Bright Unbearable Reality
has made the National Book Award Longlist for Nonfiction!
[A] brainy, poetic, global essay collection that feels exactly right for this moment.
- Melissa Febos, Bookforum
Badkhen urges us to be unflinching in our own gaze, circumscribing both “the unfathomable wickedness of man” as well as “the benediction of being human.” . . . Beholding the violence on its own terms, Badkhen nevertheless marvels in moments of exquisite perception, holding beauty alongside grief, discerning patterns of bright benediction that stipple the dark.
- Daniel Simon, World Literature Today
Via a series of ethereal scholarly essays, the author aims to find a better way to see and understand grief, especially as embodied in the world’s migrant crisis. Badkhen recounts her travels around the globe and bolsters her experiences with a dizzying wealth of literary and artistic touchstones. Hazily poetic, she constructs her essays like a collagist, in search of the untapped resonance that can be channeled when seemingly incongruous ideas are placed in proximity. . . . A soulful, ambitious quest for a path through centuries of loss and displacement.
- Kirkus Reviews
What a book! It’s legendary like the legend on a map that explains things before you go walking through a desert. It’s lost and found, vulnerable, knowledgeable, invited though possibly in danger or trapped, plunging through millennia, to consider if a bone may also be a flute, informing me, incidentally, that the pronghorns on the ranch land where I walk my dog are related to giraffes. These are not light-hearted essays, but ones regularly astonished by what the world holds, at once.
- Eileen Myles
Anna Badkhen is a stunning and sensitive chronicler of our collective condition. She has a rare gift, a writer whose work is both urgent and probing, and always beautiful.
- Imani Perry
A truly global thinker of rare and beautiful gifts, Anna Badkhen takes us on a journey to the interior of the lyric moment: that space where understanding flashes at us, and we realize we are at home on this planet; despite all our maladies, despite our ‘moral dislocation,’ we still have as our home ‘a memory of our presence, a memory of our absence.’ The path there, perhaps, is the music of Badkhen’s prose, as the mind turns and then stops in the middle of the page, to wonder, to dream, to exhale. This is a beautiful book.
- Ilya Kaminsky
Read an excerpt from “Dark Matter”
in the October issue of Harpers:
Review in The New York Times
Art by Osheen Siva
Anna Badkhen in Adi Magazine:
Ellen Wiseman’s latest historical novel
The Lost Girls of Willowbrook
is an Indie Next Pick & New York Times Bestseller!
Editors’ Pick, Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
Bone-chilling...written by a master storyteller.
- Linda Bond
From Nautilus: Andrea Pitzer on the
war in Ukraine and climate research:
Anna Badkhen in Emergence:
Newly released from Orbit/Hachette
by David Dalglish
"The conclusion to the Keepers series, a "dark and lush epic fantasy brimming with magical creatures and terrifying evil"
Just out from Scribner,
Andrea Pitzer’s “stunning,” “fascinating” and “masterful”
"A fascinating modern telling of Barents’s expeditions….Ms. Pitzer presents a compelling narrative situated in the context of Dutch imperial ambition. She writes vividly about the ‘unnerving isolation’ of venturing north and east of Scandinavia into uncharted waters.”
- Wall Street Journal
"A gripping adventure tale that deserves an honored place in the long bookshelf of volumes dealing with arctic shipwrecks, winter ordeals, and survival struggles.”
- Boston Globe
“The expedition’s highlight reel included everything a polar fan could want: hand-to-hand combat with polar bears and walruses; scurvy and vitamin A poisoning; asphyxiation by carbon dioxide; frostbite, keelhauling and hangings; plus the sighting of a rare atmospheric optical phenomenon called a parhelion…Pitzer writes with care about the Arctic landscape Barents enountered…A reminder that there was once a time when things were unknown.”
- New York Times Book Review
“Gripping…the story Pitzer unfolds is one of the great epics of human endurance.”
- Daily Mail (UK)
“Dramatic and dire…[the men]fight off polar bears that rear up from nowhere, attacking until they are slaughtered or driven away. The ship tacks endlessly and desperately to escape floating ‘mountains of steel’…Ms. Pitzer’s descriptions of the region sing.”
- The Economist
“Narratives of frozen beards in polar hinterlands never lose their appeal. Most of the good stories have been told, but in Icebound Andrea Pitzer fills a gap, at least for the popular reader in English, with the story of the 16th-century Dutch mariner William Barents….Elegant.”
