Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah

Date Read: July 28th 2017

Published: February 1999

Publisher: One World / Ballantine

Pages: 288

The Blurb 

This moving memoir of an African-American woman’s lifelong fight to identify and overcome depression offers an inspirational story of healing and emergence. Wrapped within Danquah’s engaging account of this universal affliction is rare and insightful testimony about what it means to be black, female, and battling depression in a society that often idealizes black women as strong, nurturing caregivers. A startlingly honest, elegantly rendered depiction of depression, Willow Weep for Me calls out to all women who suffer in silence with a life-affirming message of recovery. Meri Danquah rises from the pages, a true survivor, departing a world of darkness and reclaiming her life.

 

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

I read Willow Weep for Me last year around this time. After reading, I just wanted the memoir to sit with me for awhile before discussing my thoughts! I learned a lot from this book, but one thing that stuck with me is: Black women are not immune to clinical depression. We need to stop contending with the stereotypic image of strength. This image encourages stoicism while several black women live in denial by denying their pain. And it’s harmful.

The illusion of strength has been and continues to be of major significance to me as a black woman. The one myth that I have had to endure my entire life is that of my supposed birthright to strength. Black women are supposed to be strong – caretakers, nurtures, healers of other people – any of the twelve dozen variations of Mammy. Emotional hardship is supposed to be built into the structure of our lives. It went along with the territory of being both black and female in a society that completely undervalues the lives of black people and regards all women as second-class citizens. It seemed that suffering, for a black woman, was part of the package.

Or so I thought. (pg. 19)

Willow Weep For Me, which was published back in 1999, is a deeply personal memoir on Ghanaian-American writer – Meri Nana-Ama Danquah’s journey through depression. What makes this book truly special is the clarity of Danquah’s writing. This memoir is beautifully laced with poetic phrases and visceral descriptions, giving readers the full experience of various anecdotes and incidences that occurred in her life. I loved how Danquah incorporated the stories of other (black) women’s journeys through depression into this memoir, allowing readers to resonate with the many variations of mental illness. Through other women’s experiences highlighted in this book, I was enlightened on the force of suicidal ideation, seasonal depression and some side-effects of anti-depressants (which varies from person to person).

 

Some of my favorite quotes from the memoir:

White women who suffer from mental illness are depicted as idle, spoiled, or just plain hysterical. Black men are demonized and pathologized. Black women with psychological problems are certainly not seen as geniuses; we are generally not labeled ‘hysterical’ or ‘eccentric’ or even ‘pathological’. When a black woman suffers from a mental disorder, the overwhelming opinion is that she is weak. And weakness in black women is intolerable. (pg. 20)


I’ve frequently been told things like: “Girl, you’ve been hanging out with too many white folk” ; “What do you have to be depressed about? If our people could make it through slavery, we can make it through anything” ; “Take your troubles to Jesus, not no damn psychiatrist.” (pg. 21)


From the beginning, our relationship was formula for disaster. Depressed people often attract unhealthy relationships and inadvertently subject themselves and their already battered self-image, to additional abuse… You feel as if you are worthless so you attach yourself to someone who you think will give your life some meaning, be a safe harbor for your souls. But only you can protect what’s inside. (pg. 41)


I despise the way blackness in the English language, symbolizes death and negativity. Because I believe that the absorption of these connotations contributes to self-hate, I avoid them at all cost (pg 182).


We sat in an awkward silence for some time. I wondered why, after all he had been through with his mother, Eugene welcomed another depressive into his life. Wasn’t he afraid of the consequences? How did he escape the contagious effects of mental illness? (pg. 217)


“Why do you give people so much power over you? That M.D. behind his name just means that he’s trained to facilitate your healing. You’re the one who’s actually got to make it happen. Therapy doesn’t work unless you know what you want out of it. You’re the one who has the power to change things.” (pg. 220)


Racism is definitely in the eye of the beholder. White people have at hand the privilege of choosing whether to see or not see the racism that takes place around them. If Dr. Fitzgerald could not ‘fathom’ my reality as a black person, how would he be able to assess or address the rage, the fear and the host of other complex emotions that go hand-in-hand with being black in a racist society? For whatever reasons, seeing a black therapist had never crossed my mind, until then. (pg. 224)


I love that this memoir ended on a hopeful note and allows readers to view life and it’s challenges from a practical angle. We often forget that going to therapy & support groups, asking questions, talking to family/friends and taking control of your healing by being a partner in your healing process instead of being a mere patient who is being treated, is paramount and empowering.

Now with the importance of mental health getting the attention it needs in the media, I hope more people will discover this timeless memoir. Willow Weep For Me was written almost 20 years ago, and all of Danquah’s experiences and commentary on depression in this memoir are being reiterated in countless articles, think-pieces and seminars on mental health today. Danquah’s daughter (who plays a key role in this memoir!) – Korama (who was a year behind me in high school – GIS) must be SUPER proud of her mother for writing this important, brave, empowering memoir. I’m still in awe and will continue to re-read some of the quotes I highlighted again and again and again. More people NEED to read this memoir.

Before, I used to wonder what my life would have been like had I not gone through my depressions; now, I don’t know if I would trade those experiences. I love who I am. And without those past depressions, I wouldn’t be the same person. (pg. 266)

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

Purchase Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression on Amazon

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Yaa GyasiDate Read: July 16th 2016

Published: 2016

Publisher: A.A Knopf

Pages: 305

 

 

 

 

The Blurb

A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

 

Review – ★★★★★ (5 stars)

Yaa Gyasi’s debut – Homegoing, is historical fiction at its best. I honestly thought Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah hit home for me back in 2013 when I read it. But Homegoing IS home. Homegoing is about my home. I never thought I’d read a book that perfectly articulates the dynamics of being Ghanaian-American. The only book I’ve read that somewhat touches on the identity complexities of being Ghanaian by blood and American (or British) by birth, was Powder Necklace by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond (another awesome Ghanaian-American writer). I might have to re-read Powder Necklace and review it on this platform soon!

