The Read: Anna Badkehn, Bright Unbearable Reality
Friday's Child Is Loving and Giving
Why did I get this book?
I’d read and liked Badkhen’s two books about West Africa. But also I’m really in love with the New York Review Books series—both the choices of what to publish and the aesthetics of their book design.
Is it what I thought it was?
I didn’t have strong expectations—I pick up some NYRB titles on a whim when I see them. (There’s one I’ve bought twice because I like the look of it but haven’t read it yet, so I forgot that I already picked it up.)
What continuing uses might I have for it?
It’s an interesting stylistic exercise that for me hovers right on a kind of line in terms of travel essays. (More in a moment on this point.) I’m not sure I’d teach from it unless I was teaching travel writing specifically as a genre. I’d be more likely to use Walking With Abel in a class. I’d recommend it to a friend but only within a fairly defined space of known sensibilities and preferences, I think.
“Once back from the desert, I will read articles about Chinguetti that describe the city and her libraries as endangered. But aren’t all of us in the world endangered? Our onward path is uncertain and perilous; our past, by and large, is a poem of erasure.”
“Instead of physical infrastructure, imagine the other ways in which the Anthropocene connects us: the poly-threaded, shimmering veil of yearning and missing and care and love.”
“On Sahara’s southern shore, men often wrote phone numbers on their footwear—contacts of relatives, of middlemen, of lovers they have left behind—to be dialed when needed or when possible from a borrowed phone. Their shoes were dossiers, telephone books, annals of connection, impenetrable by thorn or time or termite.”
“Like me, they came here trying to make sense of what it means to be human. Like me, they were able to come here because our ancestors had persevered over millennia of strife. I place my palm on a wall that human touch has polished to a sheen; I am touching eight centuries of despair and bewilderment and hope. I watch the supplicants first in trepidation, then in wonder, then in prayer; at last, I fall asleep, as, I imagine, others have in this church over the ages of its existence.”
“Maybe the simplest prophecy is that we have made it this far.”
“He didn’t catch the name of the Saudi town where he was headed, where he had hoped to find work in a forge. Then again, he never did reach it.”
Commentary, asides, loose thoughts, unfair complaints
I had to fight myself a bit in getting into the rhythm of the essays in the book. Long years of reading travel writing about sub-Saharan Africa or many other non-Western places in the world have made me jumpy, quick to judge. (Even with an author like Badkhen whose previous work has met with my approval!) I tend to read travel writing alongside or in relation to ethnography and hold the former accountable for not being the latter. Elegant prose and insightful observation make me fret, awaken a protective instinct in me. “But is that a generalization? But is that a familiar description that every traveller is predestined to see there?” It takes me a while to stop patrolling the boundaries and allow myself to appreciate what I’m reading for what it is, to concede good faith and an attentive eye where it exists. (Or peculiarity of focus that has nothing to do with cliches—say Redmond O’Hanlon’s weird book about going to look for a dinosaur in Congo, which is a enthralling read in its own way.) Anyway, this is to say that I got past myself a little ways in and started to really enjoy the essays.
It might be that the first essay awoke those instincts in me more than others, too. In a quick re-read, it remained my least favorite, though it also does a good job of introducing some of the themes and reflections that recur throughout the volume, including a dread sense of the coronavirus. This is very much a book about and within the pandemic, and perhaps at first my unease was also about that: for all that Badkhen is on the move and often far away throughout, it feels also very much like that interior, cut-off sense that we all had during the height of the pandemic. It’s not a pleasant sensibility to reinhabit. (One interesting thing is that Badkhen even feels “far away” to me when she’s writing about Philadelphia.)
Most of the essays do have a lovely but fragile literary quality to them; they read both poetically and like well-constructed short fiction, spiralling around both a motif and particular turns of phrase and images: birds, aerial photography of migrants, the coming march of the pandemic in the midst of her travel to Ethiopia to look at investigations of human evolution, the study of dark energy and dark matter in the midst of the arid emptiness of the Marfa Plateau. I ended up reading most of them less as information about or description of particular places or people and more as beautiful writing. Yet another thing that I have to let myself do: my mind is so busy much of time stripping other people’s writing of its expressive qualities for information, for argument, for intention. It’s not a thing I like about myself as a reader at this age of my life; it is not the kind of reading I have done for much of my life. I think I have built up some reflexes that need retraining.
To go back to an earlier comment, I might in fact assign the essay “Ways of Seeing” in some kind of discussion of migration, perhaps especially one that was not an academic class on that topic specifically. (It might do a good job in my upcoming course on surveillance and privacy, in fact.) I’d do that mostly because of all the essays in the book, it might have been my favorite—compact, moving, showcasing how deftly she moves from a personal frame to a global one.