The subject of mental health is often synonymous with shame, silence, and the need to hide away from the world. The age-long stigma attached to it has made the conversation a difficult one to have. According to MentalHealth.gov, mental health problems are actually far more common than people think. Early warning signs range from eating or sleeping too much or too little, distancing oneself suddenly from people and usual activities, having low or no energy, to yelling and fighting with family and friends and feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared. People with mental health problems are often depressed, enabling such thoughts as harming themselves or the people around them.
In African literature, the subject of mental health is increasingly being engaged by a new generation of self-aware artists who approach the subject with empathy. Some of them, most importantly, wrote from experience. BookShyBooks published a list last year that you should definitely check out. Here are our recommendations.
SKY RAINING FISTS, poetry chapbook by J.K. ANOWE
Winner of the 2017 Brittle Paper Award for Poetry, the gifted J.K. Anowe takes subjects usually overlooked and turns them into statements on the fragility of humanity. His work is an entry point to, and a major influence in, an emerging sub-tradition in the poetry of Nigeria’s new generation. Before him, it was unusual to dramatize mental illness in Nigerian poetry in ways that resonate without ceding artistic merit. Sky Raining Fists is the Praxis Magazine Chapbook Series Editor’s second chapbook, following 2016’s the ikemefuna tributaries. It is now available from the American poetry press Madhouse Press.
I’M TELLING THE TRUTH BUT I’M LYING, memoir by BASSEY IKPI
Description by its publisher HarperCollins:
In I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying Bassey Bassey Ikpi explores her life—as a Nigerian-American immigrant, a black woman, a slam poet, a mother, a daughter, an artist—through the lens of her mental health and diagnosis of bipolar II and anxiety. Her remarkable memoir in essays implodes our preconceptions of the mind and normalcy as Bassey bares her own truths and lies for us all to behold with radical honesty and brutal intimacy.
From her early childhood in Nigeria through her adolescence in Oklahoma, Bassey Ikpi lived with a tumult of emotions, cycling between extreme euphoria and deep depression—sometimes within the course of a single day. By the time she was in her early twenties, Bassey was a spoken word artist and traveling with HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, channeling her life into art. But beneath the façade of the confident performer, Bassey’s mental health was in a precipitous decline, culminating in a breakdown that resulted in hospitalization and a diagnosis of Bipolar II.
In I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying, Bassey Ikpi breaks open our understanding of mental health by giving us intimate access to her own. Exploring shame, confusion, medication, and family in the process, Bassey looks at how mental health impacts every aspect of our lives—how we appear to others, and more importantly to ourselves—and challenges our preconception about what it means to be “normal.” Viscerally raw and honest, the result is an exploration of the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of who we are—and the ways, as honest as we try to be, each of these stories can also be a lie.
A SMALL SILENCE, novel by JUMOKE VERISSIMO
From its publisher Cassava Republic:
Imprisoned for ten years for his rage against society, activist and retired academic Prof resolves to live a life of darkness after his release from prison. He holes up in his apartment, pushing away friends and family, and embraces his status as an urban legend in the neighbourhood until a knock at the door shakes his new existence.
His new visitor is Desire, an orphan and final year student, who has grown up idolising Prof, following a fateful encounter in her hometown of Maroko as a child. Tentatively, the two begin to form a bond, as she returns every night at 9 pm to see him. However, the darkness of the room becomes a steady torment, that threatens to drive Desire away for good.
A Small Silence is an intimate and evocative debut charges us to look again at the alienating effects of trauma and the power of solitude and darkness to ignite the imagination.
THE QUIET VIOLENCE OF DREAMS, novel by K. SELLO DUIKER
Published by Kwela Books. Description from Amazon:
The Quiet Violence of Dreams is set in Cape Town’s cosmopolitan neighborhoods – Observatory, Mowbray and Sea Point – where subcultures thrive and alternative lifestyles are tolerated. The plot revolves around Tshepo, a student at Rhodes, who gets confined to a Cape Town mental institution after an episode of ‘cannabis-induced psychosis’. He escapes but is returned to the hospital and completes his rehabilitation, earns his release – and promptly terminates his studies. He now works as a waiter and shares an apartment with a newly released prisoner. The relationship with his flatmate deteriorates and Tshepo loses his job at the Waterfront. Desperate for an income, he finds work at a male massage parlour, using the pseudonym Angelo. The novel explores Tshepo-Angelo’s coming to consciousness of his sexuality, sexual orientation, and place in the world.
