An Interview with Nikita Ramkissoon

by Nolan Stevens

A headshot of Nikita Ramkissoon. She has a long plait and is wearing traditional Indian clothing and jewellery in her hair, on her forehead, her ears, around her neck and wrist. She has henna patterns on her hand.
Nikita Ramkissoon

Nikita Ramkissoon was born in Durban, South Africa. She grew up in an anti-apartheid activist family who encouraged her, from an early age, to understand the importance of compassion for others. Nikita is a freelance journalist and lecturer who runs a podcast on feminism and mental health called The Bipolar Feminist. When she’s not doing these things, she likes making grown white men cry on the internet, painting and playing the piano.

Nikita Ramkissoon: My name is Nikita Ramkissoon, and I am a freelance journalist, but these days, I mostly write for non-government organisations (NGOs), such as Afrika Tikkun and a couple of others. I am involved in issues of social justice. My main work is running the Bipolar Feminist podcast. I set it up on Patreon, where I have a weekly podcast, monthly lectures and weekly articles on feminism and mental health issues.

NS: So, how did your podcast come about?

NR: TikTok. I downloaded TikTok as a joke. I was like, you know what? Let me see if I can make the stupidest content possible. And then I met this leftist community that kind of pushed me. They were like, you’re really good at education. You’re good at finding unique stories and ways of explaining complex ideas to people. So why don’t you start creating on Patreon? And so I did.

NS: Did you already have a theme for your Patreon account that would make it different to your TikTok days?

NR: TikTok has always been a kind of clap-backs. If somebody says something stupid, you stitch the video and say, okay, now this is what it’s like. But there’s always been issues of race, class, gender and disability. I looked at those aspects of life from the perspective of an intersectional Marxist feminist. So it made sense that the podcast would follow that line of thinking but in a more academic way. The podcast is intensely researched, and I put at least three days of full-on writing into it. I record in a night, and the rest of the days are spent editing and fine-tuning things. I record everything in one go. The communities I belong to have a lot of input. I ask them, ‘What do you want to hear about this week?’ Now I’m four weeks ahead. It’s all uploaded. The next episode is about girls’ access to education. The week after that is an interview with the writer, Kimberly Latrice Jones, who made that speech around the George Floyd protests called, ‘How can we win?’. Then there is an interview with the US presidential candidate for the Unicorn Party. Their name is Jasmine Sherman. They’re running in 2024. Everything that I’m doing is kind of topical. I just did a special episode on what Roe V. Wade means for minorities. Well, the overturning of Roe V. Wade.

NS: it seems a lot like your content has an international focus. Why is that?

NR: Firstly, because South Africans generally do not latch on to podcasts, and Patreon wasn’t drawing much of an audience, and secondly, access to Spotify, Apple podcasts, Amazon Music, and Google music are generally international. The working content is really South African-focused. I take local stats, local goings on, and things happening within South Africa and Southern Africa and then weigh that against the international.

NS: I understand how activism and feminism inform what you create but can you explain how bipolar is involved?

NR: I am bipolar. I was diagnosed when I was 13. It’s part of me, my identity. I speak about mental health. One of the episodes I did in July is about the ins and outs of what bipolar actually is and its clinical explanations. It is also a fairly personal take on the experience of living through the illness.

NS: Is it mainly through the lens of being bipolar that you speak of mental health?

NR: No, that’s the podcast’s name because it just rolled off the tongue, but I speak about all kinds of mental health experiences. What’s interesting is that I’ve got many people in my close circle who grapple with different types of mental distress.

NS: I feel like there’s stigmatisation around mental illness and the intersection between mental illness and African culture, particularly in South Africa. As your podcast is geared primarily towards international audiences, how do you factor in the ignorance around these topics in the South African context?

NR: If I garner enough international attention, South Africans will listen. The podcasts have to make it big internationally before they come home. I find it quite annoying that people are not prepared to consume South African art or listen to South African music until it’s recognised internationally. I’m trying to address whoever’s listening and find a balance. Like the episode on Roe V. Wade, I ask how it affects American citizens living in South Africa. One of the trigger laws in Texas, and some other states, is that as soon as US citizens, who lived outside of the US and had an abortion, come back, they can be prosecuted. So that’s an example of a local angle. I delve into the cultural effect of Roe V. Wade in South Africa, a very conservative country. So many people in South Africa are anti-abortion because of cultural and religious influences. So how is our mindset affected if one of the world’s greatest superpowers suddenly rolls back laws on human rights? It’s challenging to balance because of who’s listening as opposed to who you want to be listening. So including local stats and the local implications speaks to how South Africa exists as a country and society. It also prompts South African listeners to think about how international issues affect them directly or indirectly.

NS: We touched on African culture in my last question. As a person of Indian descent, how do your culture and identity impact how you deal with life daily?

