Anna Badkhen discusses her new book with Tongo Eisen Martin
“Bright Unbearable Reality: Essays”
published by New York Review Books
Called a “chronicler of a world on the move” by The New York Review of Books, Anna Badkhen seeks what separates and binds us at a time when one in seven people has left their birthplace, while a pandemic dictates the direst season of rupture in humankind’s remembering. Her new essay collection, Bright Unbearable Reality, addresses the human condition in the era of such unprecedented dislocation, contemplates the roles of memory and wonder in how we relate to one another, and asks how we can soberly and responsibly counter despair and continue to develop—or at least imagine—an emotional vocabulary against depravity.
Bright Unbearable Reality contains eleven essays set on four continents and united by a common thread of communion and longing. In “The Pandemic, Our Common Story,” which takes place in the Great Rift Valley of Ethiopia, one of the locations where humankind originated, the onset of the global pandemic catches Badkhen mid-journey, researching human dispersal 160,000 years ago and migration in modern times. In “How to Read the Air,” set mostly in Philadelphia, Badkhen looks to the ancient Greeks for help pondering our need for certainty at a time of racist violence, political upheaval, and environmental cataclysm. “Ways of Seeing” and the title essay “Bright Unbearable Reality” wrestle with complications of distance and specifically the bird’s eye view—the relationship between physical distance, understanding, and engagement. “Landscape with Icarus” examines how and why children go missing, while “Dark Matter” explores how violence always takes us by surprise. The subject throughout the collection is bright unbearable reality itself, a translation of Greek enargeia, which, says the poet Alice Oswald, is “when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves.”
Anna Badkhen is an author, journalist, and war correspondent. She is the author of six previous books of nonfiction. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and Community Fellowship, and a Joel R. Seldin Award from Psychologists for Social Responsibility for writing about civilians in war zones. She was born in the Soviet Union and is now an American citizen.
Tongo Eisen-Martin is the Poet Laureate of San Francisco, California. He is the author of Heaven Is All Goodbyes (City Lights Books, 2017), which was shortlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize, received the California Book Award for Poetry, an American Book Award, and a PEN Oakland Book Award. He is also the author of someone’s dead already (Bootstrap Press, 2015). Blood on the Fog, his newest collection of poems, was published as volume 62 in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series in September 2021.
Praise for the work of Anna Badkhen
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 millenia, 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.
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.
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.
This event was made possible by support from the City Lights Foundation.