Homegoing was an emotional read – throughout! I started reading during the wake of the horrific Alton Sterling and Philando Castile police shootings of early July, so you can imagine how haunting these real life events paralleled with this particular historical fiction, which focuses on the legacy of slavery in America and Ghana. Homegoing follows two half sisters – Effia and Esi who live in 18th century Ghana and the generations after them, making Effia and Esi the matriarchs of dual lineages. Effia becomes the wench (not wife) of the British governor of Cape Coast Castle (a slave castle here in Ghana) and is the matriarch of the Ghanaian line of the family; while Esi, who is kept as a slave in the dungeons of this same Cape Coast Castle where Effia resides with the governor, is the matriarch of the American line of the family. Homegoing alternates between the descendants of the two sisters, chronologically from 18th century Ghana to present day (after the millennium), in both Ghana and the US. As with most books of the historical fiction genre, a family tree is provided on the first page of the novel which makes following the two lineages and the different family members pretty easy.

To be honest, I don’t think it’s possible to read Homegoing without harboring some resentment for the insanity white folks forced people of African descent to endure. From the events of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, to the injustice and discrimination black folks faced in the American south as slaves, to the Anglo-Ashanti wars in Ghana, to present day racial tensions and disregard for black bodies, are all legacies of slavery. I truly admire how Gyasi manages to personalize slavery and its effects through the use of character development in each chapter. In every chapter, readers witness how each generation got some inheritance of slavery – be it through mass incarceration, the need to pass as white, lynching, colorism, the fragmenting of families and so much more.

As much as the terrors white folks caused black people are highlighted in Homegoing, I appreciate Gyasi for not letting Africans off the hook for being complicit in the slave trade. Unfortunately, the role African nations played in enabling slavery are  rarely addressed. All the ethnic wars, kidnapping of innocent people and trading of human beings in exchange for goods from the British, Dutch and Portuguese were all selfish, contributing factors to the slave trade and the inhumane effects they still manifest. While reading Homegoing, I kept thinking about Maya Angelou’s autobiography – All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes and her valid feelings of anger and disappointment she expressed after visiting the Elmina Castle (a Portuguese slave castle here in Ghana) in Cape Coast, Ghana back in the 1970’s. I understood her anger, as she was a descendent of our people who were captured and sold to the Europeans. As upsetting as the slave trade was, I applaud Gyasi for using Homegoing as a way for opening up conversations on the obscure relationship between Africans and African-Americans today, thanks to our disturbed past.

Gyasi’s ability to seamlessly weave Ghanaian and African-American histories into this story was very ambitious and exciting to read! I was impressed with the plethora of themes, actual historical events and icons that made realistic cameos in this novel. Don’t get me wrong – Homegoing is not rigid with historical facts. It’s very much a holistic novel with issues like interracial relationships, sharecropping, racial passing, lynching, homosexuality, mental illness, abelism, colorism and so much more, embedded into the storyline with respect to the times in which the characters live. Real historic icons and happenings like Yaa Asantewaa of Ejisu, The Asantehene, the civil rights movement & non-violent resistance headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Harlem heroin epidemic of the late 1960’s and others are all impressively packed into this novel of 305 pages!

I enjoyed most of the chapters and characters in Homegoing. But my favorite character was Marjorie. I like to believe Marjorie’s chapter is Yaa Gyasi – fictionalized. Marjorie was born in Ghana and raised in the US, just like Yaa Gyasi. In Marjorie’s chapter, I loved how the character articulates how she doesn’t identify fully as Ghanaian or ‘Black American’ which is sometimes used synonymously with the ambiguous term – ‘akata’ by some Africans. I especially loved that Marjorie found joy in reading books by writers of African descent,

Her work was in African and African American literature, and when Marcus asked her why she choose those subjects, she said that those were the books that she could feel inside her. (pg. 295)

Is Marjorie me? That quote is basically the essence of why I created African Book Addict! It was refreshing to read Majorie’s chapter, as I completely understood her identity struggles. While my life story is a little different from Majorie’s/Yaa Gyasi’s, reading a character with a similar background as yours is deeply gratifying. You begin to realize that there are others like you in the world; that you’re not alone in your confusion as to where you call home; that your convictions on your ever evolving identities are valid.

While discussing Homegoing with other book lovers here in Accra, I realized there were some minor inaccuracies in the novel. But I didn’t mind the minor inaccuracies others felt the need to point out. I did however find the ending of this phenomenal book a bit corny. Marcus’s chapter should have ended with a bang – as all the other chapters did! Regardless, Homegoing was emotional and heartbreaking, yet exhilarating to read. I hope Yaa Gyasi makes a trip to Ghana soon or adds Accra to her book tour. I’d love a good ole’ chat with a fellow Ghanaian-American and of course, for my copy of the book to be graced with her signature!

I’d like to extend a special thank you to my new friend – Trish Tchume and publishers A. A Knopf  for my copy of the book.  Homegoing is definitely one of my top 5 favorite books of this year. Don’t be surprised when it is required reading in schools soon.

★★★★★ (5 stars) – Amazing book, I loved it. Absolutely recommend!

My copy of Homegoing before and after reading.

P.S: I’ve typed all of the quotes I highlighted while reading and I’m open to sending anyone who’s interested, the PDF file of the compiled quotes via email. Some of the quotes, notes and suggested readings I highlighted would make for amazing book club discussions 🙂

Purchase Homegoing on Amazon