“It seems more and more that we live in a world of moral dislocation,” Anna Badkhen writes in the preface to her new essay collection, Bright Unbearable Reality. In the essays, Badkhen roams across that world, tracing a line from a protest against police violence in Philadelphia to the war-torn region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus, from the Mauritanian Sahara to the dacha outside St. Petersburg where she spent her childhood summers, from the military cemetery in Oklahoma where Geronimo is buried to the Sierra Madre mountains of northern Mexico where his Apache descendants now live. As her preface signals, this expansive range is accompanied by a stark sense that something is wrong: Violence and suffering haunt the people who make the book’s many journeys. Yet Badkhen is insistently attentive to small, marvelous details: The kitchens of the Sierra Madre, she notes at one point, are laid out exactly like the ones in the dachas of her youth.
Badkhen, who grew up in the waning years of the Soviet Union, spent 14 years as a war correspondent, eventually writing three books about the US war in Afghanistan, which she began reporting on for the American press shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Her two most recent books, Walking With Abel and Fisherman’s Blues, are deeply reported dispatches from western Africa.
Badkhen was in Ethiopia conducting research for a new book when countries around the world began closing their borders. She began writing the essay at the heart of the collection—“The Pandemic, Our Common Story”—on her journey back to her home in Philadelphia. As the pandemic set in, it became clear that the book she’d originally planned was “not to be,” as she put it to me recently. “This book came about instead.”
When Badkhen and I met, she noted with some delight that she’d gotten to know the linden tree outside her writing window “very intimately.” “I look at her seasons, the birds that come,” she told me.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
—Lucas Iberico Lozada
Lucas Iberico Lozada: Bright Unbearable Reality spans the globe, but each of the essays are rooted in specificity and detail. Were you always planning to write a global story?
Anna Badkhen: I’m writing about the world I live in. Some people live very locally; I, for various reasons of my personal and professional history, do not. As you will see from the book, large chunks of the world are absent. I have never been to Australia.
I think more than anything, it is a book about connectedness, because that’s how I see the world. I have this degree of apophenia that makes me connect things that may not necessarily be obvious to people—or that may not necessarily be connected, even. But in my mind, and in my world, everything and everyone is connected. It’s not a design of some kind—it’s not a writing tool; it’s not a shtick. This is the world that I see.
LIL: What does an essay collection do that an extended narrative couldn’t?
AB: I like essays because they allow me to tinker. I mean, everybody knows the essay comes from the word essai, which means “to try.” It’s an experiment of sorts. Essays allow for there to be room for questions.
I’ve written other books, and for the most part they’re complete, one-book narratives. And I think that this form allows me to flit a little bit more and say, “Oh, wait a second, I have to take you in a completely different direction.”
There is a reason for the sequence of the essays. But you can also open the book and read one essay from the middle, and go out and think about it.
LIL: You refer to the coronavirus pandemic as “our common story.” Did you set out to write about the pandemic?
AB: I was planning to write something completely different. The story that I wanted to research was the story of human migration. I wanted to go to the Afar Triangle [in east Africa], which is believed to be one of the birthplaces of humankind, one of the places from whence humans first moved 200,000 years ago, and I wanted to follow that route alongside what is now the most voluminous modern migration route, from Somalia to Yemen. That was the plan.
I went to Ethiopia with my friend Kabir, who is a Kenyan photographer. We made it to Ethiopia, but then the borders closed down. It was clear that we were not going to get to Somalia, but even then we were still thinking about the exit points where people who leave Ethiopia gather. Then Kabir had to leave—Kenya was going to stop accepting people from other countries. And then I was able to catch what they said at the time was the last flight. Talk about little, petty thoughts: Here we’re facing one of the most devastating mass die-offs in recent history, and I’m thinking, “Oh my God, am I going to catch my flight?”
LIL: The word “migration” comes up a lot in the book. At one point, you use the verb form of “pilgrim”—pilgriming. What is “pilgriming”?
AB: I like it as a verb. I’m reading this marvelous novel, The Presence of Absence, by Simon Van Booy. Somewhere in the middle, the narrator recalls the day when he finds out that he is dying. And he steps out of the doctor’s office and marvels at the idea that people are just walking around looking at their phones as if nothing has happened to him. When I think of pilgriming, I think of a reverential marveling, a degree of openness to some kind of discovery. I kind of wish that we were open to the marvelous all the time. It’s a good state to cultivate if it’s available, I think: the openness to something transcendent or transformative that can happen at a destination—and to not limit the destination to, say, a religious site or one’s childhood home.
