For Colored Girls Book Club + Bassey Ikpi

 

Bassey Ikpi is a mental health advocate, poet, and the author of a stunning collection of essays, I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying. In her debut, Bassey details her life with Bipolar II disorder, both before and after she was diagnosed and had language for her experience. She recounts events as she remembers them, often interrogating her own memory as she tells stories, realizing mid-essay that her version of events is a lie, but also true. This tension courses through the entire collection, and the reader, willingly, goes along with it.

We caught up with Bassey over the phone recently to talk about I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying as part of her advocacy, why her story couldn’t fit a traditional narrative, and why she was so uncertain her book would ever make it into the world.

 
Bassey Ikpi. Photo: Maxine L. Moore

Bassey Ikpi. Photo: Maxine L. Moore

 

FOR COLORED GIRLS BOOK CLUB:

I’ve read interviews where you said you are kind of surprised that [I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying]  is out in the world finally. Why were you so uncertain the book would eventually make its way into the world?

BASSEY IKPI:

I think that I've been writing for a really long time, just in general. I've wanted to write a book, specifically about mental health, for years. It just never felt right. I think that one of the issues was that I was trying to write in a very specific way. All the books that I'd read before, specifically memoirs about mental health, memoirs by black women, black people, I was trying to fit into these different molds. The first book I was writing was this weird self-help kind of thing, which was so inauthentic because there's just no way I could stand and tell people I am some sort of example of how things are or, "I got over it and this is how you can too.” The way that I wrote this book, the choices that I made stylistically, the point of view that I chose, the fact that it's so unconventional … I was very concerned that my editor wasn't going to approve of it. Then when she did approve of it I was like, well, the publishers aren't going to like this. Then everyone was fine with it. At every stage I kept feeling like something was going to come up and stop it. Holding a book in my hands that has words that were in my brain at some point is just the strangest thing in the world. It just always feels like a new level of surreal.

FCGBC:

I love this book so much. You played a lot with narrative and form in a way that I haven’t seen much in other essays and memoirs. How did you choose to tell your story this way?

BI:

I keep telling people that the book we sold isn't the book I wrote and I was struggling to write the book that we sold. The book we sold just felt false and inauthentic. It felt like lies. I was trying to write from this space that I didn't occupy. I felt  like I had to maybe include some statistics and pull in news stories, like maybe talk about Sandra Bland, maybe talk about Trayvon. I didn't feel confident that my story was enough. On top of that, the way that mental health presents itself, specifically in my life, doesn't feel straightforward. There's no straight narrative. There's no point A and point B. In order to convey that properly, I had to write it from that second person point of view to get the reader to understand what this feels like. Like, "This is what you feel like." I intended to write it that way to free myself, and then do a find and replace thing and change all the yous and shes to Is to make it a more standard narrative. I think I did it for a paragraph before I realized it didn’t work.

When I first started writing this book three years ago I was just coming out of one of the worst depressive episodes I've ever had in my entire life. I was also trying to find ways to articulate to my family and to my friends what I had been going through. I wanted to give them all of the language for what this felt like, what happened 10 years ago, why I left the tour, all these things. The only way I could do that was to shift the perspectives and also just honor the fact that my memory isn't solid, and honor the fact that the way that I remember things may not hold up in a court of law. Because I don't remember the details where I should remember the details. I was fully prepared for people to read this book and be like, "What the fuck?"

FCGBC:

I love the way you didn't try to force the reader to trust you. You put your truth out there and you say, accept it if you want. That's why one of my favorite essays in the collection is “Becoming A Liar” because it's an interesting moment where you're saying flat out telling me that you're a liar but you're kind of asking me to believe the things that you're saying. How did you anticipate readers navigating that tension, if you did at all?

