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Café Babanussa by Karen Hill

Deeply Moving. Engaging. Enlightening. 
Ruby Edwards will stay with you long after you have put the book down. 

Malcolm Gladwell discussed the concept of the tipping point in his bestselling book of the same name. It’s all about how little things can make a big difference. Gladwell defines a tipping point as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point". While Gladwell thought of the concept mainly as that magic moment when ideas, trends and social behaviour cross a threshold, tip and spread like wildfire, what if you took the theory and transposed it? What if we could figure out the root cause of mental illness and define that pivotal moment when the brain starts to unravel into the realm of irrationality? Can such a phase transition be an appropriate metaphor for the complexities of the human brain? 

Recently, I began reading Karen Hill’s Café Babanussa. You may not know Karen Hill…this is after all her first book, and sadly one that was published posthumously after her untimely death on March 27, 2014. But, while you may not know Karen, you must be familiar with her brother, Lawrence Hill -- winner of Canada Reads 2016 for his book The Illegal, and 2009 winner of the same competition for The Book Of Negroes

came to learn more about Karen Hill, through Lawrence, as we were on a panel for a CBC Canada Reads discussion with Mary Ito. Later that month, at the Canadian Mental Health Association's An Evening With Lawrence Hill event our paths crossed again and I got to hear him speak in depth about Karen’s 30-year struggle with mental illness. The event was both emotional and at the same time inspiring. Their closeness as siblings, was also reflected in their love of writing. Both were sponges in absorbing the world around them, clearly tapping into emotional cues, which they used in their writing. They loved life and food and music, and most of all they loved to travel. After graduating from the University of Ottawa, Karen left Canada to travel to Europe, where she spent the next 10 years of her life. Her brother describes her as being and having "a lifelong travel bug, and an equal passion for learning languages". In Lawrence Hill's foreword at the beginning of Café Babanussa we understand that Karen wanted to find her own identity and path in life, and escape the "long shadows cast" by her father and older brother, who were both successful in their fields. Perhaps she felt that by stepping out of that shadow could she follow her own adventures. 
"She wanted to come of age racially, sexually, linguistically and politically, and Berlin seemed like the perfect place to shape and define her life. It was cosmopolitan, multilingual and multiracial." 

There she met and formed friendships. She met her husband in Portugal and followed him to West Berlin. She didn't seem to have any intention of returning to Toronto. Don Mills, the (at the time) entirely white Toronto suburb that the Hill's had grown up in, was a stark contrast to the life that West Berlin provided her. Sometimes she found even more hostility there than she had encountered in Toronto. Constant questions of where she was from and what she was haunted every new conversation she had. These bothered her. But, there was something special about West Berlin that allowed her to open herself up to it. And it was also here finally, that she found some solace at a dreamy local bar frequented by others who seemed as displaced as she was...and this place was Café Babanussa.

The novel began as a series of stories that Karen had written over the years, and had considered developing into a memoir. Eventually, she settled on a novel. Her character, Ruby Edwards is based on her own experiences. As I read the book, the purist in me, desperately wanted it to parallel Karen's own story, one that I had heard from Lawrence Hill's conversations. Of course, this was unfair. But controlling one's mind is always a tricky and often futile endeavour for thoughts race ahead looking for connections and points of reference. While Ruby Edwards' story came close to the account I had heard about Karen Hill, it wasn't biographical. There's the rub, sometimes I was waiting for the next event to happen just as succinctly as I had heard. But, it did not. There were surprises, and twists and turns that I had not expected. 

"Decrepit, yet exclusive, anarchistic and fascist, the city had intoxicated her for years. She was just twenty-one when she arrived in Berlin. Now twenty-four, she had drifted in and out of relationships with men, searching for something. Men who loved the exotic but not-too-dark tint of her skin, the fizzy wave of her hair. Men who sucked at her sweetness like a candy apple and spit out the core."  
Karen Hill loved poetry. And I hope in the future some of her collections will be published and released. In her novel she touches on the powerful effect that poems had on her (Ruby Edwards') wellbeing. Ruby's favourite poem was Langston Hughes' My People. She called it "gentle yet melodiously insistent". Poetry, she felt, was the "perfect antidote, as it didn't require the extended concentration that a novel might". 

Karen Hill's powerful essay at the end of the book, is an autobiographical account of her own struggle with mental illness. Reading it will render you breathless: it will give you goose bumps and shock you out of any complacency. It is the raw, unfiltered truth of a real person living with anxiety and mental illness.

"When I am sane I find it interesting to note the interconnectedness between delusion and reality. In fact, most of my paranoid delusions stem from something concrete that has happened in my life. It's like someone has taken a jigsaw puzzle and tossed it in the air, letting the pieces fall where they may. That is my psychotic brain. Actual facts and events all cast about, tumbling about in my head, their now jagged and unfitting edges no longer in synchronicity." ~ Karen Hill 

Lawrence Hill's admiration and love for his sister is incomparable. When he talks about Karen Hill, it is evident that her pursuit of writing inspired him. And, rightly so. Having to write a novel while battling the demons of psychosis isn’t easy, especially when factoring the effects of debilitating drugs that hinder creative thinking. Kudos to Karen Hill in attempting this great feat and not giving up. 

We will never be able to bring Karen Hill back, but her words will echo and stay with us forever. For those with a loved one who faces the devastating challenge of mental illness every day, each day must be taken one step at a time. While it's hard to fathom what it is like to live with mental illness, Karen brings the reader a little closer to understanding -- and appreciating the seemingly insurmountable obstacle. For that we thank her. 
I couldn't begin to understand the turmoil that grapples the mind of someone with mental illness, but Karen Hill has given me a glimpse into that space of uncertainty. What must it feel like to suddenly lose control of your mind and surroundings. I will continue to wonder if there is that tipping point, some hope that once pin-pointed can help solve the roller coaster of emotional unrest and turmoil that unsettles a family for the rest of their lives. 
If you have a loved one who is consumed with mental illness, the best thing you can offer them is yourself. Be there for them. It will be hard. They may push you away. But if you are amongst the fortunate, they will pull through when you least expect it. There is a lot to be done still in terms of support groups for both parents and family. If perhaps we can find that tipping point, this lifelong devastation can be avoided. Until then, we must continue to support and do our best to understand. 


Blog post by @ShilpaRaikar (Creative and Social Media strategist, decor enthusiast and book lover, who also writes for a branding blog:, as well as a lifestyle blog: T: @SukasaStyle) 

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