NR: There’s very much this idea within the Indian community that mental illness is a problem that belongs to white people. And I’m sure it’s like that for many people of colour. We don’t have the luxury of the inexact science of mental health. Yeah, especially when it comes to extended family. My immediate family is incredibly supportive, but my dad still doesn’t understand how it works. He means well but believes it’s all about diet and exercise, you know, that kind of thing. He’s still like, ‘Oh, why are you still on meds?’ I’m like, ‘I have to be on meds for the rest of my life, Dad.’ He doesn’t understand or believe it. One of the most understanding people in my life doesn’t get that I have to be on medication my entire life. So, how will someone who’s not that compassionate towards me understand? Like my extended family. They’re like, ‘Oh, okay, well you’re on medication, and you’re going through a depressive episode or a manic episode.’ They avoid me because I’ve snapped at them one too many times where I’ve said things like, ‘Just stay out of my business. Okay. And don’t tell me to just go down to the beach and have ice cream.’

There is stigma, misunderstanding and the attitude that brown people don’t have the luxury of getting depressed. The belief is that we can’t afford mental health problems because we have so many other things thrown at us from all sides in society. The stigma is made so much worse by attitudes to feminism. Fortunately, I was raised by a feminist communist, feminist atheist, communist and feminist. So, in that regard, the home space was very supportive when I was growing up. But my feminism is very different from my sister’s, my mother’s or my father’s. Because it’s coming through an intersectional lens, and from reading a lot of theory, as opposed to just living feminism. But we have a converging point where we all have the same idea that women’s rights are human rights. LGBT rights are human rights. Transgender men are men, trans women are women, all of those ideas are standard in my home. For the Indian community in general, feminism is a swear word. Traditional views are that a woman’s place is in the household. Men may assume roles in the public sphere. If a woman is taller than her husband, then he’s failed as a man. Somebody said that the other day. That’s why I mention it now. People used to pick on my husband and me because I earned more than him and was more qualified than him. He’s now got his master’s degree, which is fantastic. We’re on equal footing regarding qualifications, but why does that matter?

NS: How does your work enlighten or empower people in the mental health space?

NR: As a whole, I provide a well-researched approach to complex issues. I try to engage people using plain English, layman’s terms and local expressions. So I make theory accessible more than anything, speaking to lived experience. Trigger warning for my following words: I’m a survivor of childhood abuse, which is part of the reason I have my mental illnesses. Complex PTSD is real. My podcast is based on lived experience that’s neither made me weaker nor stronger but has made me an activist. I speak to people from a perspective of, ‘I understand. I’ve been through shit, and I want the world to understand, and I also speak from the standpoint of being willing to learn. I’m constantly learning and willing to say I was wrong or admit that I came from a place of ignorance. So in terms of mental health, I tie in that knowledge that everybody is fallible. Everybody is human, and everybody has their struggle. You never know what somebody is going through.

NS: What I enjoy about your work is how you use digital platforms. You mentioned the Patreon podcast and that you have created playlists on Spotify. Could you speak more about how you use these different platforms?

NR: So I’m writing a book, and the book is supported by a series of playlists. It’s a novel told through songs. So you can actually map out the protagonist’s chronological and autobiographical journey by following the thread of music.

NS: How did that idea of using music to support your narrative come about?

NR: Music is an integral part of my life. I started playing the piano when I was about four years old. I mimicked my sister when she had her piano lessons. She’s four years older than me. I would follow the books that she had on the piano. And I would copy what she was playing. Then my parents were like, ‘Okay, well, we’ll send her for lessons too.’ So I took it further, and I graduated with a minor in music in piano and contemporary vocals. Music has held my family together. We have always communicated through music. My dad plays the guitar, and my sister, my dad and I sing. My sister is such a brilliant singer. We would sit around the fire in the evenings, my dad playing guitar, my sister singing the melody, and me doing the harmony. It was the glue that held my family together, and it still is. So, it only made sense that I would tell a story through music.

NS: What goes into the selection of the tracks?

NR: The protagonist’s entire journey is my journey, but it’s told in the third person to remove myself from how insanely intense the emotions are. An editor gave me some feedback once that my stories are, by and large, very intense but told quite impersonally. If I told them from a personal perspective, I’d break down every time. So I’ve become quite academic, intellectualising stories so that they don’t hit me as hard, especially when talking about how grappling with mental illness feels like the end of the world, like an apocalypse is coming every single time I have an episode. So, for example, I chose five songs for the end of the world. These are songs that speak to me in those times. I’m writing about somebody I recently met, who makes my heart sing, and I choose pieces that remind me of them. Each playlist is five songs. There’s only one playlist that has six, and that’s because the person I was writing about is like my musical soul. Every year for his birthday, instead of me getting him a birthday gift, he tells me a song he wants me to learn about two months before his birthday. One year it was David Bowie. I learned to play Space Oddity on the piano. Cool, and then for his 30th, I played Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven. So those kinds of relationships run through the novel as grounding moments between the madness of mania and depression interspersed with other illnesses. I’m only recently starting to grapple with DID and am still not ready to talk about it. Not yet, at least.

NS: Okay. That’s perfectly fine, so how does your podcast relate to or differ from your novel?

