Tasnim Morrison is a London-based speech and language therapist and avid reader behind @reads.and.reveries where she shares book reviews and recommendations, current reads and the all too frequent new addition to her bookshelf. Tasnim is also a lifelong friend. We’ve known each other since birth and have always shared a love of the written word. We started with Meg Cabot and Daphne Du Maurier and we have progressed to a varied and incredible range of Black writers from Ntozake Shange to Talia Hibbert.
We usually communicate via voice notes and this interview took place over Whatsapp. We hope that you enjoy the discussion and that the recommendations can be tools in your healing journey.
I want to talk in this conversation about vulnerability - we both know that that's something that can be hard to come by for black women. We’re not often allowed space to be vulnerable and to explore our unique experiences. So I’d really like your recommendations for writers who have put that onto the page. That has the capacity to feel like healing, the act of reading honest free liberated works by and for black women. So yeah if you could tell me about some books and collections that we should be reading - speak soon.
I’m not sure there are many Black women who wouldn’t recognize the truth of what you’re saying. We aren’t always afforded the space that we need to be vulnerable and I'm not sure we always recognise vulnerability is in itself a strength. But there are writers who clearly have and there are three books that when you mentioned vulnerability and sort of putting that in the page there are three books that immediately came to mind and they just so happen to be a novel, or a semi-autobiographical novel, a memoir in essays and a poetry collection. And I would recommend all three of these wholeheartedly to absolutely anybody but I would definitely recommend them to Black women.
The first book I want to talk about is titled 'So Long a Letter' and it was written by Senegalise author Mariama Ba. Now this is a very short semi-autobiographical novel and one of the most moving books I’ve read but the reason I mention it is to mind it reads like a lesson in vulnerability and the importance of finding these safe spaces. That even if it's just one person, one person you feel you can pour your heart out to, one person you feel like you can be truly open with. So the novel itself is written as a series of letters from a woman called Ramatoulaye to her friend Aissatou. Ramatoulaye has recently found out that her husband secretly took a second wife and he married a woman the same age as their daughter. So of course Ramatoulaye feels the utmost betrayal. But in these letters there is such honesty as she just tries to process what's happened and make sense of it and decide what direction she wants to take her life in. She talks Aissatou through everything that she’s feeling and she presents this side of herself to her friend that she doesn’t necessarily present to the wider community and I think it’s so beautiful to see this relationship and it just serves as a reminder that it’s ok not to be strong all the time but also that we can choose when to be we can choose to show a side of ourselves to some people while reserving that vulnerability for people we feel safe with but that above all else it is important that we find and that we utilise those safe spaces.
The second book I want to talk about and recommend is a memoir in essays called ‘I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying’ by Nigerian-American author Bassey Ikpi. In these essays Ikpi explores her life and her experiences but through the lens of her mental health diagnosis of Bipolar 2 and anxiety. The reason I wanted to speak about this book is because first of all it is one of the most powerful works of non-fiction I have ever read. Bassey Ikpi is an ex-slam poet and that really comes through on the page. Secondly I wanted to talk about it because I don’t think there are enough books like it. Books that relay the experience of being diagnosed with a mental illness and experiencing mental illness as a black woman. This book is such an emotional whirlwind and it is so heart wrenching at times but it is phenomenal. I suspect that some people will read it and they will feel less alone as a result. I say this particularly because of something Bassey Ikpi herself says that in the process of receiving the diagnosis of Bipolar 2 she had never heard of it so she’s never heard of any black people with it, so unless she was the first person there had to be some mistake. That really stood out to me, processing this diagnosis was that much harder for her because she knew of no-one else like her who had experienced it. I have no doubt that there are other black people, other black women out there thinking the same thing, whether they’re actually in the process of receiving specific diagnosis or whether they just feel that they are not ok, they need to know that they are not alone in that.
