary world?
I think more needs to be done. There’s Benjamin Zephaniah and Courttia Newland. But there’s not enough. A lot of new writers are coming through independent publishers, not enough big publishers are publishing them. Who was the last black British male literary sensation in this country? Probably Caryl Phillips, and that was ages ago. I hope that this novel inspires other writers, and I hope it will encourage other publishers to take on writers who are more experimental. Because publishers are scared of being experimental.

Your next book, Teaching My Brother to Read, sounds fascinating – could you tell me more about it?
It was initially an idea for a podcast where I could spend some more time with my brother, who’s 19, and pass on my love of literature. I’ve tried to get him into books before, but he ended up crying after the first few pages of To Kill a Mockingbird – not because he was moved, but because he was so angry that I was making him read! This time around I’m offering him £50 per book and promised him no book will be more than 300 pages. The books I’ve chosen are ones I feel he can benefit from. I raised my brother to the age of around 12. But I left to go to uni for three years and when I came back, he was a different person. I feel I have a responsibility to better his life and I truly believe literature is the way to do that.Advertisement

That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu is published by Merky (£12.99). To order a copy go to or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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