NR: I’ve been told that the podcast is angry, and the novel is hopeful.

NS: Is that because of the degrees of separation? Like the third person?

NR: Yes. I’m not sure. I haven’t begun to analyse that kind of thing yet. The novel is not chronological, and it’s very traumatic. It’s incredibly traumatic retelling the stuff I’ve been through, but it’s also about travelling. I love travelling alone, meeting people where I go, and telling their stories. Like, there was this woman I met on a bus in New York who told me she was meant to be working in one of the towers in 2011. And she had to go and sort out something to do with her daughter’s registration at school, so she wasn’t there when the towers collapsed. So instead of just telling me that story, she related how she felt. At the end of that conversation, she said she’d never told anybody about how she felt that day on September 11, 2001. That’s really important. I don’t know why people tell me their life stories. I think that’s part of being a journalist, knowing you get people’s stories from them, even if we meet in the most random places, like on a park bench. I don’t know how. Maybe I just have the space that enables people to feel they can trust me to tell me their stories.

NS: Would you say that your art form is journalism?

NR: My primary medium is writing, and I like that you call it an art form because it really is. Crafting words to evoke emotion is so crucial to understanding our world.

NS: I like that a lot. So if writing is your primary art form, how does it manifest in your podcast?

NR: I translate the thoughts and ideas that I write into audio. So when I write, I know it’s going to be read. I record, speaking the words out loud, then I think, Okay, that word is repeated, or that word sounds weird next to that one. I write the script knowing it’s going to be read. I would love to have the capacity one day to make podcasts accessible for deaf or hard-of-hearing people. To attach the scripts. But my editing of the written script is not that great because I don’t have time. After all, we exist within capitalism, and time is money.

NS: You recently shared an article you wrote for a British publication. I write for organisations like Outlandish Arts, and I grapple with the fact that South Africa still doesn’t really have a market for writing about these topics. So how do you seek platforms where you can freely and fully express your thoughts?

NR: I must admit it’s a little bit of confirmation bias. I speak out against confirmation bias so vehemently. Still, when I’m looking for stuff to draw on for the podcast, I come across publications that are not well known because I dig deep. I go to page two and even sometimes page three of Google results. My housemate constantly laughs at me. So when I find publications that speak to my writing style and my ideas and politics, I approach them and ask, ‘Hey, can I write for you?’ The worst they can say is no. So yeah, I approach them and be like, ‘Okay, our politics align. Let’s make magic.’

NS: What are some topics you write about for publications in the US, UK and other parts of Europe? How do you decide which issues are going to suit a particular magazine?

NS: It’s about the tone of the publication. I was writing for The Daily Beast at one stage. I understood their style and content. So I pitched stories that were aligned with their ethos. I write for Rock & Art in the UK. It’s not a news site. It wants features that take in-depth looks at issues of feminism, mental health, popular culture and specifically rock music, which is my genre. It’s updated once a week with new stories.

NR: You are currently doing a PhD, and the topic is fascinating. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

NS: Yeah, representation of black women in rock music. So, rock music was invented by a black woman named Rosetta Tharpe. Not many people know that rock was a black genre appropriated by white people, and it’s seen as a white genre. I hate the fact that musical genres are now so racialised. You have a brown person at a rock venue, and people look at you like, Oh, you’re token! To the point that I was asked by a fellow journalist, ‘What does a small Indian woman know about rock music?’ He said it disparagingly. I’m like, ‘I was raised on this stuff. My favourite band is Led Zeppelin’. And so, in that racialisation, the roots of rock music are forgotten, and black women’s contributions to the genre sidelined. So it’s imperative to discuss how and why.

I also look at the visual representation of black women in the rock music space and how black women have to assimilate to whiteness. They are over-sexualised or seen as the butch lesbian and deified. There is no nuance in the representation of black women in the genre. This is something that needs to be researched. I can’t get funding because this topic’s never been done before. There is a writer in Canada named Lliana Dawes, who recently did her master’s on black fandom in the metal scene in Canada, and her work is fantastic. We’ve been talking, but by and large, the subject is not well investigated. It’s seen as frivolous and less important than other issues. Obviously, there are levels to what kind of struggles we choose to fight. I’m going to fight for human rights above anything else, but in terms of funding, people are like, ‘Oh, you’re from Africa! You need to fight for African issues and write about African issues.’ It’s exhausting.

NS: Anything else we should know about?

NR: I mentioned that I write for the UK publication, Rock & Art. I’m the mental health editor. I also counsel rape survivors and work with people who have been abused. That’s what I do currently. I’m trying to organise a protest about the rolling back of abortion rights. Oh man, it’s really hard to get people together.

17 August 2022

NOLAN STEVENS was born in exile in Swaziland but has lived the better part of his life in inner-city Johannesburg. His mother, Stella May Ntsihlele wrote children’s books, short stories and plays. He attributes his love of writing to her. Nolan is a visual artist who works with ideas of Blackness in an Afro-urban context. He explores various aspects of black identity in his art making, arts writing and curatorial projects.