The book Bassey Ikpi first set out to write was far different from the one she eventually published.
Ikpi, a Nigerian-American who made her name as a slam poet who was a mainstay of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, says the original intent was to write a motivational, self-help tome about how she had conquered mental illness and become a star.
She wrestled with the book until realizing she simply couldn’t write it.
“I was writing things I didn’t like, and I’ve always been of the mind that I never want to sell something I wouldn’t buy,” says Ikpi, who will talk about her book Thursday at the Ware Center in downtown Lancaster. “As it stood, I wouldn’t buy the book I was writing, and then I was struggling to figure out what to write, how to write ... It just felt inauthentic and false and didn’t speak to where I really was.
“It was all lies as opposed to telling the truth but lying.”
The book she wrote, titled “I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying,” is an intimate, harrowing memoir that pulls the reader inside the author’s world as she struggles to function with a “broken brain.” The title is a nod to Ikpi’s determination to root out emotional truths, perhaps at the expense of mere facts.
The book is a collection of powerful essays that trace Ikpi’s journey from her childhood in Nigeria to her stay in a psychiatric unit after being diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder.
The essays, written over a period of 19 years, are stitched together in a way that makes the book read like a novel. The sharply written memoir, which was published last month and currently sits on the New York Times bestseller list for paperback nonfiction, gathers steam and suspense as it hurtles toward its conclusion.
Ikpi, 43, who lives in Maryland with her son, says she hopes the book serves as both a mirror and a window.
After being diagnosed with Bipolar II, Ikpi says she started researching it and didn’t find many articles or books that were relatable because they were not written by people of color.
She says much of the feedback she’s received are from people who have recently been diagnosed with Bipolar II and found something of themselves in her book.
Ikpi says she also wanted family and friends to understand her struggle.
“I wanted them to see how difficult it’s been for me to just wake up in the morning and get up and do the things that seem so natural and easy — eating and sleeping ... eating and sleeping are two of the easiest things we’re supposed to do — and showcase just how difficult these easy things are for somebody whose brain is constantly battling against them,” she says.
It’s also clear that Ikpi wrote the book for herself as she continues her struggle to overcome her illness.
“I’m doing great,” she says when asked the inevitable question. “I’m 100 percent the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life. This book was very helpful for that.”