Saturday, October 31, 2020

BOOKS! (I'm Telling the Truth, But I'm Lying + Sour Heart)

Happy Halloween! The books I'm writing about today aren't scary (though they do deal with some of the daily horrors of being alive), so they're not exactly on-theme for October. But I am using today as my chance to write my "monthly" book review before this month is over, so there's that. I started reading both of the following books last year, and I discovered each one through listening to podcasts. They're also both written by children of immigrants to the U.S.

I'm Telling the Truth, but I'm Lying: Essays by Bassey Ikpi

Bassey Ikpi was previously a well-established poet/spoken word artist who even toured with Def Poetry Jam for a number of years in the early 2000s. But I didn't know who she was until I started listening to a daily podcast called The Black Guy Who Tips a few years ago. I've since fallen off listening to TBGWT regularly, but one thing that kept me coming back was their "This Too Much" reviews, where co-host Rod would review episodes of television with Ikpi as his regular guest. Their reviews of 'This is Us', 'Insecure' and 'Atlanta' remain some of the most brilliant, engaging, and ridiculously funny reviews I've ever heard. And since I'd become aware of Ikpi in this way, this was also how I heard about her memoir, which was published last year. I bought it, started reading it... and then as I do with many books, I kept setting it aside for other reads that felt more immediate at the time or that I thought I could finish more quickly. But I finally committed to finishing it last month, and here I am writing about the book today.

Born in Nigeria, Ikpi lived with relatives there until the age of four, when her parents came to collect her after getting situated in the States beforehand. As a young adult she did attend university, but forwent completing a degree in favor of moving to New York City. After years of severe anxiety, depression, mania, and unsuccessful coping mechanisms, she had a breakdown on tour that forced her to finally get professional help. This led to her being diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, which helped make sense of some of her past experiences. At the same time, it also set Ikpi off on an unyielding journey toward finding the right treatment, and caused her to agonize even more over the hope of becoming "normal". The meat of this memoir has to do with Bassey's memories—which she admits are fragmented and potentially unreliable, but still valid—and how her mental illness impacts her life and sense of self. She takes the time to walk readers through a few notable episodes, and I don't think I've ever read anything that makes me feel the author's mental and emotional distress as my own like Bassey does in this book. (Kevin Breel's Boy Meets Depression comes to mind, but I read it so long ago that I can't say for sure anymore.)

It was so fitting for this book to be subtitled "essays" and not "a memoir", because while it is Ikpi's life story written in chronological order, each essay could stand alone on its own. Furthermore, it's not a tell-all. She gives us just enough to understand her way of thinking, her mental illness, and the notable happenings in her life that she chooses to share. But everything else, everything we don't get to know, is either irrelevant to the story she's telling or it's quite simply not our business. What it's like living in Oklahoma (she grew up there, but most of her stories take place on the East Coast or Chicago)? Details on her involvement with Def Poetry Jam? Which one of her boyfriends/flings became her baby's father? Not relevant, or not our business. I also couldn't help but notice that each essay takes a different point of view (first person, second person, or third person), and in a couple instances the POV changes within the same essay. I suppose she used the voice or perspective that she felt best fit each essay when she wrote it.

I was also struck by the way Ikpi writes about being antagonized by her mom. From having a traumatic family history of her own, to immigrating from Nigeria to America, to working as a nurse, to trying to raise four successful children in a land other than her own, and so on... Ikpi's mom was dealing with a lot of stress and anger (and may have had mental health issues of her own), which she often took out on Ikpi emotionally and physically. What's perplexing is that even though Ikpi refers to her mom as a "bully" in the book, since the book's release I've seen her insist on Twitter that she wasn't abused, that her mom wasn't abusive to her. Far be it from me to argue with someone about their own personal experience, and Ikpi does mention in the book that she can't hold her mom's behavior against her because she empathizes with the hardships her mother endured. It's just interesting to me how certain information can lead many readers (including myself) to a certain conclusion about a family dynamic, even though the author wrote with a different intention in mind.

Bassey Ikpi's writing is poetic and also straightforward, making I'm Telling the Truth, But I'm Lying relatively "easy" to read. Obviously, however, the topics of mental illness, self-harm, and relationship issues can make reading this memoir anything but easy. As someone with a mental illness, I personally found it incredibly humbling to read an account of someone else's that's laid-bare in such a way that feels unfathomable to me. (Says the girl who used to post her therapy session notes on this blog, I know, I know. But it's just not the same.) If you've ever dealt with mental heath issues, are Nigerian or have Nigerians in your life, are interested in immigrant stories, are an artist of any kind, or simply care what Black women have to say, then read this book!

Favorite quotes: 

"When you carry fear and disaster in your mouth, you taste it constantly like it's the only thing your tongue has ever known" (54).

