“There are whole chunks of my life that I don’t remember because all of my bandwidth and emotions were devoted to just existing,” recalls Bassey Ikpi, author of I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying (Harper, Aug.). Ikpi’s memoir, a collection of candid essays that fuse poetry and stream of consciousness, illuminates the Nigerian-American writer’s struggles with bipolar II disorder. But she wasn’t always eager to share, in unflinching, accurate detail, her everyday turmoil. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done is give the book permission to be what it needed to be,” she adds.
Her first attempt at the memoir felt wrong to her from the get-go, and Ikpi thought it necessary to lie about the problems she faced in her life. She couldn’t “acknowledge what was really going on.” Then, a few years ago, when she was in a deep crisis, tired of fighting the darkness that kept returning and tired of not being able to say, “I’m not okay,” Ikpi was finally ready to reveal the unvarnished truth. This time, the words rushed out of her, leading to the book that had been germinating for almost 20 years.
Instead of relating a clinical account of bipolar II disorder, Ikpi embraced a more intimate approach. “I wanted to tell it from within the diagnosis, within the depression, within the grief. I didn’t want people to attach themselves to my diagnosis, but to what was happening to me,” she explains.
Ikpi has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and has been part of the Tony Award–winning Broadway show’s touring company.“I got onstage and did what I needed to do, but no one saw the terror and will it took,” she says. That’s why even mundane routines—sleeping, bodega runs—are given prominence in the book, exposing how the bipolar disorder permeates her life.
In addition to her writing, Ikpi is a mental health advocate who founded the Siwe Project and #NoShameDay for awareness in the black community and to help alleviate entrenched stigmas. The book, then, is also a bold extension of that educational platform.
“The way we are taught to write about ourselves and the way we actually live our lives are so different,” she says. “Sometimes you are just within yourself, without understanding what’s going on around you. Being open gives me a greater responsibility for my wellness. It allows me the room to find things to be better for.”
Today, 2–2:30 p.m. Bassey Ikpi signs at Table 9.