I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying, Bassey Ikpi (Harper Perennial): A Review by Victor Ugwu

I didn’t know the cost

of entering a song—was to lose

your way back.

So, I entered. So, I lost.

I lost it all with my eyes

wide open.

-Ocean Vuong

Coincidence, I am reading this book and Sia’s “House on Fire” plays in the background.  Raw, naked. Bassey Ikpi’s dares you into entering her body and see if you don’t come out wounded in beautiful places. It opens you to her wounds and holes, new ones, old ones and growing ones. It shows how fragile and little we could become. She walks you from being born in Nigeria to moving to Oklahoma at four years old. How well she recollects her childhood from broken and scattered images, from her parents and grandparents eyes, from convictions that lie in parallel to normalcy, from her acceptance to narrations: to being an immigrant, growing in proportion to wounds. Accepting that life is a triangle that had her choked in the middle.

She navigates the journey into mental health before being diagnosed with bipolar II and anxiety, how depression broke her. How she tries to find balance in voices: her mother’s, her father’s, her grandparents, her lovers, even pills and in a lie: I’m fine, I’m okay. She tells how the dark teaches her to listen. How to not speak meant her saying too much. 

There is this self we hide in when we get misunderstood, thicker than hide or skin, this self-reconciles us to our personal truth that shelters and maybe when too much explodes and we with it. We learn from her memory collections of the space accident as a little girl tore her into safe box of everyone’s misfortune. How Tom Brokaw’s heavy, beautifully enunciated tenor opened and locked this safe box. How the space explosion cracked her for the very first time, forever changing her. “The explosion had triggered something that I wouldn’t have the language to identify for more than a decade”. The process of release began from the math test, how she collects every disaster into her body and how being misunderstood by the principal and her parents threw her to a new home, silence. How sinking meant to keep everyone safe from the truth. The episodes proceeding this day, Bassey becomes volatile, the pain increases, they pile and break her. She begins to do things to her body, trying to find equilibrium mentally and physically. Recalling my experience, I remember cutting myself on my wrist to be sure I was still alive.

Coincidence, Sia’s “Alive” is playing in the background

I’m telling the Truth but I’m lying is a testament to the saying a friend of mine shared on her WhatsApp status: what doesn’t kill you gives you a lot of unhealthy coping mechanism and a really dark sense of humour.

Seeing through Bassey’s experience, Depression and anxiety have a fine way of making you exhausted and afraid all at once, terrified of failing but very much less inspired to grow. Wanting to empty herself into anyone so badly but pushing them away still. Wanting to be alone and not be alone. It’s collecting everyone’s everything and throwing it back in equal proportion. It’s your skin taking it all at once that it breaks you. We learn her mother’s body too in its bright sophistication. Being a nurse and being a mother. Looking in we see cracks we grew up with as children, how my mother was a nice smiling policewoman at work and a monster or both at home. How her father makes sense about everything happening to her. Yaka—sorry— for being in a hole, for being the hole, for being full and having to empty.

This beautiful memoir of essays—unique for its uttermost honesty and openness—is a window to solidarity for everyone experiencing mental illness, helping them find a sense of peace, belonging and even hope. It wakes us out of the stigma and denial on mental health awareness often excused as a white thing. I believe this book is a win for people of all race scattered across the globe even though her story is being set in the United States. The key punchlines were figuring out how misunderstood being mentally ill could become and then walking us into a mutual language everyone in the society understands but sometimes refuse to speak; compassion.

Victor Veon Ugwu was born in 1996 in Onitsha but lives in Minna, in Nigeria. He is the author of Rhythms, a collection of poems (Polarsphere, 2016). He is a Chemical Engineering student at The Federal Polytechnic Bida, Nigeria. His works have appeared online and in print journals and anthologies like the ANA Review, Jacana, Brittle Paper, Prachyaand elsewhere.