BI:

I didn't anticipate it. My editors read it and were like, do you see what you've just done here? I'm like, no, I'm just writing. What's interesting about that particular essay is that I wanted to tell the story about the car accident, and as I was writing it, I was like, "Oh, wait. Fuck. This is not what happened. This is just what I told people happened," and then I had to go back and think and remember what actually happened. I had to tell the truth I had created, because it was true. I was wearing those sandals. All those things were absolutely factually true, but the way that I crafted the experience was a lie because I was leaving so much out of it. And I think it's about how much truth can be handled both by yourself and the people you're speaking to. How much information is necessary for the story? Had I told my parents that I completely blacked out, had been terrified of this random radio story that I had heard weeks, maybe months, before, that it completely took over my body when I got into the car, that I was so terrified that this thing was going to happen. Had I told my parents all of that, plus the part where I felt completely detached from my body, then what? What would have been the recourse? What would they have done? This was way before I was diagnosed. It was before I'd had any conversations with myself or others about my mental health. I knew I had to go with the story that wouldn't upset anyone and wouldn't make my life any more difficult, which is the way that I think we kind of navigate our lives. This is when stuff starts to get a little bit murky for me and I want it to get murky for you, too, because I need you to see it from that perspective and not from an encyclopedia of facts kind of perspective.

 
I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying  by Bassey Ikpi.  Source .

I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying by Bassey Ikpi. Source.

 

FCGBC:

I feel like you did an amazing job at showing things from your perspective. Like in another favorite essay of mine from this collection, “This Is What Happens,” in which you time stamp a 24 hour period and we go through your anxiety and your insomnia with you.

BI:

Yeah, when it comes to bipolar 2, this idea of time is so important. During a depressive episode, the days just stretch on. I swear it's been a week but it's been one day. Then conversely when it's mania I swear it's been a month but it hasn’t. I had what they call a mixed episode where I was both depressed and hypomanic at the same time, plus anxious. My editor was like, there's no way all of this happened in this two minute frame. But it does. My body is slow but my brain is hyper, speeding through all of these thoughts and all of these ideas that just come into my brain and then leave immediately. She actually wanted me to cut that essay in half. I told her if we cut it in half then the whole thing has to go because the point of it is to show what happens during almost every minute of your life when this is happening to you, what your body and your brain are going through. There are parts of that essay where people are like, “I am exhausted. I am so tired of reading this." I'm like, "Congratulations. I am even more exhausted living it." The only way I can show you what that is like is to take you moment by moment through this thing. That essay also has a lot of what happens when other people interact with you. Like, "This is what I think the cab driver thinks of me. This is what I think the cashier thinks of me. This is what I think all these people think of me." I am placing myself into all these different heads while I am also in my own head trying to figure out how all of these things intersect and literally just trying to make it through 24 hours.

FCGBC:

I love the immediacy of that essay, particularly for the reasons you just mentioned. I feel like I experienced a lot of things with you as a reader. But the book doesn’t really tell me how you moved from your resigned self in “We Don't Wear Blues” to becoming an advocate for bipolar two and mental health. What was that trajectory?

BI:

The Tuesday after I came back from the hospital, I was at home in Brooklyn watching Girlfriends. And Lynn, the biracial flaky one, finds her biological mother who has bipolar disorder. I've just gotten out of the hospital. I was still wrestling with this thing. Still wasn't really telling anybody what was going on. Just kind of resigned to deal with it quietly. I'm watching the show and I'm getting kind of excited because everybody I know watches this. I felt like this was going to help me just feel seen and heard and just validated in some way. They called her condition bipolar, but they gave her symptoms of intellectual delay and also elements of what they used to call “multiple personality disorder.” It was just all over the place and I didn't recognize anything that they were saying. What struck me was we have Lynn, this character that is very flaky and flighty and forgetful and can't keep a job and is always jumping from one project to the next project and I thought that they were going to introduce her as having [bipolar disorder]. I don't know why I thought that in the 2000s but I thought that. [Lynn] is so afraid that she has this thing that her mother has and she says to Joan, "I'm afraid that I'm crazy too." And Joan looks at her and says, "You're nothing like that. You're not crazy. She's crazy." It was this moment of complete othering and saying, “You couldn't possibly be this thing. You are much better than that. You are beautiful. You are lovely. You're not crazy. You're not bipolar."

