The Selfless Act of Breathing

Publication: 2021

Author: JJ Bola

A heartbreaking, lyrical story for all of those who have fantasised about escaping their daily lives and starting over.

Michael Kabongo is a British–Congolese teacher living in London on the cusp of two identities. On paper, he seems to have it all – he’s loved by his students, popular with his colleagues, and enjoys the pride of his mother who emigrated from the Congo. But behind closed doors, he’s been struggling with the overwhelming sense that he can’t improve the injustices he sees – from his efforts to change the lives of his students, to his attempts to transcend the violence that marginalises young Black men around the world.

Then Michael suffers a devastating loss, and his life is thrown into a tailspin. As he struggles to find a way forward, memories of his fathers’ violent death, the weight of being a refugee, and an increasing sense of dread threaten everything he’s worked so hard to achieve.

Longing to escape the shadows in his mind and start anew, Michael decides to spontaneously pack up and go to America, the mythical ‘land of the free,’ where he imagines everything will be better, easier – a place where he can become someone new, someone without a past filled with pain. On this transformative journey, Michael travels from New York City to San Francisco, partying with new friends, sparking fleeting romances, and splurging on big adventures.

In the back of his mind, Michael has a plan: follow his dreams until the money in his bank account runs out, and then he will decide if his life is truly worth living…

Written in spellbinding prose, with Bola’s trademark, magnetic storytelling, The Selfless Act of Breathing is a heart-wrenching and deeply emotional novel about mental health, masculinity and the power of love.

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Original Language

ENGLISH (UK & Comm. excl. Canada) | Dialogue Books/Little, Brown
ENGLISH (NA) | Atria Books / Simon & Schuster

Translation Rights

FRENCH | Éditions Mercure de France
GERMAN | Kampa Verlag
ITALIAN | Frassinelli
JAPANESE | Komakusa Publishing
PORTUGUESE (Brazil) | Dublinense


"Absolutely stunning." Elizabeth Day

"In a world that makes it difficult for many of us to articulate our suffering, The Selfless Act of Breathing is a necessary invitation to scream when we feel like screaming, cry when we feel like crying, and prioritize our own often-neglected needs for love. JJ Bola crafted a soul-shifting novel that will let millions know it’s okay to not be okay, and that the one of the most rewarding, and healing, places we can travel is into ourselves. The unwavering courage and care that Bola demonstrates with this work is to be revered.” Mateo Askaripour, New York Times bestselling author of Black Buck

"Bola writes powerfully about belonging, the legacy of colonialism, and kindness between young men who fear being thought 'weak.'" Financial Times

"An emotive, brave novel that ultimately holds out the prospect of salvation, without sacrificing any of its power." Daily Mail

"Chronicling someone’s emotional deterioration can be a tricky affair, but Bola acquits himself beautifully; his prose is sensitive and powerful. (...) Lovers of character studies that tend toward the dark will find much to admire in this novel. Solid writing and sensitive insights make this one a winner." Kirkus Reviews

"Bola makes an interesting decision to skip a dramatic pivot point; though sure to irritate some, this imbues the book’s closing scene with mystery, and honours the weight of its themes while providing a spark of hope." Hephzibah Anderson, The Observer

"Bola proves himself a master of mood and empathy. Altogether, his novel is an excellent and heartrending effort." Booklist

"Bola’s insightful, intimate and lyrical work has been entrancing readers… Reminiscent of Paul Beatty and Ralph Ellison." The Bookseller

"JJ Bola composes a moving novel here, as close as possible to the inner chaos of its hero. [...] As the fateful moment draws near, by focusing too much on the present he has ended up forgetting: where he comes from, what holds him." Le Monde des Livres

"Possessed by a daring turn of phrase and at times a beautifully powerful sense of personal poignancy, this novel not only speaks to the people society ignores all too often, but to the feelings and frustrations we try and repress... it is one that should be pushed into the hands of friends accompanied by the question: do you feel this too?" Big Issue

"The Selfless Act Of Breathing is a heartfelt and searing exploration of depression... a devastating and insightful story, exploring everything from sex and love, to loss and the inner angst that led Kabongo to explore this new path...readers will be swept up in the sheer beauty of Bola’s writing" Press Association

“Narrated with haunting lyricism, The Selfless Act of Breathing is an intimate journey through the darkest of human impulses to the gleaming flickers of love and radical hope.” Susan Abulhawa, Palestine Book Award-winning author of Against the Loveless World

“The Selfless Act of Breathing feels existential and urgent as a millennial Mrs. Dalloway for a Black man who must straddle two worlds, two cultures, and two timelines, deciding where--and if--he wants to live. With prose as intimate as a private diary, as lush as spoken-word poetry, JJ Bola has artfully rendered this portrait of depression at once achingly empathetic and remarkably insightful.” Afia Atakora, American Historian Prize-winning author of Conjure Women

“While this book isn’t necessarily a light read, it does point to the limits of travel – a new setting doesn’t erase old problems, and in some cases, it may create new ones.” The Independent

"A beautiful, absorbing read. By turns searing and quietly devastating." Irenosen Okojie

"In this wonderfully tender novel about masculinity and mental health, about being lost and finding yourself again, Bola's vulnerable delicate writing conveys so much truth and heart about how we are now, how closed we are, how much goes unsaid and the quiet pain in our hearts." Nikesh Shukla

“This book is a bold work with a broad scope, bravely tackling masculinity, hopelessness and despair with force and directness.” Okechukwu Nzelu

"I knew from the opening, that this book was going to break my heart. The Selfless Act of Breathing left me breathless. It is beautifully tender. I was gripped right from the opening. The structure pacing, description, narration, and voice make this book a Masterclass in empathy. It is moving with tension multi layered like a symphony. The Selfless Act of Breathing is immersive and reflective; challenging what we might think mental health crisis looks like and who has them." Yvonne Battle-Felton, author of Remembered

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