The Atlantic Ocean creeps up the shoreline at the edge of West Africa before receding back. The line between land and sea fluctuates, and so does Senegal’s border to the west, which is defined by the water. Storyteller Anna Badkhen explores this impermanent boundary aboard a Senegalese fishing boat with strangers who become friends in her latest book, Fisherman’s Blues.
“I grew up in the Soviet Union, so behind the Iron Curtain was the knowledge that I would probably never cross a border, so borders fascinate me,” Badkhen says. “Perhaps the utmost boundary that I could think of was between the ephemeral, the ineffable, the sea, the terra firma.”
Upon the release of Fisherman’s Blues on Tuesday, Badkhen will be in Dallas to read her work and discuss her journey at the cusp of Senegal. Badhken’s first appearance will be at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Then she’ll read at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Wild Detectives.
Badkhen, a retired journalist who covered conflict zones, wanted to work on the sea alongside those who traversed that changing boundary on a daily basis for their whole lives. The quest began in Mali. She crossed that country with nomadic Fulani cowboys for her book Walking with Abel. Then she moved further west to Senegal, a country where artisanal fishing is a significant means of life and currency.
Her fascination with shifting boundaries — those between water and earth, food and no food, the modern and the ancient — prompted Badkhen to embed with the Senegalese people, she says. She worked as an unpaid apprentice with a fishing crew and prepped food at her landlady’s local bistro to break even.
The book’s namesake, a nod to a song of the same name by The Waterboys, hints at the musical nature of the fishermen when they hull and cast net, keeping rhythm of the communal physical labor with chanteys.
“But also the book is about a seascape that is changing rapidly,” Badkhen says. “The blues is also about how to fish in a sea that is being systemically fished out, systemically decimated by overfishing, by avarice.”
Fisherman’s Blues notes a hunger ingrained in all living creatures:
Wanting. A habit born during the Cambrian explosion, when the Earth’s oceans, advancing over her young continents and withdrawing again enriched by mineral plunder, brought forth the first animals… Some of these animals would become fish; much later, hominids. They wanted food. An urge half a billion years old. All of us have it. To satisfy it, some of us still return to the sea.
Crews on hulking commercial factory ships illegally fish the unbound ocean to satisfy the appetites of western consumers at the cost of disturbing fish populations and harming African coastal communities. And climate change is altering the salinity and temperature of the ocean’s waters, affecting fish migration patterns and seasons.
“It is also the very simple blues of the working man,” Badkhen says. “It’s not easy anywhere. We can all sing that song.”
Badkhen is a writer in residence with the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. Her dispatches have been published in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Foreign Policy and Guernica. Fisherman’s Blues is Badkhen’s sixth nonfiction book. Her next cover-bound telling will be an American novel on the beautiful scenery and bloody history of West Texas.
“It’s about genocide and landscapes and beauty and migration and homelessness. It’s about how we see one another or how we unsee one another,” Badkhen says.