Café Babanussa is a story about mental illness that has never been told before. Through the journey of a young, mixed-race woman exploring Germany in the 1980s, we see how mental instability creeps into the lives of even the most beautiful of characters.
Living in Germany after its separation following the Second World War, Ruby Edwards must adjust to the racist backlash she receives as a Black Canadian in Europe.
The book’s author, Karen Hill, had her own struggles. She was unable to maintain a nine-to-five job due to challenges with tasks such as getting dressed, arriving at work on time, and dealing with co-workers. She neglected work, which led to her living in poverty and having to survive on welfare.
Eventually, she took on creative hobbies such as cooking, art and poetry. As a poet, she became known for her work “What is my Culture?” and “A Breath for you.”
Café Babanussa mirrors Hill’s life and she debated making it a memoir. She wrote the novel – her first – from 1989 to 2012.
Hill died in 2014 at the age of 56. Café Babanussa was co-edited after her death by her brother, author Lawrence Hill.
Freedom from a mental cage
As a child, the book’s main character, Ruby, had reoccurring dreams of a man smothering her that continued to plague her into adulthood. She would write in her diary, lock herself up in her room, and argue with figments of her imagination.
Now a young adult, Ruby’s need for freedom and independence takes her to Germany, where her past demons and current insecurities intermingle to wreak havoc on her mind and personal relationships.
“She became entranced listening to all their voices, searching for some truth in their words.”
She explores West Berlin and nearby France. A young man named Werner, a British friend named Emma, and a mysterious drug dealer named Dom – Ruby seeks acceptance from them in a time of racial tumult, as well as an escape from the growing turmoil in her mind.
After becoming pregnant and not knowing whom the father of her child is, Ruby has an abortion that takes a toll on her mind and body. Dom dies from a drug overdose, leading Ruby to slip deeper into depression. Hill described this process as a form of self-isolation.
“Ruby was beginning to slowly lock herself up inside her mind. More and more people were prying their way into her head talking to her,” Hill wrote. “She became entranced listening to all their voices, searching for some truth in their words.”
Ruby later finds out that her mother also dealt with mental illness. Hill reflected on this aspect of Ruby’s life in an essay included at the end of the book. She wrote about mental health problems in her own family and described her personal experience with mental illness as “being crazy.”
A short reprieve
Towards the end, we learn the significance of the book’s title. Café Babanussa is a haven where Ruby and her friends go to escape their stressful lives. At the café, she finds solitude for the first time and comfort in being unapologetically Black and ultimately, herself.
“She felt grateful for having been accepted into the club,” Hill wrote. “The feeling of belonging to one race as opposed to none empowered her.”
At the café, she finds solitude for the first time and comfort in being unapologetically Black and ultimately, herself.
At Café Babanussa, Ruby meets a new lover, Issam, and becomes pregnant again. She later gives birth to a child and moves back to her parents’ home in Toronto. Her adventure is over, yet her internal struggles continue.
“The architecture in Toronto seemed so bland – new and ugly,” Hill wrote. “[A]lmost every night she went to sleep crying for what she no longer had [and] for weeks she wrestled with dark clouds that seemed to follow her wherever she went. She was tired and listless.”
Understanding a common illness
What makes Ruby’s story so relatable is the fact that we are all familiar with the places that Ruby has encountered on her journey to adulthood. Trying to be encouraged and spirited while dealing with responsibilities, social issues, love and growing-up can be stressful.
Hill’s realistic portrayal of someone who cannot cope with these pressures provides a better understanding of mental illness.
She showed that it is easy to succumb to the bullying thoughts, fears, and demons many of us confront.
She did not identify Ruby’s illness as a rare and isolated occurrence, but as a struggle that people often encounter in life. She showed that it is easy to succumb to the bullying thoughts, fears, and demons that many of us confront.
Before her death in 2014, Hill wrote a letter that talked about her lonely walks, physically and mentally, which was also included in the book. After being out of institutions and hospitals for three years, she had sympathy for those who remained locked-up and suffering as victims of their minds.
“I feel I have finally reached a place of some stability. From here I can reach out and become a healthier and more active participant in the mental health and wider communities. Sadly, this is still not true for many others who struggle with mental illness.”
Danica Samuel is a freelance journalist from Toronto. She is a compulsive writer who is constantly searching for new stories on the streets and through social media. Samuel has written for the Huffington Post, New Canadian Media and ByBlacks. She prides herself on her creativity, charisma and provocativeness, while always being committed to content that is memorable, relevant and original.