The third book I want to recommend is a poetry collection Locating Strongwoman. It's written by Nigerian-British poet Tolu Agbelusi. This collection is as incredible and as apt as the title suggests. Every once in a while I come across a book and I'm so moved by it that I wonder how I'll talk about it in a way that will do it justice and how I’ll be able to adequately explain to people why they need to read it. I really try with this collection because it has the capacity for healing. All women might benefit from reading it but Black women will definitely benefit from reading it. What stood out for me was how Tolu Agbelusi considers the ways that we as women and as Black women can be broken but more importantly she recognises the people that help us to gather up those broken pieces and hold us together and hold us upright. And if ever there is a collection that is not only inherently vulnerable but also serves as a reminder that there is strength in vulnerability and that it is important to hold each other up and it is equally important that we allow ourselves to be held, this is it. This is it. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Your selection sounds like they’re all really expansive. I think that's what it’s about, creating space in your chest for freedom and part of that is the freedom to be vulnerable. My recommendation is also a poetry collection. It’s called ‘I have survived myself & prevailed’ and it’s by Oyinda Yemi-Omowumi. Instead of talking about it i have Oyinda reading two of my favourite poems from the collection. The first one is ‘God Painted A Rainbow’ and the second is ‘I Hope You Know That You My Girl You Matter.’
I can see why you chose that collection. I’m glad that you did and that we were able to hear them in the author's voice. I’m sitting with them. The second one in particular made me think about how so often we talk about openness and vulnerability and creating these safe spaces but we talk about it in relation to other people. Creating a space with other people presenting a certain side of ourselves to other people the reality is that you have to be able to present that side of yourself to yourself first. You have to be able to acknowledge the pain you’re in, the hardship you may be going through and whatever you are struggling with. You have to be able to acknowledge that to yourself, tell yourself that you matter, what you feel matters. I appreciate the kindness with which Oyinda speaks to herself, we could and should all speak like that to ourselves more often, like she said, we matter.
I’m happy that the poems I selected from Oyinda’s collection resonated with you, and I’m so happy we could have Oyinda read them for us. They were the two that struck me so having her read them in her own voice only adds to their poignancy. I’m excited to read the three suggestions you came up with. I know though that a lot of people need to access things visually as opposed to in the written form. So it would be cool if you could also recommend a film that fits alongside this theme that we’ve been discussing of expansion, vulnerability and healing for Black women. That would be really good to round out this amazing list.
Ok, so I’m no film buff but there is a film that immediately comes to mind. I’ve seen it more than once and I’d happily watch it again. It’s called Rocks and it’s set in East London. The central character is a Black- British teenage girl named Rocks. Early in the film we see how Rock’s mum leaves her and her younger brother. You don’t get a lot of the mum’s backstory but you do get the impression that she’s experiencing some kind of mental illness herself and is struggling to cope. You see Rocks decide that she can’t let anyone know what’s happened, she can’t reach out for help and she doesn’t want social services to get involved. Already she has internalised the idea that she needs to be a pillar of strength and that it’s her responsibility to protect her brother and that he can’t really know what's going on. She has this core group of friends but even with them she can’t truly truly be honest. There are heart wrenching scenes as you just see how much she’s struggling. But then you also see what happens when she does get the help that she needs and when she does allow herself to trust and lean on other people and receive help. It’s really really moving and I’d highly recommend it.
Thanks so much for all of your recommendations b i’m excited to start reading them and to watch Rocks. I’m pleased that you enjoyed the poetry collection I recommended as well and that we could have Oyinda read her work herself, I think that's so important. So happy we could do this, sending you lots of love and thank you!
So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba
I'm Telling the Truth, But I'm Lying by Bassey Ikpi
Locating Strongwoman by Tolu Agbelusi
Rocks by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson
I have survived myself & prevailed by Oyindamola Yemi-Omowumi
Poem highlights: God painted a rainbow & I hope you know that you my girl you matter.
(Oyinda has self published her book and it is available from Amazon.)