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Bright Unbearable Reality: Essays (Paperback)
On Our Shelves Now
2022 National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction
Essays about migration, displacement, and the hope for connection in a time of emotional and geopolitical disruption by a Soviet-born writer and former war correspondent.
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, comprises eleven essays set on four continents—roving everywhere from Oklahoma to Azerbaijan—and united by a common thread of communion and longing.
In these essays, Badkhen 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.
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.”
• 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.
About the Author
Anna Badkhen was born in the Soviet Union and is now an American citizen. 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.
“[I] swiftly fell for the roaming logic of Badkhen’s essays, which unspool themes of communion and human migration, often while the author herself is on the road, in Ethiopia or Oklahoma or Chihuahua City. . . . I was persistently buoyed by the tenderness she brings to the world and its inhabitants.” —Erica Berry, The Rumpus
"Badkhen has spent her career documenting inequities around the world.... In her acrobatic seventh collection, longlisted for the National Book Award, she lasers her attention on the global turmoil that has expelled one in seven people from their homelands....What grounds us in this daring work is Badkhen’s incandescent poetics, an augury all its own." —Stephanie Elizondo Griest, The New York Times Book Review
"[Badkhen] lasers her attention on the global turmoil that has expelled one in seven people from their homelands. From the Sahara to the Texas-Mexico border, with flashbacks to her native Soviet Union, Badkhen vaults in and out of events ranging from prehistoric times to the pandemic. . . . What grounds us in this daring work is Badkhen’s incandescent poetics, an augury all its own." —Stephanie Elizondo Griest, The New York Times Book Review
"We follow along as she leaves behind a trail of precise, glistening prose, and each time we arrive somewhere else we consider, once again, humanity’s shifting, unstable, and essential relationship with place. We have planted flags and drawn maps, but — as Badkhen brilliantly demonstrates — the intersecting challenges of the 21st century (climate, economic, epidemic) might force us to reconsider our conclusions." —Tope Folarin, Vulture
“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, Orion
“It’s a book of truths.” —Leila Fadel, NPR
“[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