Q& A with New York Times Best-Selling Author Bassey Ikpi “ I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying”
Bassey Ikpi was first known for her poetry, appearing on the Def Poetry Jam television series and the travelling company of the Broadway show. Now she is the author of her first collection of essays, I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying, which delves into her personal journey with Bipolar II disorder. Through this work, Bassey attaches an emotional heartbeat and creates a window into what it’s like living with this disorder in such a thoughtful way. She masterfully uses words to paint vivid images to advance the conversation about mental health. Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of being at her book reading and discussion at the “Books Are Magic” event in Brooklyn, NY with fellow author Melissa Febos. Definitely pick up the book and also get the audiobook to hear Bassey narrate her book. You won’t be disappointed!
Q: What were some of the steps, either with a therapist or checklist, that you followed prior to writing this book of essays to ensure and safeguard your wellness, since you were recalling some very traumatic experiences in the book?
BI: The clearest thing is to be certain you are doing it for the right reasons. I had a conversation with Tarana Burke Tuesday night at the 92Y. She does similar work with dealing with some serious issues in her past and other peoples’ past. This idea that your story isn’t valid unless it’s being shared and to feel as though you’re sharing the story because it needs to be out there, is not the best way to approach it. It doesn’t prepare you for anything of the things that come with it. I was fortunate enough to be in serious therapy for a depressive episode that I was experiencing for over the last couple of years, and the work that I was doing gave me some distance and clarity from the work that I was excavating from my past. I also made sure I had people around me that would support me and read the work, but most importantly I didn’t feel compelled to tell any story that was too difficult to be told. I didn’t feel the need to push myself or turn myself inside out or martyr myself in order to get these stories out.
I read a review (laughs). I need to stop reading reviews! The writer was saying that she loved the book, but towards the end she felt that it was a little confusing and she wishes I would have gone deeper into this thing or that thing. That’s her right as a reader, but as the writer I was like no they is no way I would have done that. Who would I have been doing that for? Who would I have gone deeper into these very, very traumatic and upsetting events for? Who would it be to detail it so much for? It would satisfy the curiosity, it would satisfy the voyeurship that comes with reading a memoir, but it wouldn’t do any good for anybody else. It didn’t disrupt anything and I’m just not willing right now and [that’s] the only reason why I was able to write this book. I’m not willing to burn myself at the stake and I think people need to be very clear about what those boundaries are and make sure their support is in place to remedy that.
Q: What was the most surprising thing throughout this whole process that you learned about yourself, and what are you most proud of?
BI: The surprising thing is the stuff about my mom. I love my mother and I love my family so much, but I have always had her story and her on the periphery. I don’t get it, I don’t know what her issue is, but whatever. She’s my mom and that’s just the way it is and writing about her and trying to piece together some stories that I heard in my past from growing up from both of them made me feel a lot more empathy for her and what she possibly might have gone through in her own story. It changed the way that I respond to her. I’m no longer defensive, I’m much more open to trying to understand what she says what she means beyond what the words she actually used are [or] why she chose to do this as opposed to that. It made me very empathetic towards her and it helped bolster some of what I want readers to get in general which is what I said last night at the [Books are Magic] event: It’s very easy to empathize with people you can feel sorry for. It’s very easy to empathize with people you are able to find some sort of commonality with. It’s much more difficult to do so when someone is doing something or behaving in ways that aren’t nice and it definitely taught me better ways of processing the fact that the way somebody behaves, I’m not responsible for it and I’m not the reason for it.
Q: What structures and routines, that you already had in place, have you tried to maintain while on this book tour?
BI: (laughs) Well the book tour has thrown it all out the window! My voice, talking to you, is like why are we even here! On Twitter, I asked authors how do you do this (travel for book tour)? I’m on day four and I’m just so exhausted. Before [the tour began], one of the things I would do at home is that I have a very expensive night routine. I take my night medication at 9:00 pm, I take a shower, I have a dance party, I do the whole face wash and skincare routine, something I never thought I would be into (laughs) but A: I’m older, and B: it is very…I won’t say meditative, but one of the things that is really important to me is, as much as I live I’m very disorganized and all over the place, so the way in which I incorporate routine in my life is different than the way that people might suggest. so for me, it is knowing at 9 pm that I have to do this thing. Like I said take my medication, take a shower, find moments that allow me to turn my brain off [even] if that means watching dumb “ish” on YouTube. I’m so embroiled in these beauty YouTube drama (laughs). Tt’s just something I don’t normally watch but I’m invested in something separate from my actual life. These are things that may not be helpful for anyone else. But it’s difficult as a writer and creative, there’s no nine to five. There is no I eat lunch at twelve, I do this at one. That’s just not the way my life is structured and that’s not the way I want it to be structured, that would drive me up the wall. But that night routine: brushing teeth, meds, skincare, shower all that stuff is just something I need to wind down. I’ve had a really difficult time doing it these last couple of days in the hotel because [when] you come back from an event at 10 pm, [you] just want to eat, and I don’t normally eat late because it makes it difficult for me to sleep, but I have no choice but to eat late (laughs) because the thing ended at 9:30 pm. I’m going to have to figure out a way [to eat earlier].