A PARTICULAR KIND OF BLACK MAN, novel by TOPE FOLARIN
From its publisher, Simon & Schuster:
Living in small-town Utah has always been an uneasy fit for Tunde Akinola’s family, especially for his Nigeria-born parents. Though Tunde speaks English with a Midwestern accent, he can’t escape the children who rub his skin and ask why the black won’t come off. As he struggles to fit in and find his place in the world, he finds little solace from his parents who are grappling with their own issues.
Tunde’s father, ever the optimist, works tirelessly chasing his American dream while his wife, lonely in Utah without family and friends, sinks deeper into schizophrenia. Then one otherwise-ordinary morning, Tunde’s mother wakes him with a hug, bundles him and his baby brother into the car, and takes them away from the only home they’ve ever known.
But running away doesn’t bring her, or her children, any relief from the demons that plague her; once Tunde’s father tracks them down, she flees to Nigeria, and Tunde never feels at home again. He spends the rest of his childhood and young adulthood searching for connection—to the wary stepmother and stepbrothers he gains when his father remarries; to the Utah residents who mock his father’s accent; to evangelical religion; to his Texas middle school’s crowd of African-Americans; to the fraternity brothers of his historically black college. In so doing, he discovers something that sends him on a journey away from everything he has known.
Sweeping, stirring, and perspective-shifting, A Particular Kind of Black Man is a beautiful and poignant exploration of the meaning of memory, manhood, home, and identity as seen through the eyes of a first-generation Nigerian-American.
PENUMBRA, novel by SONGEZIWE MAHLANGU
Songeziwe Mahlangu, in an interview, revealed that Penumbra was written partly as an attempt to document his own temporary mental breakdown. From its publisher Kwela Books:
Mangaliso Zolo is a hapless recent graduate, still living in the southern suburbs of Cape Town near the university. Manga has an office job at a large insurance company, but he is anonymous and overlooked in this vast bureaucracy.
Penumbra charts Manga’s daily struggles with mental illness and the twin pull, from his many friends and acquaintances, between a reckless drug-fuelled lifestyle and charismatic Christianity. The novel brings an alternative experience of Cape Town to life, one far removed from both the gloss of tourism brochures and the familiar poverty of the Cape Flats. Mahlangu’s voice is unlike anything South African literature has yet seen and this debut novel dissects young, urban slackers in South Africa with startling precision.
FRESHWATER, novel by AKWAEKE EMEZI
Description from Amazon:
Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves―now protective, now hedonistic―move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.
Narrated from the perspective of the various selves within Ada, and based in the author’s realities, Freshwater explores the metaphysics of identity and mental health, plunging the reader into the mystery of being and self. Freshwater dazzles with ferocious energy and serpentine grace, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.
WILLOW WEEP FOR ME: A BLACK WOMAN’S JOURNEY THROUGH DEPRESSION, memoir by MERI NANA-AMA DANQUAH
Published by W. W. Norton & Company in 1998, it has been described by The Extraordinary Negroes as “the first book to focus on black women and depression.” From the inside flap:
This moving memoir of an African-American* woman’s lifelong fight to identify and overcome depression offers an inspirational story of healing and emergence. Wrapped within Danquah’s engaging account of this universal affliction is rare and insightful testimony about what it means to be black, female, and battling depression in a society that often idealizes black women as strong, nurturing caregivers. A startlingly honest, elegantly rendered depiction of depression, Willow Weep for Me calls out to all women who suffer in silence with a life-affirming message of recovery. Meri Danquah rises from the pages, a true survivor, departing a world of darkness and reclaiming her life.
*Meri Danquah is actually Ghanaian American.
For suggestions for this list, please email [email protected]