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Anna Badkhen's new essay collection touches on migration and displacement


The writer Anna Badkhen defines this moment right now that we are all collectively living as a bright, unbearable reality.

ANNA BADKHEN: I think of our planet and of our humanity as in a state of dire, urgent need when we need to look at our condition head-on if we want to not just survive but become better.

FADEL: "Bright Unbearable Reality" is also the title of Badkhen's new book of essays. In her writings, she's searching for what connects human beings across continents when 1 in 7 people has left their birthplace. At a time when the planet is consumed by violence between humans and by humans on the world that sustains them, Badkhen is searching for hope. Her first stop on that journey is a weeklong walk in the Sahara Desert, where sand washes away any trace of the generations of people that walked the same path, and then to the birthplace of humanity, Rift Valley in Ethiopia.

BADKHEN: I went to Ethiopia because the Afar Triangle in the Rift Valley is believed to be one of the places where humans were born. And I had also thought of Ethiopia in the current sense. It's the place from which hundreds of thousands of people migrate, either via Sudan or via Somalia, to look for more prosperous life in Europe or in the Middle East. There was, for me, an overlay of a very, very ancient migration and a very, very contemporary migration. And I had planned that trip for months, and then I arrived in Ethiopia the day the World Health Organization declared the pandemic.

FADEL: Yeah. There it is, right in the middle of your trip. And you write, my journey became a real-time passage through a world undergoing a dramatic and unprecedented remaking.

BADKHEN: And I also thought, here I am in this place where we began at a time when the entire world is thinking about ending. And also, I thought the last time all of us shared a story, were affected by the same story, was when we were here, when we were a small community of early, early humans - or, you know, pre-humans - and we shared the same context. And this is the second time, or the first time since then, that all of humanity shares the same context knowingly.

FADEL: I didn't know the origin of the word migrant until I read it in your book. Can you talk about that word and where it came from?

BADKHEN: So the word migrant entered the English language as an adjective for animals that move in the 17th century. And it wasn't used for humans until 1807, when a minister in New Hampshire talked about the colonial history of New Hampshire and used it to describe human movement. So its origin is with animals. That is a very interesting and kind of queasy-making knowledge because very often the settled today treat the migrant as less than human. And even the language we use for migrants - we talk about animals. We talk about humans snaking in line to enter a camp. There's still this suspicion of the migrant.

FADEL: But also the way it is used sometimes - almost as a dirty word in and of itself in the political landscape, right?

BADKHEN: Yeah. You know, I hadn't thought of myself as a migrant. I'm a migrant, but I hadn't thought of myself as a migrant when I first came to the United States in 2004, until I was visiting friends in Dallas, and there was a program to gather oral histories of migrants. And my friends said, you should go. And I thought, oh, wow, that's me. And then I thought, oh, wow, I'm also infected with this stereotype, because in my mind at the time, migrant was also already somehow a deficiency.

FADEL: You also spend a lot of time looking at panoramic images of people on the move. What is it from above? What do you learn from looking from that perspective, that lens?

BADKHEN: I learn about our remove. And again, it probably feeds into the conversation of how we treat migrants and how we treat survivors or victims of catastrophes. Aerial imagery is often made by drones, and today it is often made by the same drones that deliver death.

FADEL: Yeah.

BADKHEN: So that's something to pause and think about. But another thing to pause and think about is, why do we want to see these images? What is the strange, voyeuristic requirement that we have so that we can see the scope and yet not be immediately touched by it - this desire to know and at the same time desire to know in an impersonal way?

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, to be so far away, you don't have to see the individual person that you're watching move or that you're killing.

BADKHEN: Exactly - or both.

FADEL: Or both. Or both. When we started talking, you said that you were looking for hope, for what connects people. Did you feel like you found that?

BADKHEN: Well, Leila, you know, I don't think it's a book of answers.


FADEL: True.

BADKHEN: It's definitely a book of questions.

FADEL: And it's a book of truths.

BADKHEN: Well, thank you. Thank you for saying that. Thank you for reading it this way. I think what I did find was moments of hope. You know, it's like looking at a bird. Maybe the bird won't tell you anything. Most likely it won't. But you can look at it, and it's beautiful. And there is something to hold on to there. And maybe the missing of the people you've left or missing people you have lost is terrible, but, you know, the wages of dying is love. You also recognize that you're capable of that missing, that you are capable of that affection, of that attachment. I think the hope for me is that we are capable of these - we're capable of tenderness. We're capable of compassion.

FADEL: Anna Badkhen's new book is called "Bright Unbearable Reality." Thank you so much.

BADKHEN: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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