Question the Boundaries of Your Compassion: An Interview with Anna Badkhen

Photo credit: Kael Alford/Panos Pictures

Author and former war correspondent, Anna Badkhen has written six books of literary nonfiction about people in the Global South. Her most recent, which was published in 2018, is titled Fisherman’s Blues. Born and raised in the Soviet Union, she became a war correspondent in the 1990s, covering human rights in a police state. She moved to the US in 2004 and continued her journalism career. Over more than two decades in the field, she covered a dozen wars on three continents.

Badkhen’s essays and short stories appear in periodicals and literary magazines such as the New York Review of Books, Granta, The Common, Scalawag, Guernica, The Paris Review, and the New York Times. Badkhen is a contributing editor to the Mānoa Journal. 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.

Currently based in Philadelphia, Badkhen is working on her latest book titled The Anatomy of Lostness, which looks at human movement and displacement, identity, beauty, and grief.

Badkhen recently hosted a seminar entitled Arts, Culture, & Society II: The Daily Intention of Ethical Nonfiction, in which she prompted students to write about the body in different formats, discussed the ethics of writing about people and cultures not the author’s own, and shared some of her own work from the book she is working on.

When I spoke to Anna, we talked about what it was like to grow up in the Soviet Union, transitioning from journalism to writing books, and why she sees literature as a way to hold the world accountable.

I was a journalist working in a police state. I was writing about—we called it human rights back then. I think we can call it social justice today. Or we can just call it what it’s like to be alive.

Barbara Platts: You were born in the Soviet Union. Can you tell me about your experience growing up there and how that’s juxtaposed against your experience now living in the United States?

Anna Badkhen: I grew up in a family of what they called intelligentsia. My mother, her mother, and my mother’s stepfather, who lived with us, were foreign language professors. My dad worked as a psychiatrist even though he was a psychotherapist, but psychotherapy was illegal in the Soviet Union. We were a kind of dissident family.

My father’s family are also Soviet Jews, and my last name is Jewish. The Soviet Union had a state policy of antisemitism, so we were an oppressed minority, I guess, but at the same time, there was great access to literature and music. My dad is the first non-musician in the family. My grandfather was a light orchestra conductor. When I was little, I asked why he wasn’t conducting a symphony, and someone told me it was because he had poor health; but really, he wasn’t allowed to conduct a real orchestra because he was a Jew, and he didn’t join the [Communist] party, so he had two strikes against him.

At the same time, there was this huge wealth of arts, and museums were very close by, and we went a lot. Everything was very affordable. I actually remember: the Soviet Union had just collapsed, I was a broke college student, but I still went to the symphony once a week. I could buy a standing room only ticket. It was literally the price of an ice cream bar. The cheapest thing I could do with money was to go to the symphony. It was this weird cognitive dissonance, right? The bigger cognitive dissonance, something I think is very familiar to people of color in this country and unfamiliar to white people, was the difference between what we were being told outside of the home and what we knew inside of the home. So, the United States is a selective police state. I lived in a total police state; what the police state told me had nothing to do with reality, and I knew this. By the time I’d grown up, the propaganda machine had exhausted itself, and everybody kind of knew that everything it produced was all bullshit. All the injustice, all the political propaganda and all the violence of the state was very palpable and very known. But the dissonance between what we knew inside and what we could talk about outside was there, because you could still be sent to the camps and held as a political prisoner. Which is just like the United States, except not a lot of white people here know that the United States has political prisoners, that you shouldn’t say shit if you look a certain way, that you can’t do certain things, that you can’t go to certain places—because our white bodies here are privileged. No bodies were privileged in the Soviet Union. It was all very conveniently, unconditionally awful.

BP: What got you into war correspondence?

AB: War corresponding was a continuation of what I was doing. I was a journalist working in a police state. I was writing about—we called it human rights back then. I think we can call it social justice today. Or we can just call it what it’s like to be alive. I was writing about injustice; war is injustice. It wasn’t me thinking, Oh, I’m going to go and be a war correspondent. It was just me thinking, I want to tell stories that I think are necessary for me to tell. War is the ultimate violation of human rights.

BP: You’ve covered a dozen wars. What did you learn from these experiences that helped shape who you are today?

AB: The American journalist Michael Herr went to Vietnam and wrote a book called Dispatches. He writes about not understanding what he’s seeing. He says, “The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes.”

