The stigma and prejudice around mental health issues in black communities make it almost impossible for black people to admit that they are suffering from depression and anxiety, let alone seek help for it. Often people suffer alone, with no support, and they see no way out.
How to deal with issues pertaining to mental health was a recurring theme at the inaugural Abantu Book Festival, which took place in Soweto from 6 to 10 December 2016, making the festival one of the few black spaces were mental illness is spoken about.
In a session titled ‘The Quiet Violence of the Nation’, inspired by novelist Sello K Duiker’s book The Quiet Violence of Dreams, writers Eusebius McKaiser, Khosi Xaba and Thato Magano tackled the issue of mental health in black communities and the complexities of black lives.
The session, chaired by Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola, was a robust discussion on how to manage living with depression. Gqola encouraged black people to not be ashamed to speak about their pain and suffering.
A common thread running through the dialogue was that black people are often expected to live perfectly coherent lives, even though their lives are multi-faceted and filled with unimaginable pain caused by about 400 years of oppression, colonialism and land dispossession.
“Life is complicated; there’s pleasure and violence at the same time,” said McKaiser, the author of, among other titles, There’s A Bantu in My Bathroom. Drawing on the experiences of Duiker, who was believed to be bipolar and ended up taking his own life, McKaiser told book enthusiasts that he is fascinated by the relationship between creativity and mental illness; how creative people are often in pain and battling demons.
He took issue with the fact that clinical psychology does not adequately deal with mental illness because clinical psychologists are always concerned with getting patients to a state of ‘overcoming’; to a ‘post-depression utopia’.
“We have to debunk this idea of a life without pain or, if you are going through pain, that the chapter needs to end with you being happy and leading a healthy life,” said McKaiser. “We live in a world where society says there better be a happy ending to your pain.”
Xaba, author of Timbila and Tongues of Their Mothers, echoed McKaiser’s sentiments, pointing out that black people live in complex spaces where pleasure and pain are intertwined. In her writing, she tries to deal with these complexities. She has also written stories that focus on violence against women, but told the audience that it is crucial that she writes about the pleasure black women experience as well.
“Black women have agency,” emphasised Xaba. “They are organising on their own and occupying spaces, therefore these stories need to be told.”
Xaba described the work that she does as the ‘quiet’ celebration of queer lives in the din and violence of a hyper-masculine and patriarchal nation. “We’re here. We don’t care whether you’re listening, but we’re here.”
Fees Must Fall activist and queer writer Thato Magano expressed that black people are negated in the world, but the queer community, because of their sexuality, experiences double the violence. He made an example of how, when in Johannesburg, queer people experience intense pleasure but, when they go back home to the former homelands and elsewhere during the holiday season, they have to compartmentalise this pleasure because they experience hate, prejudice and violence from their families.
Magano highlighted the need to create new families which are not necessarily one’s biological family and spaces where black people can love and nurture each other. “It is essential that South Africans begin to reconstitute the idea of nation and family,” he added.
What he found even more disconcerting is the lack of literature that deals specifically with queer experiences. “It concerns me that I have never been written about,” said Magano. “I know for a fact I was born gay, yet there is very little written about me. So I’ve decided to write about queer lives. I enjoy penises, so I write about people who enjoy penises.”
Magano revealed that when he was 19 years old, he, too, suffered from depression and had to see both a psychologist and a psychiatrist because he could not get out of bed. Because there are no spaces where black people can go to when they are depressed, he turned to writing. “Writing saved my life. If I did not sit in front of a computer and make up words, my parents would have lost me at a very young age.”
“Writing saved my life. If I did not sit in front of a computer and make up words, my parents would have lost me at a very young age.” – Thato Magano
Another recurring issue in the conversation was that both traditional psychology and the church have failed to adequately deal with mental health problems in the black community. This problem, according to the author and sangoma Unathi Magubeni, can be solved only by using African knowledge systems and traditional healing methods. “I have noticed that when we use traditional healing methods, people can move from disharmony to being centred.”
But Magano warned against being essentialist by pointing out that black people are complex beings as a result of the colonial project, and therefore people should seek both psychiatric help and traditional healing and figure out if the two can co-exist.
The festival comes a year after writer Thando Mgqolozana, the festival’s founder and director, criticised Franschoek Literary Festival for being too white and treating black authors as anthropological subjects who constantly had to perform their blackness
Abantu Book Festival was a five-day literature event that provided black writers and readers a platform to share ideas and connect with each other through readings, discussions and music. The festival featured black writers mostly from South Africa, including Eusebius McKaiser, Redi Tlhabi, Lesego Rampolokeng, Chika Unigwe, Gcina Mhlophe and more.
The festival comes a year after writer Thando Mgqolozana, the festival’s founder and director, criticised Franschoek Literary Festival for being too white and treating black authors as anthropological subjects who constantly had to perform their blackness. At the time Mgqolozana expressed anger at the lack of transformation in the South African literary scene and encouraged black writers to create their own spaces.