South African books that tackle mental illness

Rofhiwa Maneta

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Here we see a handful of writers explore the complexities of living with mental illness in a nuanced way

The tortured genius, the neurotic pill-popping artist or the depressed party girl who drinks and sleeps the pain away, all of these lazy one-dimensional stereotypes are routinely used when discussing mental illness in either literature or the silver screen.

In reality, mental illness is a lot more complex than that.

Below is a list of local books that broach the subject of mental illness both humanely and creatively. Here we see a handful of writers explore the complexities of living with mental illness in a nuanced way:

Quiet Violence of Dreams – K Sello Duiker

“I walk around aimlessly like unclaimed baggage drifting on an airport conveyor belt. My heart is like an open book because that is the only way to understand, to articulate this thing happening to me. My mind feels disjointed, breaking into a kaleidoscope’s fractured colours, disappearing into a larger light, or is it darkness?”

This is what goes on in the mind of Tshepo – the protagonist for K Sello Duiker’s affecting second novel, The Quiet Violence of Dreams. Originally published in 2001, the book follows the protagonist into Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital for cannabis-induced psychosis and then into Cape Town’s underworld of male prostitution where he begins making sense of both his sexuality and his mental state.

What stands out, in particular, is Duiker’s nuanced portrayal of living with mental illness. As the main character’s mental health deteriorates, so do his relationships with close friends. But this isn’t mere caricature. Ultimately, The Quiet Violence of Dreams is a story about navigating the confusion life throws and finding a way of making sense of it.

Rusty Bell – Nthikeng Mohlele

On the surface, Michael (the narrator of Nthikeng Mohlele’s third novel, Rusty Bell) has a perfect life. He’s a top-earning corporate lawyer with a fleet of luxury cars and an idyllic suburban home that houses his family. All is not as it seems.

He is, in actual fact, an alcoholic who has been through several depressive episodes, a crumbling marriage, a limitless lust for women and the urge to commit suicide. He narrates his psychoses to his therapist, Dr West and throughout the course of the book, he maps out what made him the person he is. “I wrestled with life and lost,” he declares in the book’s opening line and what follows is poetic, and at times disturbing, a portrayal of a man firmly losing grip of both his family and his sense of peace.

Penumbra – Songeziwe Mahlangu

“This is not how things are meant to be,” declares Mangaliso (the main character in Songeziwe Mahlangu’s award-winning debut novel). Manga – as he is known to his friends – works a dead-end corporate job and spends his weekends downing beer and putting mind-altering substances up his nose.

One day, without any particular reason, he suffers a nervous breakdown. He walks around Cape Town with a gnawing feeling that the judgment of God is set to take place at any instant and sees this confirmed in random interactions with people. All of this climaxes with him being taken in for psychiatric observation before being released the next day.

Ultimately, the book is both a critique of capitalism and about finding meaning in the routine of daily living. Some reviewers have complained about Mahlangu’s prose – inferring that the book is underwritten and the prose listless – but Mahlangu understands the economy of words. Written in plain, direct English, the book does away with the artifice of metaphor to describe the monotony of corporate life and the terror of not being in control of one’s mental faculties.

The Fatuous State of Severity

Phumlani Pikoli is the author of this recently self-published collection of short stories, a book he wrote while undergoing treatment for depression in a psychiatric clinic. The most unsettling story in the collection is called To Shy Away in Silence, a raw, flippant look into suicide and depression.

The nameless character is bored and depressed to the point of suicide. As we are introduced to him, we learn that he is just about to take his life, but not before saying his goodbyes on Twitter and seeing his friends for the last time. He decides to go to a party with friends for the last time. “Hmm, it’s not that far, a goodbye in person would be more dramatic I guess and a good story should live after it. Guess I’ll choose that then.”

Things don’t go as planned and, at some point at the party, the character considers taking his life there and then – right in front of his friends.

In essence,To Shy Away in Silence deals with the loneliness that accompanies a mental breakdown and the implications that suicide has for the person considering it and the loved ones left behind.