The book I’m writing now touches a lot on war and grief—communal grief, my own personal grief, witnessing grief, the absolute impotence we feel before grief. I think you have to be without a heart right now to not experience it when looking at the world. That is all a part of who I am, and that is all stored in front of my eyes somehow. How to make sense of it? I started going to war when I was in my early twenties. I celebrated my thirtieth birthday in the back of a Humvee in Iraq. I was with people who were prepared to kill other people and to be killed by other people. That was normal. We were in a place where people were dying and killing one another violently, and that was just the dailiness, and I was witnessing, absorbing it daily. I go back to that time and I’m like, who the fuck was I? Who was that person?

When do we stop processing? When do we start? Especially when we’re talking about such a long chunk of my life. And, of course, I couldn’t have processed even a fraction of that when I was doing it because when you are  a newspaper journalist, you are here today, and then next week, you are someplace else. This is one of the reasons I stopped committing acts of journalism: because there’s no room to think deeply of what you’re witnessing, and how can you honor the trust of the people who are asking you to honor their stories if you can’t even think? Of course, returning to events of the past is fraught, just as excavating something from memory is fraught: the way writers edit and re-edit our text is kind of what happens also to our histories, our memories. At the same time, as with editing a text, returning to past witnessings can also contextualize them and expose their deeper moral significance. We can relearn from things that have already happened and maybe have given us meaning or learning of some kind.

I realized that there is a giant discrepancy between the way Americans experience the war they are fighting there, and the way the people on whose land that war is being waged experience it.

BP: That leads into my next question: What led you to start writing books twelve years ago?

AB: An embarrassing and misguided idea. I was a freelancer, and I thought that if I wrote a book, it would be easier for me to find gigs as a journalist. This is a very bad reason to write a book. You should never write a book for any other reason than this book must exist, and I am the only person to write it—there is a void in the world that is screaming for this book, and I am the only person who can fill it. That was not why I wrote my first book, Peace Meals. I don’t think it’s a bad book, not at all. But my relationship with it, it’s like a bad interpersonal relationship. And besides, soon after publishing that book I stopped working in journalism altogether. So, I learned my lesson. Every other book I wrote was because I felt very acutely that I had the responsibility to tell this particular story in this particular way.

BP: After that first book, what led you to realize you needed to write another?

AB: I went back to Afghanistan after seven years of being away. I was saddened by what had happened or not happened in my absence. I realized that there is a giant discrepancy between the way Americans experience the war they are fighting there, and the way the people on whose land that war is being waged experience it. So, the perception of my hosts and my friends in Afghanistan was very different from the perception of Americans who sent people to Afghanistan—and, even, of the Americans actually participating in the war. I felt that I had to write a book to correct that narrative. So, The World Is a Carpet was a corrective, and I felt very urgent about it, still do.

I never write with the foresight of  my “literary career,” or a theoretical “next book.” That would require a kind of mapping out of what will occupy, or preoccupy, my internal universe in the future. But truly, I have no idea what’s interesting to me in the moment or what I’m thinking about in the moment. I have to, instead, go back, to look back at my notes, at my essays, at my correspondence, and ask: What is on my mind? What is the urgent subject that has been my preoccupation? Lack of belonging has definitely been on my mind for many years. And that’s why I’m writing about it now.

BP: Many of the stories you tell are about people we’re not going to learn about in the mainstream media. How do you find these stories? How do you decide where you’re traveling to? Where does the idea start?

AB: Ideas begin with curiosity and questions. We have so many different ways of experiencing the world, and we have so much to be surprised by and to learn from one another. I won’t know until I ask, so I go and ask. My last published book, Fisherman’s Blues, is set in Joal-Fadiouth, the largest artisanal fishing port in Senegal. I went to Joal because I had been thinking about borders. I have always been thinking about borders one way or another. I grew up in the Soviet Union, behind the Iron Curtain. I thought I would never leave that country. Then, I started working in conflict zones and navigating borders, challenging my own boundaries—of fear, or emotional and sometimes physical endurance, of grief, of compassion—and observing people who trespassed against what I thought were sacrosanct. I wanted to learn about borders, and I thought the utmost border was the one between the terra firma (land) and the unfathomable (ocean). So, what is it like to be crossing on a daily basis from one to the other and back? I thought I’d spend time with people who do that for a living, who have crossed this border generationally, for centuries, and learn from them.

