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Bassey Ikpi’s Literary Debut on Her Mental Health Journey Is a Call for People To See Themselves, and Others, With Genuine Empathy

We speak with the Nigerian-American writer and ex-poet about her book that challenges us to rethink mental health challenges.

Bassey Ikpi is the Nigerian-American writer whose debut book of essays is the epitome of vulnerability and honesty around the mental health conversation.

In I'm Telling The Truth, But I'm Lying, which has already landed a spot on The New York Times' Best Sellers list, we follow Ikpi as she takes readers on an exploration of her life from her formative years in Nigeria, moving to Oklahoma as a pre-teen, being a black woman, a poet, a mother and her multitude of identities through the lens of one living with the eventual diagnosis of bipolar II and anxiety.

Her name may ring a bell for those familiar with HBO's Def Poetry Jam—Ikpi made her mark with several appearances on the show and her way with prose and words still hold true with this book of essays. Pulling the reader into a gentle tide of her consciousness, truths and lies, Ikpi shakes our preconceived notions of how the mind works and what "normal" even means.


In the book, Ikpi lays bare how she lived with a mix of emotions; the push and pull between extreme euphoria and deep depression—where at times she felt the said extremes within a day. Eventually being able to cope during her run as a confident spoken word artist and with Def Poetry Jam in her twenties, her mental health was declining and ultimately led to a breakdown—resulting with an official diagnosis of bipolar II. She takes deep dives into how mental health impacts our day-to-day—from the feelings of shame and confusion, medication and dealing with family and friends while making sense of it all. Ikpi challenges readers to think about how the stories we tell ourselves can also be a lie—despite trying to be honest.

I'm Telling The Truth, But I'm Lying is Ikpi's offering for her loved ones and readers alike to understand how her mind works as one living with being diagnosed. For her, it's not about lending external voices to help tell a chronological story, but rather giving an honest and raw account based on the memories of what she was told—since what matters is what happened and what she experienced. "I wanted to display the truth about how specifically my memory works, which is based on emotion and by intangible things," she shares. "I remember how a thing felt."

In the conversation below, we learn about what pushed Bassey Ikpi to compile this intrinsic body of work, how the book contributes to the need to talk about mental health in African communities and more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

I'm Telling The Truth, But I'm Lying Cover

Antoinette Isama for OkayAfrica: At what point did you realize that you were ready to tell your story in this form of writing?

Bassey Ikpi: To be perfectly honest with you, about three years ago I went through I think the worst depression to date. It'd been kind of building for a few years, but the bulk of it, the heaviness of it, the foggiest part of it hit me really hard in 2015. And I was just basically done. When you get into the book, later essays allude to it, but I was just pretty much done.

I was trying to prepare my friends, and prepare my family. I just had no intention of continuing. Because as much as I knew that I always get better, I just didn't want to go through the possibility of it getting worse, or getting bad again. I just was exhausted and tired.

I decided then also, you're actually the first person I've told this, to start writing the story so that there'd be something there. It'd be documentation. I felt like letters were inadequate. They wouldn't capture the fullness of the experience of what was happening.

And I've had friends who have taken their own lives in the past and not having an answer, not really being able to understand where they were—not what happened—but where they were; what lead them to that. And I started off wanting to do that and I started off wanting to make sure I left as much of an explanation, as much of a, "This is what happens in my head. This is what it feels like. This is where I am. This is what I'm doing. This is what happens. It's not your fault, you didn't do anything."

All these different things that I was thinking of, but that was supposed to be something different. That was supposed to be the private stuff, right? It wasn't supposed to be a collection of essays, or books, or whatever. When I got the book deal in 2016, and I was kind of just giving myself one day at a time, and just taking it day by day.

I was in the mind to do this inspirational thing, which was so false. I was like, okay, well no one wants to hear the true story. They want to hear how you came out of it. That's what they want. They want the triumph, they want the self help, they want the things that you say in the mirror, the affirmations.

"I just want people to see themselves and see others just a little bit clearer, with a little bit more empathy."

And I was trying to write that, the book we sold was called, Making Friends With Giants. And just even from the title alone, it was supposed to be that. And it just wasn't working. And after about a year I went back to my laptop, back to that folder that held all those essays that were supposed to explain and I looked at them. I started writing new things based on what was in that folder.

And with the new stuff that I wrote, I had to step outside of myself and write in second person, and third person and from all these different perspectives just to get the full, to capture the full breath of the experience. And once I did that, I realized that I couldn't write the other book anymore. It just couldn't exist unless this one did first.

