In the introduction to her latest book, Bright Unbearable Reality, Anna Badkhen states that one in seven humans have left their birthplaces, many of them crossing political borders because of disasters both political and ecological. That fact felt personal to her on the day we spoke in late September; Badkhen, a Russian, was grieving as she watched tens of thousands of young men flee across the border of her home country to avoid conscription in Putin’s wars. This book speaks to her own unexpected and intimate crisis, as it does to a world where, as she writes, we have an “imagined elevated perspective that intentionally dwarfs” those around us.
The essays in this collection use the past—geologic history, religious texts, Flemish Renaissance paintings, the stories of stolen bones—to make sense of the present. Readers fly over the Gulf of Aden, touch down in Philadelphia, hover over the Atlantic Ocean, and walk the high plains of Texas. Throughout these journeys, Badkhen balances on the precipice of fear and hope, reading the wisdom found in the shifting sands of the Sahara and in the graceful dances of birds.
Jori Lewis: Can you start by telling me about the title? What is the bright unbearable reality?
Anna Badkhen: The poet Alice Oswald has a book called Memorial, which is a kind of translation or interpretation of Homer’s The Iliad. And in the introduction to the book, she translates the Greek word enargeia as the state of “bright unbearable reality.” She says it is a state that occurs when gods appear to us not in disguise but as themselves. There was a prayer by a leader of the Griquas, in Southern Africa, who was confronted by colonizing Afrikaner armies, and the prayer went something like, “God, at this time of dire need, please don’t send us your son, come yourself.” I was thinking about this time of dire need, when we need gods to appear as themselves, to shake us awake to the world we are co-creating. Our climate catastrophe, the wars, the violations, the crimes against humanity, are all a kind of dislocation of morality.
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JL: How does this concept guide your approach to the collection?
AB: It’s the name of the title essay, which is about ways of seeing. It’s about this idea of remove. When we read the news, we often find ourselves at a kind of similar remove as the European artists of the Weltlandschaft, which portrayed the Earth from a bird’s eye view or a God’s eye view. The complication with that remove is that, while we think we can encompass more and we think of monumental things on monumental scales, we lose touch with the human urgency of our state. So when we talk about the fact that one in seven people is on the move on the planet, or one in seven people has left their home and is living someplace else, the numbers are staggering, but what does that actually mean for each individual person? That’s the tension between the brightness and the unbearability of it.
JL: You draw out another angle on ways of seeing in the first essay, Once I Took a Weeklong Walk in the Sahara. You write, “You are a fool to think you have come to the desert to see.” How do the different landscapes that you bring to life in this collection – from deserts to mountains to seashores – inspire you?
AB: How we move is very connected to where we are, to place. And place is essential to humans. We fight over it, we leave it, we arrive at it. It is probably the most defining aspect. So one of the themes throughout the book is the state of place, the deep history of place, and the way geography and geology and deep geology translate into the modern-day behaviors of humans. I mean, we drill the earth for its past. And in borrowing, in stealing the earth’s past, we are also stealing from the earth’s future. When we go after fossil fuels, we are dismantling more than just dead organisms millions of years old, we’re also dismantling future potential possible organisms and possible lives. I think of us as suspended between these landscapes of past and future as they coalesce around us in the present. If I’m walking through a desert or looking at a forest or a mountain range, I’m asking myself what happened here before and what are we bequeathing to future generations.
JL: There is a lot of imagery about the natural world, and especially about birds, who make many different appearances. In the beginning of your essay How to Read the Air, you talk about planning a “trip to the ocean, to think about birds,” but the racialized violence of Philadelphia overtakes your thoughts. It reminds me that, especially in environmental circles, people often want to keep that contemplation of nature as a pristine practice. Why do you think it’s important to think about police violence and protesters and the Greeks and everything else, along with nature?
AB: This essay came out on election day in 2020. When I wrote it, a man who was the age of my children was killed in my neighborhood in Philadelphia, murdered by cops. Protests against police murders of Black and Brown people were what the year was about. It was a time of great fear in this country. It was also a time of, I think, great hope based on racial reckoning, not just in this country, but all over the world.
As you say, there has been a traditional separation between contemplation of nature like birdwatching and the real life. And maybe what the essay insists on is that there must be no separation. It draws attention to how this artificial barrier between nature and non-nature is problematic. I’m thinking of Pattiann Rogers, who has an essay called What is Nature in which she begins by saying that the Marquis de Sade is nature and Bach is nature, everything that exists is nature, and therefore everything is natural. So, you know, to just hide and watch birds is kind of like sticking your head in the sand. What the essay is trying to do is to use birds as arrows to look at our human condition, rather than to look away from our human condition. Birds in this essay serve as a kind of a divination tool, as augury. The Greeks and many other people traditionally have used bird behavior to determine what’s coming. Birds are, in this case, my attempt at trying to foretell the future. (But I’m not an augur and so I failed miserably at trying to read the birds.)
JL: You’re in intimate conversation with the classics throughout the book. You talk about augurs, about Euripides, about the story of Icarus, and even your title is a nod to Homer and The Iliad. What draws you to these myths and legends?