- The Spectator
“A masterful re-creation of a desperate fight for survival [that] takes us back nearly half a millennium and plunks us down in a vividly realized world…More than just another book about a disastrous sea voyage, this is a richly evocative story about a particular period in the history of exploration. Icebound deserves a place beside such classics as Alfred Lansing's Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage and Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundson's Race to the South Pole.”
- Booklist (starred review)
“Pitzer’s narrative vividly conveys tension and terror. A meticulously researched history of maritime tragedy.”
- Kirkus Reviews
Anna Badkhen's interview with
The New York Review of Books.
On January 2, we published Anna Badkhen’s “‘Bright Unbearable Reality’: Migration As Seen from Above,” an essay about aerial photography. Badkhen tracks Western depictions of humanity from above, starting with the work of fifteenth-century Flemish Renaissance painter Joachim Patinir and followed by photographic images historically used to document war, mass migration, and now the effects of the global pandemic.
Born in the Soviet Union, Badkhen was a war correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle when she moved from Moscow to the United States in her late twenties. She covered the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and wars in the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Africa. “By 2008, I became impatient with journalism,” she told me by email, “its formulae, its deadlines and general temporariness, its absurd concept of ethics stemming from its forced notion of impartiality. That distancing aspect of it particularly felt like dispossessing. I wanted to establish and maintain real relationships with the people on whose kindness, or mercy, my life often quite literally depended, especially in conflict zones.”
She has now written six books, with another on the way, set in a range of places, from the grasslands of Mali following nomadic herders’ annual migration to an Afghan village where a carpet is woven throughout four seasons. Her writing might be called literary nonfiction, or described as lyrical, though such generic definitions don’t fully account for the way in which Badkhen rejects the idea of the impartial observer. She describes her last three books as “magical nonfiction,” a term she feels makes room for curiosity while counteracting false notions of fact and distance.
In fact, in two of the three essays Badkhen has written for nybooks.com, she’s wrestled with complications of literal distance—specifically the bird’s-eye view. I wondered, beyond journalistic conventional wisdom, how she sees distance shaping and influencing the moral obligations of artists.
“Toni Morrison said about belonging and dispossession and the notion of home: ‘We are dreaming all wrong.’ I think of writing as a kind of dreaming that shrinks distance. I want to dream, to write, against distance,” she said, going on to reference another literary giant. “Art exists to bridge a gap. Derek Walcott writes: ‘there are two journeys/in every odyssey, one on worried water,/the other crouched and motionless, without noise.’ This is an apt description of what I want writing to do.”
In many ways, the attempt to write against distance has been in reaction to the borders and divisions that, from an early age, influenced Badkhen’s imagination. “I grew up behind the Iron Curtain and was, for more than a dozen years, a war correspondent: boundaries define very much the ways I experience the world,” she said.
Her most recent book, Fisherman’s Blues (2018), is set in a West African fishing community. “To understand more about how boundaries shape us,” she told me, “I decided to apprentice with artisanal fishermen because they have been crossing, generationally, what I had thought was the utmost boundary, between the terra firma and the ineffable. The chronicle of the lives of my crewmates, my mentors and friends, is the worried-water part of the story; the undercurrent, the stiller journey, is an introspection about our own boundaries, an inquiry into what we can learn about ourselves by learning about one another.”
I wondered if she’d always been a writer, even before her war correspondent days. “A badkhen is essentially a Jewish griot: storytelling is in the blood, at least on my paternal side. Additionally, both my mother and her mother were linguists; I imagine that I owe to them a curiosity about what language can do.
“But growing up in Leningrad, I wanted to be a book illustrator,” she said, “and I studied art for several years, in a very intense Soviet fashion. (My last three published books have my drawings: I did become a book illustrator, after all.)”
The pandemic caught Badkhen in the Horn of Africa—and, in fact, while negotiating whether she’d make a flight out in April, she contributed a dispatch to our pandemic journal from Ethiopia—where she was researching human movement out of Eden (160,000 years ago and today)—for her next book, An Anatomy of Lostness. She describes it as “an examination of human connectedness at a time defined by loss and migration. An editor called it ‘a guide to all the things we lose and attempt to preserve in transit: memories, lovers and relatives, folktales, cardinal directions, Eden and other paradises.’
“When we talk about the human condition today,” she continued, “the conversation about migration is unavoidable, both because one in seven humans on Earth is on the move, and because in every foundational myth that I know, the exile or exodus from a version of Eden is centerstage. Loss and migration are the foremost human context. What are the narratives that have gotten humanity through the last hundred and sixty thousand years to where we are now?
“Despite the immense amount of violence and loss I have witnessed, an infinitesimal fraction of the violence and loss we are experiencing globally, I remain interested in the miracle of survival, in what keeps us going.”