Shelf Interest Book Club’s October read was The Selfless Act of Breathing by JJ Bola. Published in 2021, this delicately written novel follows the journey and life of Michael Kabongo, a Congolese-British teacher experiencing his own flavour of depression. While Michael is a heavily involved member of the community with many people that regard him well, there is a consistent sense of loneliness that follows him, with echoes of grief and desires to escape. Suicide is one of his contemplated means of escape, he floats this idea around from the very beginning of the book.
On the 25th of August we held a Bookish Costume Night with JJ Bola, to pick his brain about this novel. JJ being a poet was very expressive in his writing, especially when it came to love and depressed feelings. JJ emphasised the ways in which these deep emotions may manifest differently in black men, where verbal emotional expression may not be the most expected route of communication. He told us about the importance of community and difficult, persistent conversations. It’s almost automatic to accept instinctive answers like “I’m fine” in regards to one’s wellbeing, but asking again and noticing differences can cause all the difference.
While clinical knowledge of depression may be growing, noticing what that might look like in a real person may not be so easy. Michael Kabongo seemed to be traveling a lot, meeting different women, spending money and having many new experiences – which from the outside looking in, sounds quite enviable. However few people, if any, knew the depths of his misery. He was rejecting of people trying to become too close to him, putting himself in unnecessary danger, and spending money irresponsibly – traits that are not necessarily commonly associated with depression, yet are often seen in depressed black men.
As a mental health social worker, educator, poet, mentor, and former refugee, JJ Bola has written a lot about being stateless and finding it difficult to feel a sense of belonging in different locations due to constantly being regarded as an outsider based on appearance, accent or cultural experiences. He also translates this running metaphor of statelessness into The Selfless Act of Breathing via a lack of belonging to life vs death. With depression, one may feel like there is no more hope in life, whilst not necessarily wanting to die, leaving them to feel like there’s no befitting state of existence.
JJ Bola’s poetry shines through as extremely emotive and soul-bearing, which unsurprisingly turned the waterworks on in many readers. It also caused a lot of curiousity regarding the origin of his insight, many of our reviewers wondered if JJ wrote from his own experiences. During our costume night, JJ informed us that his depth of comprehension on such hard-hitting circumstances were from a mixture of his own experience, his conversations with others, his work and research.
On top of his poetic writing style, many of our community reviewers enjoyed JJ Bola’s use of misdirection in the plot, the fast pace, the suspense-building, the use of Lingala, the throwback to student/teacher dynamics many of us relate to, and the descriptions of the inner workings of Michael. One of our reviewers picked up that at the beginning of the book, Michael equates the money he has to his desire to live, which gives reference tones to capitalism and masculinity. The direction of the book shows that this does not have to be the case. Other take away messages from our reviewers include how the face of suicide may be different to what we commonly perceive; grief can be a constant state for some; the power of exposure and experience is not to be underestimated; it is never too late to change your mind; and that it is an act of selflessness to remain alive when experiencing heavy suicidal ideation - with reference to the book title.
Some of our readers found the switch between 1st and 3rd person narration confusing, along with the timeline of the book, as it was not always chronological. JJ informed us that it was fragmented to show how disjointed Michael was in his own thinking.
Like many authors, JJ Bola described writing as a tiresome and difficult task. What stood out to me during our discussion at our costume night was how he also described it as a calling, like there was little free-will involved, something done by compulsion instead of by choice. He described storytelling as almost possessive, and as though he is merely a vessel portraying a sentient story that even he, the writer, doesn’t have much say in. He said he “watched” Michael make silly mistakes but couldn’t stop him. I found it extremely intriguing how he views his characters as autonomous of himself.
We strongly recommend The Selfless Act of Breathing to EVERYONE, especially black men, especially people who have been depressed, and especially those that feel like escape is a permanent solution. A good accompanying book recommended by one of our reviewers is “Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined” by JJ Bola. It’s a non-fiction book giving more detailed information around the confines of masculinity and ways to handle one’s emotional wellbeing.
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For a further summary on our community review of this book, check out our Instagram post!