BP: A lot of the people you write about do not share your race or culture. How do you represent them in an ethical way?

AB: I write about my friends and people I love. We establish a relationship on the premise that I’m a writer and I would like to learn, and I would like to write about what I learn. So, there is an actual conversation about representation and trust that takes place. But these are not fleeting relationships, and they never end once I have finished working on a book. We enter into one another’s lives, which is such a gift, and our relationships continue, years later.

I don’t write for an American or an Anglophone audience. Some of the people I’ve written about have read my books and some haven’t, but the idea behind storytelling for me is not “I’m going to some ‘other’ place to bring you back a thing.” I’m writing a book so I can show it to the people I wrote about, my friends, and say, “This is what you showed me. And I’m showing you how I write, and we did this together, and this is my reflection of what we did.”

I write in English, but I don’t presume to know who my readers are going to be. I don’t have a reader or an audience in mind. I want my friends who helped me do this work to like it. You know how people get together and recount stories about what happened ten years ago? Everybody’s pitching in and everybody’s talking, and you all know the story, but it’s still fun or sad or interesting when you’re retelling it. There is a sense of confirmation, or maybe—hopefully—of surprise, of astonishment.

BP: How do you deal with language barriers?

AB: I learn languages. I take lessons. I work with translators. I do the combination of the three. A lot of the communications are nonverbal. You learn a language pretty quickly, if you have no choice. And then you forget it, if you don’t use it, which is the downside of how our brains work. I will never be able to write, fluently or at all, in many of the languages that I have spoken in my life, but I can learn to communicate. Language is something that you can learn if you’re in a place where people speak it.

BP: Coming from a journalism background, was it challenging to write about yourself as a character at first?

AB: It’s still challenging. I am really wary of oversharing. But you have to listen to what the story wants to do. You have to listen to what the story needs you to be. What is your role? The book I’m writing now, I’m much more present in it than any other book I’ve written, but that’s because of the nature of the book. This is a book that has to do with my personal history, curiosities, failures, hopes, and losses. But it’s always been a place where I had to be very careful. I can’t just disappear from the text; I feel like I have to explain what the fuck I’m doing in this or that particular situation. It can be very important even to minimally explain personal circumstances.

I once wrote a book called Walking with Abel, and, when I was writing it, going through my notes, I noticed they were all so sad. Most of what I saw was so terribly sad, and the reason it was so sad was because I had just broken up with someone, and I was grieving the entire time I was in Mali. I probably missed a lot of joy because of my personal stuff, which clung to me like wet silk. Everything I saw, I saw through the prism of my own experience, which at the time was one of profound loss. I had to explain that, to contextualize the sadness that permeates the book. It felt really awkward to tell people who are going to be reading my book that I was really sad because this happened. But I felt it was really important. Otherwise, I would have been withholding some very important context.

BP: In your seminar at Antioch, you said you see literature as a way to hold the world accountable. Can you tell me more about how you try to fulfill that goal in your writing?

AB: Well, I mean, what else is there? The world is… We’re going to die of cynicism. We’re going to kill one another because of cynicism. Because it’s cynicism that allows bigotry and greed. And it’s cynicism that allows the combination of bigotry and greed to destroy people, habitats, and environments on every continent. And it is how we choose to unsee one another. So, I see it as my responsibility to do something to counter the cynicism, and this is what I know how to do. I don’t know how to do anything else. I can, of course, put my body out there in a protest. I do. And I think that’s important, but what I do is I write, and I ask questions, and I ask questions of myself as I write. I ask questions about the boundaries of my own compassion and the boundaries of my own willingness to change my opinions and to see my complicity in how the world is unfair. And I present these questions to my readers, to my friends, and I hope that this encourages them, too, to ask questions.

BP: I love the word you used, to “unsee” one another. I feel like that’s happening a lot right now.

AB: I mean it’s been happening forever, right? This is how you enter a continent and genocide it, or how you enter a continent and steal it. That’s unseeing. We’re just beginning to notice, which is good. That’s good.

Barbara Platts

Barbara Platts is an award-winning columnist and the online editor for Sweet Jane Magazine. She’s worked in many forms of journalism, from public radio to newspaper, and is thrilled to be pursuing her MFA for nonfiction writing at Antioch University. She works for Lunch Ticket on the interview, blog, and creative nonfiction teams. She lives in Los Angeles with her fiancé and two adorable pups. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @BarbaraPlatts.