And so, thank God my editor was open, and enthusiastic. 'Cause she could sense that the stuff that I was writing just didn't feel good to me. I just hated everything I was turning in. So when I sent her the new essays that I had written and shown her some of the older ones that I had written, she was ready.

I was just thinking that as I was reading it because I usually have a hard time getting through those types of memoirs for that reason. There can be an air of, "Yeah, I went through a lot of stuff, but I'm here now."

Yeah.

But that's not always realistic.

Yeah, yeah it's not. I mean not that I'm going to spoil it for you, because I'm clearly alive, and talking to you. But it was really important for me that the book just end. You know what I mean?

Yeah.

There's no end credits of the movie where they tell you where the people are now. There's none of that, because it's an ongoing process. There's no cure—there's just a living with and just figuring out how to go on with your life and there's no recipe for that. There's no blueprint or manual. I just go to therapy. I take my meds. I try to stay out of toxic situations. That's the stuff that happens. It's life continues after that, there's no final stamp past just being alive.

How were you able to balance finding your purpose and telling your truth with the stigma that still hovers over African communities regarding conversations around mental health?

Honestly, I don't know, because I think to give my parents credit, they weren't as rigid as I recognized my other Nigerian, or African friends' parents. I think they kind of regret that sometimes, because none of us are doctors. But, there was a balance there with my mom being really tough and then my dad being a lot more lenient in different ways.

I think that they didn't know how to say that our happiness was important, but they kind of led us to that. And, I was fortunate because I was just a stubborn kid from the get-go. I was always kind of just off doing my own thing. I'm the eldest, I'm a girl and I don't cook.

I really did not do Nigerian things. My entire life, I was just doing a lot of not Nigerian things and stressing my parents out. But I needed to do that because from an early age I always felt really reckless. And of course I figured out what that was when I was later diagnosed, but for the most part, I just always felt reckless.

And I know that my parents recognized that, because when I was diagnosed—this didn't make it into the book—but when I was diagnosed, my dad almost had a sense of relief. Like, "Okay, that makes sense." Once he read the symptoms he connected it back to my behavior and connected it back to things that he remembered from when I was growing up. He got it, and he understood that.

So, I think that they knew, they were perceptive enough to know that there was something going on, but they did not have the language for it in the same way that I didn't have the language for it.

I didn't really ask for a lot of permission. I just did things and I was fortunate enough to trip and fall into decent situations. I tripped and fell into the whole Def Poetry thing—a career that I wasn't expecting—and I was able to pay bills and show them that I didn't need their money.

It helped them relax, so I was able to always land on my feet. It was when I started to not being able to land on my feet that they started getting worried and by then, I was well into my 20s, and there wasn't much they could do.

Photo by Maxine l. Moore

What are some takeaways you hope readers gain as they read through your book?

I actually debated for a long time about whether to put a trigger warning in the beginning of it. But I realized I didn't want to do that because I felt like it would take something away from the writing. I didn't put anything in the book that wasn't part of the writing. I didn't do a prologue, or forward, or an epilogue, or anything like that. And I just want to leave that as is.

But I want people to feel understood. I want people to not just understand themselves, but possibly people that they thought they had nothing in common with. I tell people all the time, it's not just the people that you love that you need to understand, there could be a lady at your job, or somebody at your job who is just an asshole. Just the biggest jerk in the world, and just take a moment and be like, "All right, are they just a jerk just 'cause that's their life? Or is there something going on that I recognize in this book that I can see in them?"

It doesn't mean you have to do anything, because it's not your responsibility, but just that level of empathy that's elevated from, bless your heart. This generic way into thinking that there might be something going on. And taking a split second before rushing to judgment, or rushing to condemn, or just taking a moment to be a bit kinder to somebody who might be struggling, because now you know that they're not just being flaky. They're not just, so much of it looks like personality defects.

Oh she never tries to come out. Whenever we invite her, she cancels at the last minute. All that kind of stuff you're like, "Well, why? Is there an anxiety there? Is there a depression there? What's going on?" Maybe it's possible, just be a little bit kinder. You don't have to do anything but be kind to them when they resurface, if they resurface. You know what I mean?

I just want people to see themselves and see others just a little bit clearer, with a little bit more empathy. That sounds a little pretentious—and I don't mean it to be—but that's what I wanted when I started it, and it wasn't supposed to be an essay collection. So, that's what I wanted to continue.

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Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs


Photo (c) John Liebenberg

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"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.

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Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.


The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:





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mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019 www.youtube.com

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

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(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.


This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:





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