In the memoir of Nigerian-American writer Bassey Ikpi, I am telling the truth but I am lying, we assume a seat in a travel-through-time session, as the Nigerian-American writer takes us on a journey of sight and memory. She asks us to trust her with the truth while she consistently reminds us that a particular part of the voyage may be a lie. The act of recollection resembles a physical one, picking up collections of truths entangled in lies, splitting memory in an attempt to establish what is truth and what is exaggeration while fingers dig in an excavation of understated events.
Ikpi, who is a poet, writer and mental healthcare advocate, was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder. Throughout the book, we watch as she grapples with mental illness, chasing what she considers to be a “normal” life. But time is not linear and memory is not what it purports to be as her mind has found ways to protect her from memories that it perceives to be dangerous. In turn, the same function creates fantastic accounts of what happened.
In an essay, she writes: “I turn the purple bruises of memory into lipstick-stained kisses, the crushing weight of life into neck-nuzzling embraces. But sometimes, this habit turns on me, makes me contort pinpricks into amputations. A ruby red point of blood becomes a geyser – something to drown in.”
A review by Naomi Elias of e-zine Longreads titled “The Survivor’s Edit” succinctly captures the function of Ikpi’s brain and the manner in which she pens some fables with painful precision. We are introduced to her childhood in Nigeria, a place she would go back to as a teenager, where her tongue would flail without memory of the language she had grown up around. She would go on to grow to adulthood and try and build her life in New York City, plundering pay cheques and credit cards in search of wholeness.
Constructing fragments of time
In writing the essays she intended to leave behind as evidence of what happened to her in the event of her succumbing to her illness, the writer could not fathom the gathering of accounts into one. Ikpi’s friendship with Freshwater writer, Akwaeke Emezi, was instrumental in the development of this book. What Ikpi perceived to be a few scattered essays that document her journey with mental illness, her friend and colleague identified as a book.
Although the chronology of the stories does not follow the traditional structure of a memoir, the structure of compilation reflects the fragmentation of time Ikpi experiences in attempts to recall her memories. Her recollection of NASA’s Challenger explosion is visceral while the memory is mangled by the incorrect time stamp that she alleges is the truth while Google states otherwise. This explosion seems to centre the moment where Ikpi believes she lost control of her mind and gained the paranoia that caused her to want to take responsibility for the misfortune.
In conversation with National Public Radio’s Scott Simon, Ikpi stated: “… I was looking forward to it so much that when the ascension started, I looked away. And then when I looked back, that’s when it exploded. And for some reason, my brain connected that the fact that I was excited and that I chose my own excitement over whatever safekeeping measures.” Years later, when seeking mental healthcare, she admits this seemingly ridiculous guilt, as the source for her mental illness.
In one of the essays titled Becoming a Liar, Ikpi explains one can survive truths by telling lies. In recalling the time that she crashed into the garage door at her parent’s home, Ikpi creates an elaborate story about how the accident came to be. The narrative is ripped and crumbled when she admits that she actually does not know nor recall how the accident occurred, only that she and her family would declare the fabled testimony as truth.
There is one truth that lies heavily on the tongue of the writer, not to be uttered because of the reluctance to name. The truth of the behaviour of her mother who, through Ikpi’s own account, constantly expressed her disappointment in her. It appears to the reader that Ikpi is a conduit through which her mother funnels her anger and animosity while Ikpi’s father uses her mother’s rough upbringing as an ineffective balm for his daughter’s wounds. The complex relationship with her mother is expressed through the paradoxical function of her mother’s hands which are described as healers as well as the instruments with which hate and harm are caused.
The tenderness with which the writer tells her own story is inspiring. In many ways, Ikpi is a teacher, enlightening the reader on the art of offering one’s own story with compassion. It was highly disconcerting to watch an interview with Ikpi and the host of BookTV.org, Peter Slen, where he carelessly handled the delicate and nuanced story, in a brazen manner – accusing Ikpi’s mother of abuse and asking if either of them have been diagnosed with mental illness, in a manner which reinforces the fear of people claiming their mental illness.
In this book, there is no happy ending, no hopeful breakthrough where Ikpi’s mind is fixed and all the fragmented pieces are joined together to resemble the normal life she so desperately sought while dealing with a breakdown. Instead we meet her as a parent to a child, offering love and safety while trying to secure a sense of happiness for herself. The ending, abrupt and leaving the reader with questions, is a true representation of life with mental illness. Speaking to Glory Edim for American television production company Shondaland, Ikpi says: “The happy ending [is] I’m still alive. I hope the ending is kind of an ellipsis.”
The ending does not come packaged with a bow, it is not a full stop but a story left to continue.