I just kind of sat there after it went off just like feeling really wounded by it and not fully understanding why. At that time I had a blog, BasseyWorld.com, and I just went to it and started writing. I was just really open on that about what was happening with me, what this thing is. I just felt so alone at that moment. But I’m like, I'm not that special; there's got to be one other black girl somewhere whose friend might read this and send it to them. I posted it and went to bed, and the next morning I was so surprised to get these emails and comments from people. Now I was like, I have nothing to lose. I can talk about this. I'm not going to get fired. My family doesn't understand but they're not kicking me out or shunning me or trying to baptize me or “get the demons out.” I have this luxury to tell my story and to find these connections with people.

It's weird because I didn't really consider myself an advocate until very recently. I was just someone saying what I was saying and knowing that I have a lot of work to do. I was on medication and off and on and I was in therapy off and on. I felt better when I was on than when I was off and I just wanted to be able to talk to people about it before Twitter. And then Twitter came so I talked about it on Twitter, then with the Siwe Project. When Siwe passed away I realized that I wasn't talking loud enough and I wasn't talking to as many people as I could. I just wanted everyone to be able to tell their own stories and not have those stories told for them.

 
fcgbc tote i'm telling the truth but i'm lying.jpg
 

FCGBC:

Is I'm Telling The Truth But I'm Lying part of your advocacy?

BI:

Yes. Absolutely. I think it does something that I wouldn't be able to do just by standing in front of you and talking. It was really important to me once I decided that this was the way that I was going to tell it or what I was going to tell it was really important to me that I submerge, I completely immerse people in the experiences that I could as best as I could. One of the best comments I got from someone who's read the book was that they didn't understand just what happens, how it manifests itself. Like in “What It Feels Like,” where I’m experiencing a complete hypomanic spiral. I had friends who asked, so that time you called me 92 times before I could even wake up, that's what was happening? And I said, yeah, I was convinced you were upset with me and I needed to make sure that you weren't and then you weren't answering which made me think you were absolutely upset and now you've blocked me because not only were you upset with me but now I'm calling you too much. It helped me to explain those things to the people in my life.

But on a general level I really wanted people to know the reason their dad can't call them back right now or the reason the bitch in the office keeps looking at you funny. If I told you “The reason why your mom forgot your birthday..." You don't want to hear that. But if I say, "This is what she could possibly be going through also while you think other things are going on," it might give you just a little bit of pause. No responsibility, no requirement past that, just a little bit of understanding. That's the biggest thing that I hope if nothing else people take away from this. I want people who go through it to know that they're not alone. You just keep taking your medication, just keep going. You have to make the commitment to keep going and find ways to make it easier on yourself.

FCGBC:

How did the fact of your blackness or your womanness influence the ways that you wrote about your mental health issues?

BI:

Well, in the same way that I stated earlier that I didn't want to write for that greater social, political conversation because I am a black woman and everything I do is already influenced by that fact. I was actually, concerned what people would think. I almost felt trapped by what would people think, in ways that I don't think I would if I was a white woman or a white man, because white people are allowed to tell their stories without any kind of qualifiers. I was so aware of the fact that I needed to hit the ball out of the park on the first try. I wasn't certain that I'd done that which is why I was surprised [by people’s reaction].

FCGBC:

Are you reading anyone right now?

BI:

I am not reading anybody. I am very proud to say that because I have given myself two months off. I'm not writing anything, I'm not reading anything unless it's like ... I want fluff. I want junk and nonsense. That's what I want. I'm watching a lot of television right now. I am watching The Real Housewives of Potomac. I am watching these really dumb teen shows on Freeform. I'm watching a lot of YouTube. It's terrible but I've been reading a lot of heavy shit for the last couple years. So, I'm reading nothing.