"The Selfless Act of Breathing," Reviewed by Chloe Cherry
The Selfless Act of Breathing, by JJ Bola, centers the narration of Michael Kabongo, a teacher in London, a man who is devastatingly hopeless. This book follows Michael’s journey of experiencing the continuous mental, physical, and spiritual crises of being a Black, male refugee. As the son of a mother who moved from the Congo to the United States and a deceased father, Michael experiences the continual grief of existing in a world without tangible roots, a grief that looms over him every single day.
Due to the unwavering depression that his life induces, Michael decides that he will kill himself after spending all of his life savings: 9,021 dollars. Eventually, because of the multiple racist incidents Michael witnesses as a teacher in London, he decides to move to the United States, where he will meet Belle, party, and attempt to live life to the fullest degree. He thus embarks on a quest for finding peace, uncovering the essence of what it means to be alive, discovering that being alive means being present in the now. Although he decides to pursue this journey alone, keeping everyone he meets at a distance, he maintains strong connections with his colleagues, his best friend Jalil, and multiple love interests. All of his relationships become portals for understanding himself and the world around him. For example, his ambivalent, troublemaking student, Duwayne, whose life story reminds Michael of the horrors of existing as a Black man in London.
The story shifts between the first and third person, which serves to speak to the duality of Michael’s existence. Indeed, through reading this character's thoughts we are allowed into his inner agony and the sense of devastating despair that leads him to want to escape life. The third person perspective forces the reader to connect the mundanity of the protagonist's life with his inner turmoil. Because of this, I became equally empathetic and, at points, also tired of this character's depressing nature. But I think that this whirlwind of existential emotion is exactly what the book aims to capture. It invites the reader who picks it up to slowly and methodically explore their most internal emotions. Bola has an emotional intelligence that can’t help but cloud the novel, and he’s able to take the reader with him through what feels like insidious text layered with an inner knowing.
Michael feels, in a way, like a ghost, an experience that is strikingly similar to the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a quintessential American novel that also explores the existential dread of a Black man living in the United States. Similar to The Selfless Act of Breathing, Invisible Man also shifts the mood of the narrator throughout each chapter, drastically changing the tone between chapters. Both of these novels shift the spatial location of the narrator, making a statement about the way race operates differently by region. While Invisible Man reveals the difference between the freedom of the North and the conservatism of the South, The Selfless Act of Breathing sheds light on the way an African refugee and teacher experiences racism in Western countries.
Michael can’t believe or trust the world around him, and is unable to feel aligned with the human lifetime. It is very universal, but it is also a very Black experience, to feel both everything and nothing at all. Michael feels the weight of everything without the ability to release the pain it brings.
I recently went with my Senior Seminar class to SCI Chester, a prison near Philadelphia, for a book club on Invisible Man. One of the major takeaways from our discussion with the highly motivating, inspirational, eloquent, and moving men we met there was that all of us in the human collective suffer when we allow any person or group of people to be rejected. By suppressing whole, full human beings, we are suppressing parts of our individual selves, reinstating a lie that there is any part of the human experience that is not deserving of love, respect and care—a lie that can only be counteracted by accepting the reality of what institutional oppression impresses on all of us, whether through personal experience or visceral empathy—the all-consuming sadness that can tear through one's soul when they are alienated from society.
Being a student at a predominately white institution, I have felt like I have been somewhere I was never supposed to be. I have been living a life with no prayer, just completely misplaced. When I reached my senior year of college, this devastation entered my body and clouded my entire life, because I couldn’t reconcile being at this place that felt like it was at war with pieces of myself, a place that ate away at pieces of myself one by one.
It is because of my own pangs of dread that shocked me every day of my freshman year, and that continue to reverberate in my body, that I find The Selfless Act of Breathing important. I think the grief, the continuous mourning of the life we imagine and hold so close to our hearts deserves space, and The Selfless Act of Breathing allows us to imagine what it would be like if we truly dove in deep.
The Selfless Act of Breathing
Chloe Cherry is a senior English major with a Writing and Rhetoric Concentration and Creative Writing Minor. They are passionate about all things storytelling and Sonia Sanchez.