[tw: discussions of depression, mental illness, and suicide]

JJ Bola is an author and poet from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who migrated to London with his parents at the age of six. His second novel, The Selfless Act of Breathing, was published on February 15th by Atria Books. It has been described as a “heartbreaking, lyrical story for all of those who have fantasized about escaping their daily lives and starting over.”

The main character, Michael Kabongo, was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and came to the UK with his parents as a child. The story centers around Michael’s battle with depression in London, feeling lost, alienated, and haunted by trauma from his family’s migration—notably the death of his father, who was killed when he returned to the DRC.

To escape some of these haunting memories and the deterioration of his close relationships, Michael decides to drop everything, including his job as a teacher, and go to the U.S. where he plans to use up his life savings, and when it runs out, kill himself.

The classic immigrant story about the US centers America as the land of dreams, opportunities, and untold freedom from a difficult life. Usually, even when the story ends tragically, it is because these characters have been failed by the American dream. They get to America and realize that the American dream is, perhaps, only for white people or for men or for rich people, etc. JJ Bola’s novel departs from this template. For Michael, America starts out, not as a fresh beginning, but as an ending. He is going there to put an end to his life. Of course, things get complicated, and Michael has to contend with the dissonance of his decision in the face of life’s complexities and the endless possibilities held in the power love. Yet, the notion that there is something deeply threatening about the immigrant experience, that leaving home for certain kinds of worlds, especially those grappling with systemic racism, can be a death-wish is a fascinating take on the immigrant genre.

For Bola, though, the objective of Michael’s story is to draw attention to depression in the aftermaths of trauma. He remarks in a note posted on his author page:

My original intention for this book was to capture the feeling of lonesomeness, of isolation and exclusion, and the anxiety and depression that can, in so many cases, lead to someone taking their own life or having thoughts of ending their life. I wanted readers to see what representations of what a mental health breakdown might look like, and also who might have those mental health breakdowns—young, Black, working class, refugee, educated, etc. But ultimately, my goal for this book was for it to reach someone, that one person, anyone, who might need to feel less alone, to be reminded that they have a place in this world, no matter how isolated and alone they might feel.

Readers of his popular collection of essays, Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined, would know that he has been thinking about these issues for a while. The Selfless Act of Breathing is a deeply moving book. Bola really pulls all the stops to ask raw, painful, and honest questions about what mental health is, as it relates to masculinity, immigration, alienation, as well as love.

BUY The Selfless Act of Breathing:  Amazon