Speaking Truth to Power: The Colour of Madness, A Lit and Art Anthology of BAME Mental Health

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After a wide call-out for submissions, co-editors Dr. Samara Linton and Rianna Walcott selected art, poetry, short fiction, memoirs and essays by over 50 people from racialised backgrounds. In 2018, the result was The Colour of Madness: Exploring BAME Mental Health in the UK. This varied and full-colour anthology ‘seeks to disrupt the whitewashed narrative of mental health’. Reviewed by London-based artist and writer Nila Gupta.

Cover of The Colour of Madness: Exploring BAME Mental Health in the UK, featuring illustrations of brains of varying shades from pink to brown

Cover of The Colour of Madness: Exploring BAME Mental Health in the UK, edited by Samara Linton and Rianna Walcott, 2018.

There’s a grim irony in being too mental to review a book on race and mental health. But when reading is less accessible to me, I’m even more glad of collections like The Colour of Madness: BAME Mental Health in the UK. Rather than prioritising academic work, co-editors Dr. Samara Linton and Rianna Walcott have included poetry, criticism, collage, photography and other media/genres. Contributors’ works jostle up against each other like a friendly argument in the marketplace.

Flicking through, the first thing to catch my eye is ‘The Upward Spiral’ on page 135, a drawing by Raza Griffiths. An accompaniment to Raza’s text on page 81, it’s a beautiful diagram of practical steps and experiential knowledge, with a striking use of colour and shape. Even more extraordinary is Reba Khatun’s collage on the opposite page – of a bruised, stitched-together, and mending heart. The image is so vibrant I have to reach out and stroke it.

Now that I’ve ‘broken the ice’, I take a look at the foreword, and am met by words that perfectly reflect my process and anxieties around writing this review. Describing her feelings as a therapist/psychologist invited to introduce the book, Guilaine Kinouani writes, ‘The excitement quickly made way to an immense sense of responsibility’. It’s a moment of unexpected connection, a dissolution of my preconceived idea of them (i.e. the expert/professional) and us (the pathologised, wild, excessive other). A distinction that this collection gleefully tramples.

A major theme that emerges from many contributors is the importance and revolutionary nature of us speaking our truths. I love the way chapters are ordered according to a spectrum of colours –  inviting readers to dip in and out.

Tobi Nicole Adebajo is a black person with short hair. They are wearing a purple dress and large triangular earrings, and they're singing into a microphone expressively.

Tobi Nicole Adebajo. Photo by Edstar Osei.

On page 126, as part of ‘polychrome’, the encouragement of Tobi Nicole Adebajo:

Utter it
Speak your truth into existence
Affirm your beautiful, brown resistance

On page 13, ‘red’ and resolute Nisha Damji:

Because I am other,
because I am a stranger,
because I am brown,
And I won’t bend.

The experience of reading this anthology robustly engages my mind, but less like an academic lecture and more like a long evening in a Shisha house. Even the most apparently ‘academic’ and densely-researched pieces, like that of Skye Chirape, work to collapse the false distinction between the expert and the marginalised ‘patient’. Skye presents a forensically-sharp analysis of the horrors of the UK asylum system, in particular how it fails LGBTQIA+ people. Yet, weaved into this are the connections Skye draws between her clients and her own experiences as an asylum seeker. As with every piece in the collection, Skye’s essay makes a nonsense of divisions between the personal and political.

Skye Chirape is a black woman wearing a red, yellow, white and black headdress, red cape and patterned white shirt. She kneels on the floor at a microphone clutching a piece of paper.

Skye Chirape at We Don’t Need Another Hero. Photo by Berlin Biennale Press.

Reading more, I suddenly have scents all around me. Hing and oil, acrid and enticing. Anxiety sweats. Then the calm of lavender and jasmine joss sticks. My selections uncover orange, and now indigo, sprinkled through the anthology like the tarka for a dal. After moving between poetry and memoir, I encounter more works that speak to me as a queer and trans person of colour, finally sinking into the glowing fiction of Andrés N. Ordorica.

Sometimes his anxiety comes on like a wave ready to wash over him and pin him to the ground. […]

One last moment just for himself. How beautiful the reds look in the dimly lit room, how cleansing the burgundies are for his soul, with reassuring rust and enveloping warm blood-red. ‘Sanguine’ he will name it, that elusive red.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of this ground-breaking collection is its sheer size and variety. The advantage of featuring over 50 contributors is that there is no one story. Instead, as Guilaine says in the foreword, ‘Our tears as victories. Being vulnerable is revolutionary.’ This is clearly a conscious curatorial decision on the part of co-editors Samara and Rianna, and makes The Colour of Madness richer and more potent.

Andrés N. Ordorica is a Latinx writer with black glasses, short hair and beard. He wears a red tshirt and navy jacket, and holds a copy of a book as he smiles at the camera.

Andrés N. Ordorica. Photo by Colour of Madness blog.

My only disappointment is the lack of index; it seems an odd omission, especially when not all readers would want to approach the book in a linear fashion. The space given to long biographies might have been be better dedicated to allowing readers, for example, to search for all submissions about PTSD.

This collection is wonderful; in places it’s heart-rending, but every piece shines brightness into a lonely corner. There’s something for everyone, and following your own path through its pages is a big part of the fun. As if all this wasn’t reason enough to buy The Colour of Madness, 50% of profits go to supporting the work of Kindred Minds, a radical BME mental health collective based in Southwark, South London.

I started by pathologising myself as ‘too mental’ to read and review The Colour of Madness, and ended up feeling seen, touched and heard in a way that’s extremely rare, especially in a UK context. Essential reading for anyone interested in race and radical mental health, in experiencing our stories as they ring out loud and proud.

The Colour of Madness: Exploring BAME Mental Health in the UK is available from Stirling Publishing or an independent bookshop near you.


Nila Gupta bio (audio):

Nila Gupta bio (text).


Sandra Alland is guest editor at DAO from 25th March to 26th April. Check out all San’s commissioned pieces on their Project page. Audio versions of all pieces can be found on San’s dedicated SoundCloud channel.