AB: I was raised on Greek myths, and I have been revisiting them. It’s sort of the way young children like to hear the same story over and over again, because it’s reassuring. But also, legends or stories that have survived over millennia have survived for a reason. And the Greek stories are just one variation of the global stories. There are stories like Icarus in every culture, there are stories like Medea in every culture. It’s interesting to look at the classics and recognize that the human condition and the tendencies of the human condition have not changed. We still commit mass murder; we still steal people and take them from one place to another; we still disregard one another in very basic ways; and we still love one another in very basic ways. We have patterns that we repeat without, seemingly, learning very much.
JL: Do you have a favorite essay?
AB: Dark Matter is probably my favorite essay. It’s about our inability to expect violence, even though violence has been our modus operandi since the beginning. In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy has a line that goes, “Before man was, war waited for him.” Violence is absolutely a part of our behavior, and yet every time it catches us unaware and unprepared. Instead of examining it, instead of trying to come to terms with it, we pretend it’s not there. We keep misnaming it. We say it’s inhuman, we say it’s an aberration. We use all these words to suggest that we don’t believe that we’re capable of it. I think that’s mythmaking. As long as we pretend that we’re not capable of violence, we will continue perpetuating it.
JL: This is the essay that takes place on the Marfa Plateau, and you tell us about the pronghorn, an animal that looks like an antelope but isn’t one. What about this landscape and this species connected you to the story of violence?
AB: The pronghorn is an interesting species. They run really fast. And they live in a landscape where you can see for miles and miles. It was a landscape kind of built for running until white people came and separated it into plots with fences. Pronghorn cannot jump, so, essentially, they’re now caged by humans. The essay draws a parallel between pronghorns and their lack of adaptation, and humans and our lack of adaptation to our own violence. We are, perhaps, under-evolved to deal with our own violence.
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JL: In another essay you borrow a question from a José Eduardo Agualusa novel. He asks, “Is it more important to bear witness to beauty, or to denounce horror?” This feels like a core question not only of this book, but also of your practice as a writer. Can you say more about that question and why it resonated with you?
AB: Well, I was a war correspondent for many years, and so it was my job to witness horror. There is a tradition of focusing exclusively on the sorrow of this world and the heartbreak of this world and the violence. And there is also a tradition of paying attention to nature exclusively and celebrating her bounty at the expense of paying attention to everything else. But the world holds both. Both the racist cops and the birds, both the pronghorn and the fences. So, what I’m trying to imagine is a vocabulary for holding both. How do we look at the world head on and acknowledge its violence, our violence, and also acknowledge our capacity for wonder? You don’t have to choose between painting beautiful landscapes or documenting crimes against humanity. You actually have the capacity to hold both, and the obligation.
For a long time, I have been trying to figure out a vocabulary for our current planetary state. We are in a state of great displacement, physical displacement, but also ethical displacement toward one another, toward the planet, toward our environment. In this collection, I am trying to figure out a language or a vocabulary that could encompass both the sorrow for our state, and at the same time, the astonishment of our capacity for love and care. This collection represents that effort.
JL: Could you talk about your writing process? How do you develop those layers of citing and connecting with other people’s ideas and thoughts, and then manage to weave them into something new?
AB: A paragraph is like a diamond. It has to be extremely beautiful and also extremely efficient. It has to cut through glass. So, I try to create paragraphs that pack as much information as possible, in a way that is also beautiful. It can be devastating, but it has to be beautiful. Form is important, and I learn about form from poetry. I learn about content from philosophy and theology. I read very broadly, and I think that reading is a huge part of the process of writing for me. I will be reading and making margin notes in the books that I’m reading, because something will cause me to think deeper about a certain thing. Writing, for me, is maybe 30% putting words on page and 70% reading other people’s words.
JL: When I think about the state of the world, it feels a bit dire. What keeps you coming back to this practice, which is, as you know, so difficult. To riff on your title, how do we bear our own reality?
AB: It really is the only thing I know how to do. Writing is bearing—or maybe even not bearing, but trying to understand how to bear. It’s kind of an asymptotic process. When you’re writing—and you know this because you’re a writer—you always have a goal, and you are trying toward it. You never really reach it because you’re always learning. It’s always a fluid, unreachable goal, but you can at least aim for it.
I had this longstanding conversation with Barry Lopez about the role of a writer, and he kept saying the role of a writer is to make readers less afraid. And I would say, But how can I take it upon myself to make somebody less afraid if I am afraid? So, I think that my role as a writer is, at this time of upheaval and environmental cataclysm, to tell people that I’m also afraid, that they’re not alone in their fear. That their fears are reasonable. Writing is that process of acknowledging, and hopefully from this process something is born that resembles an intention, if not a solution.
Anna Badkhen was born in the Soviet Union and is a US citizen. Besides Bright Unbearable Reality (NYRB, 2022), she is the author of six other books of nonfiction. Her awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and Community Fellowship, and the Joel R. Seldin Award from Psychologists for Social Responsibility for writing about civilians in war zones.