Mama’s Writing is Raising Mothers’ monthly interview series, curated by Deesha Philyaw.
Bassey Ikpi is a writer, performer, mental health advocate, and author of the instant New York Times-bestselling book, I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, a debut collection of essays about living with bipolar II disorder and anxiety. Bassey first gained public acclaim as an internationally recognized poet featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. She has been published by The Root, Huffington Post, Essence, and elsewhere. As the founder of The Siwe Project, a mental health organization, Bassey created the global movement #NoShameDay, an initiative that aims to reduce stigma and increase mental health awareness.
Raising Mothers: Are there days when you feel like a mother who writes and other days where you feel like a writer who is a mother?
Bassey Ikpi:I always feel like a writer who is a mother. I have a huge amount of privilege because I have a family who is co-parenting with me. So it’s rarely a choice between doing the work and making sure that my son is cared for. I never have to make a decision like that because I have a lot of help and a lot of people who are available. He’s also a very self-sufficient kid and has been. Old folks always say you get the kid that you need. He started pouring his own cereal at three, you know what I mean?
Of course, he’s a child, so he definitely needs a lot. But he doesn’t need as much as kids who have parents or mothers who, for a lack of a better word, kind of fixate on their child and make their child the only thing. Then on top of that, we unlearn things from our own childhood. So it was really important to me not to feel like I’m smothering or hovering.
This sounds like I write a lot which I do not. I’m a person who sometimes writes and sometimes parents a child.
Raising Mothers: I like that. Because that’s the balance, right? How has parenting influenced your writing?
Ikpi: It’s made me a lot more careful. A lot more thoughtful in that I don’t want anything out there [in print] that would be difficult for him to read or for someone to read about him. I ended [my book] exactly where I did because I did not want to get into [details about] him, because it’s not anyone’s business. And he’s 13 now, so there are things I certainly wouldn’t want him to find out because some other people found out in a book first.
Raising Mothers: Right.
Ikpi: I’m not very self conscious, but I am conscious of and conscientious of the people in my life. He’s a child, and there’s so much that he doesn’t need to be confronted with. So I’m a lot more conscious about what I write, how I write it, what I even write about myself because I contextualize everything. So I think that’s how parenting changes me.
Raising Mothers: How has writing influenced your parenting?
Ikpi: Looking back at my book, seeing my life and the ways in which I felt unseen and unheard as a child, I’m definitely much more aware of some of the frustrations I had [back then]. So when it comes to him, I’m very forthright, and I ask him a lot of questions. If he’s annoyed with me and seems really down and sluggish, I’m like, “Are you okay? Do you need to talk?” Because I would have loved for someone to ask me, “Are you okay? Do you need to talk?” when I was 13.
I also think about if he were to be a writer, what he would write about me. This influences the way that I parent him because I want him to feel seen and heard and appreciated and like his own person, which is something I don’t think that I felt when I was a kid. So writing about that [time in my life] helps me make sure the shift and the focus is on him when I’m talking to him. That’s important. He’s his own person. I don’t want him to lose autonomy just because his mother is a writer that people know. So I’m very protective of him being able to tell his own story, if and when he’s ready to tell it.
Raising Mothers: Who are your writer mama heroes?
Ikpi: I mean you, obviously.
Raising Mothers: Oh, gosh. Thank you.
Ikpi: Denene Millner, who I adore. Nana-Ama Danquah, who wrote Willow Weep for Me, which was the first memoir I read about a black woman in depression. Beyoncé, Michelle Obama. So many of my friends are parents, and I adore them for different reasons.
Raising Mothers: What three words describe you as a mother?
Ikpi: Tentative, cautious, loving.
Raising Mothers: What three words describe you as a writer?
Ikip: Cautious and authentic and empathetic.
Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is her fiction debut.
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