"Depression is a building falling on an ant. It is a hurricane in a thimble. It is not quiet. It is not vague. This is something else, This is something else" (185).

"Anxiety is its own creature... Anxiety tells me to make a list. Mistakes. Regrets. Lies. A litany of shortcomings, a coil tightened, ready to spring.

Even when the best things occur, when the sun is angled just enough to offer light or there is beauty somewhere shining in the distance, the voice says—This will not last. You do not deserve this peace. Remember that time... Remember how you break everything you touch" (185-86).

"'I wanted to die but my body wouldn't let me,' someone answers. It takes me a moment to recognize my own voice. I say it again, 'I wanted to die but my body wouldn't let me'" (217).


Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

Back when a podcast called Another Round was still active, they put out an episode featuring a writer named Jenny Zhang. I excitedly listened to that episode because a former high school classmate of mine is also a writer named Jenny Zhang, and I quickly learned that the featured guest was a different person entirely. However, I was impressed enough by what I heard to make a mental note of this other Jenny Zhang. And I can't remember exactly when I bought her book Sour Heart, but I know I started reading it last year, and I finished it last week. (So basically, I'd always planned to write about I'm Telling the Truth, But I'm Lying and Sour Heart together. It just took me a year to get around to it because of my habitual book-hopping.)

Comprised of seven stories, Sour Heart presents the inner lives of six fictional Chinese-American girls who each grow up in the same communities in NYC (including and especially Queens) during the 1990s and early 2000s. They have all either moved from China to the U.S. with their parents, been sent for after their parents have immigrated and gotten settled first, or been temporarily sent back to live with family in China until their parents could afford to take care of them in the U.S. again. The first and last story in this book focus on Christina, an allergy-prone child whose mother affectionately calls her "sourheart" due to her preference for sour foods. Second comes Lucy, a girl hungry for affection and absurdly curious about bodies, whose house Christina's family lives in for a short time. Next there's Annie, whose contentious relationship with her volatile former-artist mother is calmed temporarily by her kind and peculiar uncle's extended visit from Shanghai. Then there's Jenny, who is eager for independence and scorns her little brother's clinginess, but then misses it after they grow distant. After that is Mande, a quiet girl who's overwhelmed by her parents' fears and who hopes that perfect English skills will make her a less obvious immigrant. And then there's Stacey, who's perplexed by her increasingly-deaf grandma's eccentricities and excessive love for her.

One of the aspects I appreciate the most about this book is its continuity, and Jenny Zhang's attention to detail in maintaining that continuity. Readers are introduced to each of the book's main families in the very first story without even realizing it (or at least, I didn't realize it), because at first there's no indication given that these other characters will become important later on. They just seem to be a handful of the myriad of people Christina's family encounters during their struggle to survive. At one point the families of all but one of the six main girls share the same cramped room in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. And for some reason—probably because they were the poorest and took the longest to attain their own version of that elusive American dream—Christina and her parents are looked down on the most by everyone else. When Christina's family is mentioned by characters in the other stories, it's always with a tone of derision at worst and pity at best, as if they're the epitome of failure in America and what Chinese families should avoid becoming. In that sense, the seventh and final story is a relief, because it shows snapshots of Christina's life through her teens and twenties, and even has her family revisiting their old neighborhood in Brooklyn long after they've "made it" and moved on. 

Even though it took me a year to read Sour Heart, it was so unbelievably worthwhile! Given the coincidence with Jenny Zhang's name and even just from reading the first few pages of Christina's story, I had a feeling that I'd enjoy this book and be challenged by it. I just didn't know exactly how and to what extent. Each story contains so much humor and harshness and personality, and they each reminded me how observant children can truly be. If you're interested in Chinese-American life (especially in New York), Mao-era Chinese political history, women and girls' coming-of-age stories, and family drama, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:

"I did what I was told and pressed my right hand halfheartedly against my heart as we recited the Oath-to-Lick-America's-Balls-Even-Though-They're-Dirty-in-Order-to-Certify-That-America's-Wonderful-and-Tolerant-Even-Though-It's-Not" (180). 

"Maybe perfection did exist, maybe it was out there, but it only lasted as long as a sneeze" (220).

"if you never say a word, people will think you don't know anything, and when people think you don't know anything, they say everything in front of you and you end up containing everything. On the inside, I was vast. But on the outside, I was a known idiot. Nothing that came out of me had any resemblance to what I thought I had inside of me" (186-87). 

"Every once in a rarest while, my parents would just suddenly drop everything to seek adventure. For a day or a weekend or a weekend and a day, they would undo those gnarly coils of fear that were tightly wrapped around all the flexible points of their bodies, and finally let loose. I had no way to predict when it would happen, but every now and then, my parents would show me how to be free" (229).

"Wow, so his laziness got him a job."
"Exactly. The funny thing is, his unwillingness to work saved him a bunch of times" (278).