Anna Badkhen: They are Us

Oct 9, 2018

Writer Anna Badkhen grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Russia. She worked as a war correspondent, covering conflicts in Africa, Europe, and Asia before centering her work on the lives of everyday people living in extreme conditions.
Credit Anna Badkhen

Writer, Anna Badkhen, covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, traveling and writing widely before choosing to focus simply on the lives of rug makers through the seasons in a village in northern Afghanistan .  Her books document travel and eating in remote areas, the migration of endangered nomads in Mali, and most recently, fishermen losing their ancient livelihoods in Senegal.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports, Badkhen will be speaking at UH Mānoa this Friday (10/12/2018) on “The Contemporary Writer and Social Responsibility.”

Writer Anna Badkhen. Among her non-fiction books, The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village, Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah, and Fisherman’s Blues: A West African Community at Sea. Badkhen contributes to The New York Times, Granta, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. She is currently working on a novel about migration, identity, and home, for a mother and daughter on the Texas-Mexico border.
Credit Kael Alford

Writer Anna Badkhen will speak on “The Contemporary Writer and Social Responsibility” at UH Mānoa this Friday, October 12, 2018, 3:30 p.m. in room 410 of Kuykendall Hall.

Writer Anna Badkhen says, feeling things is very important.

Badkhen:  Every single iniquity in the world is committed out of a failure of love, as (writer, J.M.) Coetzee put it.  The inability to love thinking that’s not like yours, to love a culture that’s not like yours, to love people who you think are not like you.  It all comes down to feeling, to love beyond your own reflection.  It all comes down to feeling.

I don’t know if people can change without feeling something.

Badkhen:  No, I don’t think there’s any reason to change without that.

Step by step across a North African savannah, Badkhen followed nomadic Fulani cattle herders in their annual trek, following the clouds, she says.  Badkhen embedded herself with a family of traditional fishermen in the largest remaining artisanal fishing village in Senegal.  Climate change, overfishing, territoriality, make a thousand year old way of life increasingly unworkable.

Badkhen:  I consider storytelling a kind of curatorship to encourage compassion.  Maybe through the story telling, I hope that we can challenge the reductive narrative of the world and also encourage love..?

How do you encourage love?

Writer Anna Badkhen began her career as a war correspondent.
Credit Anna Badkhen

Badkhen:  By encouraging people to hear other stories.  Imagine looking at the world through other eyes.  Any story gives you another set of eyes.  It allows you to be surprised, and I think a sense of astonishment and a sense of surprise are important to feel love.

Do you consider yourself an activist?

Badkhen:  Yes, probably.

Artists are wondering how to combine activism in their art, and how to avoid being didactic or prescriptive.

Badkhen:  Yes, definitely.

You’ve found something.

Badkhen:  Thank you, I think I’m still looking.  Looking is a state.  I think finding is very dangerous.  I think looking is very important.  Findness suggests that your curiosity has been sated, but if you’re looking, it means you have to stay curious somehow, and at least stay open, stay loving.  You can say it is vague, that love is very vague, but I think feeling something is invaluable.  That’s what compassion is, that’s what we’re talking about with compassion.

Badkhen:  How do you stand up to your own inadequacy before the suffering of the world?  Which I think is what artists grapple with, our own inadequacy to the pain.  No matter what we do and no matter how much we do it, we’re not bringing solutions, or, we’re chinking away at something...but if we stopped, can you imagine how bland and uninspired our deaths would be?

Not to mention our lives.