By Nkateko Masinga
From the 7th of January to the 6th of February 2019, I was a writer-in-residence at the Ebedi International Writers Residency in Iseyin, Oyo State Nigeria. I was working on my forthcoming performance art piece, ‘Wither/With Her’, which was selected for the 2019 ANT Mobility Travel grant by Pro Helvetia and the Swiss Arts Council.
The title, ‘Wither/With Her’, is inspired by a short story titled ‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes, about a laboratory mouse who has undergone surgery to increase his intelligence by artificial means and a mentally disturbed man, Charlie Gordon, who is the first human test subject for the same surgery. By examining the highs and lows as the man improves and withers (through progress and regression in his writing), the story touches on how we treat mentally disabled individuals and the consequences thereof.
‘Flowers for Algernon’ made me question whether we can gauge the mental state of a writer by reading or viewing his/her work, whether the deterioration of one’s mental state is evident in one’s art.
‘Bouquets for Armageddon’ is a collection of journal entries, of which I will share only a few, written during my time at the residency, a snapshot of days spent in solitude fleshing out a project that has forced me to go deep into my mind, an often terrifying place. Wither with me for a while…
A project birthed from my deteriorating mental state requires my sanity/stability to complete and I am here, clutching at sanity daily and missing it. I remember that on a day some years ago, I was sitting on the floor of a theatre rehearsal room surrounded by fellow poets, brainstorming about creating a platform for writers to share their struggles with mental illness. Perhaps ‘platform’ is the wrong word as this would be a virtual space, a sort of support group, online. The idea was to make it easier for someone in our space (the space at the time being the South African spoken word scene) to speak about their struggle/experience before taking it to the stage. ‘Emergency Poets’, we called it. It made so much sense then. It was a promising poet’s suicide that prompted us to start it. A lifeline, posthumously, but perhaps we could plead with someone else to stay a while longer. We had learnt the hard way that the stage is not a safe place to fall apart. The snaps and claps will not heal what breaks when you say the words out loud when you give the ghost a face, a name. The pat on your back will not close the wound.
It didn’t work. ‘Emergency Poets’, that is. It exists (under a different name now) but I fear it didn’t work. It didn’t do what we, busy writers and performers with our own mental health battles to fight, wanted it to do. Often, the breakdown happens long before the poem reaches the stage. Sometimes the struggle never reaches the stage. The evidence is often in a notebook much like this one. In some cases, it does not reach the page. It is difficult to say how one can know when to reach out, when to get in the car and drive over when someone has said ‘I am okay, don’t worry about me.’ When they have said ‘Leave me alone’ but meant ‘Help me.’ I am always impressed by that one character in American movies who arrives just on time, who breaks into the locked house and finds their loved one hanging onto life by a thread and says ‘Oh my god Stacy, oh my god,’ while calling 911 as the camera focuses on the number of pills Stacy took, the knife, the room that would have been cordoned off had Stacy been left alone for long enough. And how quickly the ambulance arrives. How quickly it all happens.
I suppose what I am saying is that I want to be alive to see things through and if I decide otherwise, I hope I have a friend with the ‘Oh my god, Stacy’ type of reflexes and intuition and cell reception, in a country where ambulances arrive on time. When I am in love, I send my lover(s) the things I write so they can see them first but also as a way of saying ‘Please make sure this sees the light of day, even if I don’t.’ Is it arrogance to assume my work should be seen? In a world of rejection letters and 6-month waiting periods for feedback, is it arrogance to wish someone knew what I felt before someone else, with the power to decide if my turmoil was worth publishing, decided the fate of what I wrote? I am thinking of Sylvia Plath and how her husband Ted Hughes published some of her work after she died. I don’t want a Plath-Hughes type of relationship but there are lessons to be learnt from their marriage and one of them is that sometimes what you love will kill you and then immortalize you.
This morning I remembered that exactly five months ago, I allowed ‘Wither/With Her’ to exist outside my head for the first time. I sat with writer friends and said out loud what had been on paper for months. I explained and was challenged on some aspects, reassured on others. I went back to it and it became what it currently is, what I sent out to the world in the form of a proposal. To work on it now after its acceptance, in solitude, requires me to be in limbo – between my previous state of mind and one I will need to be in to share it with the world. How odd it is, to linger at the outskirts of sanity, looking in through a glass window and longing to be inside. To know that wellness exists but to not be able to reach it. It is perhaps the same way that people who live in illegally-erected informal settlements in South Africa look at the homes of the wealthy, a stone’s throw from them. To be so close and yet so far from what some say is yours and others say is theirs. During my psychiatry rotation in med school years ago, a classmate/colleague saw a patient and then said to me ‘God can give me any other illness, just not this’ and I had to explain that nobody chooses to be unwell, especially not mentally.
A good friend who saw glimpses of my new work said ‘Nobody is interested in the process’ and the truth in this tore at me. Nobody cares if you died in order to create your latest masterpiece, it matters only that the masterpiece exists for them to watch, to play in their car as they drive to work. You can go to therapy, cry on the bathroom floor every night for months, but as long as you get up and create an anthem for healing, you’re all set. Collect your cheque, girl. It’s like a particularly strenuous game of Monopoly: go to jail a few times, pay rent and taxes, but still your payment awaits when you pass ‘Begin’ again. This is how I clutch at wellness, I know I need to throw the dice a few more times and I will be there. A while back, I studied Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ because I was fascinated with her process, how in her quest for healing she created such a brilliant thing. I loved particularly how she weaved Warsan Shire’s poetry into the intros of the songs. It gives us a glimpse of the process but in hindsight and with most of the painful bits unshown. In Sylvia Plath’s work, we see the process posthumously and I do not really believe she wanted her letters to her psychiatrist to be public knowledge but for the sake of art we become voyeurs, glaring at the secrets of others.
I keep re-watching an interview where a person I love is asked how his mental illness has helped him in his work and he replies ‘It has not helped me.’ I imagine this is what many would say if asked the same question. It is incorrectly assumed that the relationship between mental illness and creativity is a symbiotic one. Depression is not sitting in my brain holding hands with my new work, whispering gently, ‘fix this, say it like this.’ It is instead like a toddler causing havoc and tearing the pages. To evict the toddler instead of handing it a pacifier, feeding it, is to destroy the brain completely. My brain is my greatest asset as a writer – even in its most fragile state. Someday I will share this project in its entirety, its beauty and ugliness wrapped up in one and I will be grateful that it no longer lives only in my brain. For now, it is just me and the process, sanity waxing and waning, in a place very far from home.