LIL: You were a war reporter for 14 years. Why did you stop?
AB: I wasn’t satisfied with the format of storytelling in journalism. It can be very formulaic and limiting.
LIL: In your new book’s second-to-last essay, “Dark Matter,” you write: “Why refuse to address head-on the two experiences that pinnacle our humanness, violence and astonishment?” Is this book your response to the world you saw as a war correspondent?
AB: When I was a war correspondent, I really wanted to report what I saw—that was the point. That’s no longer my job. My job is not to shock; my job is to ask questions, to think out loud. Sure, I can be graphic. But in being graphic, what do I achieve? And how do I limit the agency of somebody I’m being graphic about? Writing—storytelling—is power. That’s another reason why the griots are so feared: They have the capacity to change policy. They can start and end wars with their words. As storytellers, we have to be very careful and very intentional about how we utilize our power—and why. There’s also an element of voyeurism that I don’t want to indulge in, and that I don’t want to indulge you, the reader, in.
LIL: Was there a moment when you decided you were finished with war reporting?
AB: There was a protracted moment when I learned that I don’t need to be writing about conflict in order to be interested in my subject. I was a war correspondent for proportionately so long that I thought that I thought it would be hard to be… engaged. [laughs] It’s not hard to be engaged in things that don’t involve physical violence.
LIL: What’s next for you?
AB: I am writing a collection of short stories—fiction about immigrants to the United States. There is a writer here in Philadelphia named Ken Kalfus, and he has a book called A Disorder Peculiar to the Country—my favorite book title of all time. I’m writing about people from different backgrounds, with different baggage, who end up in this country dealing with its disorder, but also with their own, from their own vantage point. I am thinking about: How are we prepared to deal with one another and to see one another? As you know, we’re now 8 billion people. How do we recognize and give space for one another?
We are in a climate catastrophe; we are facing unprecedented migration. It’s going to get much worse. We’re going to be forced into close quarters with one another fairly soon, because there will be a chunk of the world that’s uninhabitable. The conversation about global migration from the Global South needs to change—I mean, it needs to change yesterday. This terrible, racist narrative of how to keep Black and brown people out of moderate climates—it’s absurd. It’s absolutely cruel and violent and despicable. How do we change that conversation? The premise is so awful, yet almost every conversation I hear is built on this awful premise. The conversation is rotten from the beginning.
I think ultimately that this is a conversation about shame. We don’t like to talk about or feel shame. There are a lot of ways in which we people in the Global North like to insulate ourselves from shame. I don’t know what needs to happen. I have a lot of thinking to do about what to hold on to in this world.
LIL: I’m curious about the move from essay writing to fiction writing. You’ve clearly grappled with telling other people’s stories in nonfiction. How do you think about that when it comes to fiction? What does fiction allow you to do that these essays do not?
AB: For me, fiction is about discoveries: What am I going to discover as I’m writing the story? It’s a challenge, a personal challenge, because I don’t really know how it’s done. I’m learning.
The conversation about positionality and representation is extremely valuable, because it makes writers ask themselves these kinds of questions: Why are you writing about this person in this way?
There is a way of looking at storytelling as a privilege, as an exercise of privilege, and then there is a way of looking at storytelling as a responsibility. It’s a tightrope. And in order to navigate it responsibly, I have to ask myself those questions every day. Why am I in this room? What is my agency in this room? What is my responsibility to this room? What am I trying to do here? How did I get here? What is my obligation here?
All of this presupposes that we are on the same page about the value of storytelling, that we believe that storytelling is a necessary art form, that we believe that storytelling is important. Then we can have conversations about responsible storytelling and irresponsible storytelling. But if we believe that storytelling is just me exercising my own ego, then we don’t have to have this conversation. Though this is also an important check-in with oneself: Who am I doing this for? Is this harmful? Is this helpful?
LIL: The traveling in this book is of a very particular type. It isn’t quite adventuring. It’s definitely not tourism.
AB: I’ve been to places where tourists go. But, you know, it’s a tremendous privilege to travel. And it’s also, in this country, with this passport, a choice. If you met me when I was 15 and told me I would one day be deciding whether to live in Texas or Philadelphia or Senegal…
When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, I knew that I would never travel. It wasn’t even a question of where will you go—you will never go anywhere. My parents didn’t leave the Soviet Union until they were 37 years old. And the fact that they traveled even then was quite a miracle. And the only reason they were allowed to leave Russia was because my sister was 1 year old. The three of us went for this unbelievable trip to the States. But my sister was the security that we would come back.