One of the things that [has] been helpful is […] I treated myself to an Apple Watch, and that has been a lifesaver! The thing that tells you to stand up, I use it as this tool. Because when you are sitting still and you have a tendency to fall into your own head, this labyrinth and maze in your own head, it will beep and say stand up and move around for a minute, I’m like “oh shit! I should probably do that” and I actually do get up and start finding things to get out of my own head: start picking things up off the floor, packing a little bit. I’m very competitive, so the [watch’s] mood rings, I’m like I gotta close this ring today (laughs). It’s very technology-based, but it is the wisest. The breathing app, I wish I had all this stuff when I was on tour with Def Poetry Jam. It would have helped a lot! Whatever I can find that works temporarily, I make sure that I’m always finding new things and different ways to do things because one of the things I’ve learned about myself, post-diagnosis over the last decade or so, is I’ll always find a way to talk myself out of the thing that is good for me. I’ll get lazy with it. I’ll stop doing the things that work and I don’t know what that’s about. I guess I’ll bring that up with my therapist, but I have to switch it up quite often. I’m always looking for that next thing. I’m learning after these last three days [for] the remainder of the tour I need to find something to switch it up. If it means getting up and walking outside to close my mood rings (laughs) than that’s what I’ll do!
Q: What music or particular songs have been your go-to for mood boosters?
BI: First of all, I’ve never been a super fan of Beyoncé . I’m a big fan (laughs), I like her just as much as anybody. I always appreciated what she did, but the last few years, I feel like she comes out with a song that just feels endemic! There’s a song that she has which was a bonus track on the album that actually made me a fan the album “4”: [The] song. is “School in Life”. Because I’m a big lyrics person, lyrics just jump out at me. I was going through a really difficult time, just life and trying to figure out where I fit. I was feeling like it was too late for me to be the person everyone expected me to be since childhood. I just felt like I was failing. There’s a line in the song: “this is for the thirty-somethings not exactly how their mom and dad wanted them to be.” Then a couple of years later she comes out with “Shining” in 2016 with DJ Khaled. That’s when I was coming out of my depressive episode and I had just gotten the book deal and all these really amazing things were starting to happen. “All of this winning, I’m just losing my mind!” Then last year she comes out with “Apeshit” with the line: ”I can’t believe we made it, this is why we’re thankful”. That was when I started to feel like I could see the depression so far enough in the past that I felt confident that I could handle anything coming towards me! And THEN this year she comes out with “Mood 4 Eva”, and that has been [on] constant repeat on my Spotify. I listen to it over and over again. I hate the fact it's been “Beyoncé everything” (laughing), but music is such a huge part and when I think about the ones I go to when I need to feel certain things, when I need to feel proud of myself or when I just want to celebrate myself, those are the songs that I turn to!
Q: Sometimes when you are dealing with present issues and trying to push away the past, it can be difficult to look ahead. What are you most looking forward to?
BI: I’m looking forward to seeing what this book does for people. I don't know if that is arrogant to say, but it was so important for me to write it the way I did because I wanted it to meet people in a very specific way. The books that I had read about bipolar disorder or mental health were always written in a very clinical way, and I wanted to read something that felt more personal, that spoke to my experience, that spoke to the way that I process things, the way that my brain works and the way the world looks because of my brain. It took me so long to sign books last night because I don't want to sit there and write ‘To Melanie, hope you like it, Bassey.” I’ll sign the book, but I want to spend a couple of minutes just talking to you. How are you, what is your thing, getting to know people and getting to hear their stories and just connecting on a one-on-one level. So many people that I’ve met over the last couple of days have had stories, [some] didn’t know anything about me and came to see the person I was in conversation with. [T]hrough the process of being present for the event, they felt heard, they felt seen and they wanted to talk about that. They wanted to have that conversation. That moves me so much because it feels so often, especially as a writer, [that] you do [things] in isolation. You don't know. A couple of your friends will read it, of course, your editor will read it, but once it goes out in the world to see what it does when it’s out there, that’s what’s the most gratifying thing for me. To hear people talk about themselves in relation to it and just hear what it means for them to see themselves in something I created and what that does to further the conversation around how we talk about and treat mental health disorders. I’m just looking forward to talking to people and meeting people. I’m an extrovert introvert (laughs) so it’s very exhausting afterward, but it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to!
For more information on Bassey Ikpi and her book tour check out her website!
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