Author Archives

Naomi Elias

‘The Survivor’s Edit’: Bassey Ikpi on Memory, Truth, and Living with Bipolar II

Space Frontiers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Naomi Elias | Longreads | August 2019 | 24 minutes (6,573 words)


Bassey Ikpi remembers the Challenger explosion; she can recall the exact moment it happened, in 1984. She can remember, in exquisitely painful detail, how she felt watching that tragic accident unfold on live television, in 1984. Yet Google and the history books tell us it happened in 1986. “What is truth,” Ikpi asks, “if it’s not the place where reality and memory meet?”

The blurry line between emotional truth and fact is stylishly captured in an optical illusion of a book cover (designed by Matthew McNerney) for Ikpi’s new memoir-in-essays, I’m Telling The Truth But I’m Lying. The Nigerian-American author takes up the project of remembering, with great dexterity and compassion for herself. Ikpi opens up about living with bipolar II; “Imagine you don’t fit anywhere,” Ikpi writes, “not even in your own head.” We experience her life pre- and post-diagnosis; her adolescence in Stillwater, Oklahoma; her early twenties touring as a spoken word artist with HBO’s Def Poetry Jam; her sleepless nights; and her hospitalization.The latter proves to be a turning point, one that finally gives her a name for her mental illness and — as the book demonstrates — a framework for understanding the story of her life.

The diagnosis is clarifying; it allows her to see how mental health impacts her relationships to her family and friends, and to herself, often determining what she feels and remembers, and how she remembers it. In this way Ikpi also uses her book to interrogate the nature of memory itself — how fragile it is, how it can be colored and recolored by trauma and guilt and self-preservational drive. “I learned how to take the truth and bend it like light through a prism,” Ikpi explains in the book, “I learned to lie beautifully.” Rather than present readers with a sanitized cluster of biographical data, Ikpi offers a memoir that places the reader inside her mind, conflict and all. Read more…

‘Imagine Us, Because We’re Here’: An Interview with Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob / One World

Naomi Elias | Longreads | March 2019 | 18 minutes (4,793 words)

Nearly five years after the release of her award-winning debut novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob returns with a graphic memoir, Good Talk: A Memoir In Conversations (One World, 2019). Jacob tells the story of her life in a series of conversations between illustrated figures of the author and her constant companion, her son, who is six-years-old at the beginning of the book and is referred to as Z throughout. Z’s hyper-observant nature leads him to ask complicated questions about race and politics the likes of which Jacob first illustrated for BuzzFeed in a 2015 graphic article entitled “37 Difficult Questions From My Mixed Race Son” that quickly went viral. The resulting memoir is a stunning achievement — it’s already being developed into a TV series — that offers a look at America through the eyes of three generations of Jacob’s family: herself, her Syrian Christian immigrant parents, and her mixed race son whom she is raising in Brooklyn with her husband Jed Rothstein, a white Jewish documentary filmmaker.

Jacob’s tracing of her family’s history in this country — from the start of her parents’ immigration story, to meeting and falling for her husband, to the present day where she is raising a brown son in Trump’s America — is a resonant testimony to how difficult but necessary it is to find and fight for your place in the world. In a heartfelt address delivered to her son in Good Talk, Jacob neatly condenses the existential dilemma that is the crux of the memoir: “I can’t protect you from spending a lifetime caught between the beautiful dream of a diverse nation and the complicated reality of one.”

While framed by Jacob’s conversations with her son, the book spans several different pivotal periods in the Indian-American author’s life. Jacob takes us time-traveling through her early years growing up in New Mexico as the daughter of immigrant parents, invites us to relive her dating foibles, walks us through the highs and lows of her early career as a writer in New York, and lets us overhear intimate conversations she’s had with her husband about how to nurture and protect their interracial family. Each period we revisit is filled with revealing snapshots — sometimes literally when Jacob shares actual family photos — of the type of life she lived and the people and experiences that shaped who she has become. Like any good conversation, the book is generously punctuated by humor, has an effortless flow, and is more concerned with thoughtfully exploring questions than in arriving at definitive answers. Read more…

How Women Survive the World: An Interview with Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Associated Press / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Naomi Elias | Longreads | August 2018 | 16 minutes (4,372 words)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, drug lord Pablo Escobar ruled over all of Colombia as if it were his kingdom. Escobar’s lethal combination of cleverness and ruthlessness allowed him to evade capture for years. A real-life boogeyman, his presence altered the atmosphere, layering everyday Colombian life with toxic tension: an opposition leader looking to curb the expansion of Escobar’s drug empire was assassinated, communities were terrorized by car bombings, and paramilitary recruiters transformed young boys into cold-blooded soldiers. Fear and uncertainty were normal states of mind for people who grew up in this era, people like Colombian-born writer Ingrid Rojas Contreras, who channeled her memories of this formative chapter of her life into a captivating debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree.

In Fruit of the Drunken Tree, we are introduced to the Santiago family; Chula, age 7, her sister Cassandra, age 9, and their parents, who all live together in a gated community in Bogotá, Colombia. The Santiago family’s moderate wealth generally insulates them from contact with the criminal elements terrorizing the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, but this all changes when the family hires Petrona, a teenager from a poor guerilla-occupied slum, as their new maid.

At only thirteen Petrona is her family’s primary breadwinner, a burden that weighs heavily on her. Chula, enamored with the new occupant of her home, finds herself attempting to unravel the mystery that is Petrona, a girl of few words and many secrets. This curiosity eventually lands Chula in trouble — Petrona’s desperate attempts to juggle her duty to her family and her pursuit of the milestones of youth, like first love with a young guerrilla soldier, push her to engage in riskier and riskier behavior, and Chula’s deepening involvement entangles her in a violent conspiracy. Read more…