On Mental Health in African Literature

by - 20:29

Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku 

I've been thinking a lot more about mental health, and particularly mental health in fiction ... and I remembered this intro from a list on Bustle from a few years ago indicating how mental health was 'even less understood in the past than it is today':

The Victorians loved stashing mad women up in towers or attics, where they could 'slow-w-wly' peel the wallpaper from the walls or moan and groan with such abandon that it would frighten the young governess trying to catch some sleep down below. Later, books would introduce readers to evil nurses, forced lobotomies and botched attempts at electro-shock therapy. 

In recent years, we have of course seen an improvement in how mental health is understood in general, and within literature there has also been a shift in how it is written. Still, I was curious about mental health in African fiction – how it is now being portrayed, and not necessarily how it may have been portrayed in the past.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Mental health – particularly how it is acknowledged in the American and Nigerian context – is touched upon a number of times through Ifemelu in Adichie’s third novel, Americanah. Ifemelu appears to experience depression at different points in the story, but refuses to see it as that – because she didn’t feel that was what she had. Adichie also stated during a conversation she had withTrevor Noah how she also wanted to address the stigma associated with mental health in her book:
I think it is important to be honest about what it means to be human, that we are happy and we love but also we go through dark times. No one’s happy all the time.

Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman's Journey Through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah
In Willow Weep for Me, Ghanaian-American writer, editor, journalist and public speaker Meri Nana-Ama Danquah opens up about her personal struggle with depression, the hidden roots of her depression, the effect it had on her life, and her ability to cope with her depression through music, meditation and vigilant monitoring.

Quiet Violence of Dreams by K Sello Duiker
Duiker’s second novel – set in Cape Town – follows Tshepo-Angelo, a young student at Rhodes trying to make sense of a traumatic past in a violent country who gets admitted into Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital for cannabis-induced psychosis. He escapes but is returned to the hospital and completes his rehabilitation, earns his release - and promptly terminates his studies.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Emezi’s debut novel has been described as centring on a young woman, Ada – who has a form of dissociative identity disorder, as she has multiple realities and selves. However, in writing Freshwater Emezi explained in an interview with NPR wanting to look beyond Western understanding of mental health: 

I wanted to see what it would be like to look at life through the lens of a different reality - something that was centred more in Igbo spirituality than in Western concepts of mental health, for example.

Penumbra by Songeziwe Mahlangu
Mahlangu’s debut novel – winner of the 2014 Etisalat Prize for Nigerian Literature – set in Cape Town follows Mangaliso Zolo, recent graduate, working in a corporate job during the week and on weekends living a life of drink and drugs. Manga also struggles with his mental health and one day suffers from a nervous breakdown.

Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie
In Okojie’s debut novel, Joy, has recently (and unexpectedly) lost her mother, Queenie. It has just been Joy and Queenie from day one – Joy never knew her father. It’s clear Joy is struggling with her mother's sudden death. Joy is also going through depression and Okojie captures her struggles with depression, along with the loss of her mother, in a way that allows you to feel for Joy, without feeling sorry for her. Joy is a broken character - there is no doubt about that - but she is able in some way to deal with the loss in her life through her neighbour – Mrs Harris - a fascinating character, who has her own secrets.

The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi
in The Opposite House, 25-year-old Maja - a black Cuban girl whose family migrated to London when she was seven is struggling with depression and anxiety, what she calls her “personal hysteric”. Oyeyemi, herself, has spoken candidly about her depression.

The Fatuous State of Severity by Phumlani Pikoli
Pikolo wrote his self-published collection of short stories while undergoing treatment for depression. A new edition was published earlier this year by PanMacmillan. The story, To Shy Away in Silence was first written in 2015 and follows a nameless character who at the beginning of the story is bored, depressed and contemplating taking his life.

There’s a lightness within me that allows me to imagine and enjoy. Perhaps now is the time to take this final step I keep on fucking procrastinating about. Tshepo’s friends giggle as I approach the edge. I stand there looking down, imagining what my thoughts would be as I fall. What would kill me? Would it be the shock or impact? I raise a foot halfway over the ledge. One of Tshepo’s friends screams, and the others begin to scream too. I realise how inconsiderate I’m being by trying to kill the buzz. That’s why the pills are on my counter; trying to take my life’s something I need to do in private.
Pikoli also adapted  the story into a short film – Our Lives Are Bought.

Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood
In Wood’s alternative South Africa we find the two main protagonists - Sibusiso Mchunu, a young amaZulu man about to start his first year at university and Dr. Martin van Denter, a white neuropsychologist. Their lives intertwine following Sibusiso suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and being sent to a mental health institution after seeing a friend of his shot by the security police during a peaceful protest. Dr. van Denter becomes his psychologist. 

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