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Cultivating imagination

‘Fisherman’s Blues’ is an immersive journey into Senegal

Anna Badkhen

Kael Alford

Off the coast of Senegal, Anna Badkhen was along for the ride—a long boat ride.

In the hull of the pirogue (an artisanal fishing boat), the fishermen she rode with stored a brazier and coals to heat water for tea on cold trips. When the men became peckish, they reached down into the sea, pulled out a fish, and cooked it on the coals.

“You don’t need any spices,” Badkhen told me. “You don’t need any salt. It tastes divine.”

It’s a certain kind of divinity that the Tulsa Artist Fellow and former war reporter details in her newest book, “Fisherman’s Blues,” out March 13 from Riverhead Books. The book comes from Badkhen’s experience living and fishing with the people of Joal, Senegal, the largest subsistence fishing port in West Africa.

The narrative is lush, present, and full of colors and textures. When Badkhen describes the wobbling she feels walking on land after a long boat ride, the narrative wobbles with her. Readers follow as she hauls a net over a pirogue’s bow, as she rises early to eat breakfast with the fishermen, and as she slices 20 pounds of potatoes alongside other women for a feast.

“Try cutting that many potatoes sometime,” she challenged me.

“It does amazing things to your thumb for about a year. My thumb is still recovering its dexterity from that. But that was my job; it was a woman’s job.”

Life in Joal is highly gendered: Only men fish, spending time away from their multiple wives, while women stay on land to cook, clean, and raise the children. Badkhen lived between these two worlds, fishing one day and sudsing the back of someone else’s child the next. The generosity of her hosts, she said, helped her bridge that gap. That and curiosity.

“I like to think that curiosity is mutual,” she said. “That curiosity about my story exists: ‘Who is this person? Why is she doing this? Why does she want to be doing this? Let’s find out.’”

The book, too, seeks to bridge a certain gap: that between the Global South and the Global North, terms emerging—and replacing those some deem inappropriate (First World, Third World)—to describe the economic realities of countries below and above a certain level of poverty. To Badkhen, it’s all about accountability.

“Sharing stories of my hosts, my friends, and my fellow crewmen is another way for me to bring the world to accountability. To bring you and people who read my books to a sense of responsibility—personal responsibility—for how we treat the planet and other people on it.”

She points out that the overfishing on the African coast comes not from Africa’s artisanal fishermen, but from illegal and unregulated fishing trawlers from Europe and Asia.

“They’re vacuuming up the fish from the sea,” she said. “And a lot of that fish ends up on tables in the Global North.”

The book is fascinating and thorough, with reminders throughout of slavery and colonization’s influence on Senegal. For instance, we learn that prickly pear, a cactus native to the Americas, grows along Joal’s coast. We also see fishermen eating po’ boys, pain au chocolat, and beignets for breakfast—and that the peanuts the Portuguese brought in the 16th century have overtaken the harvest there. The sea off Senegal contains “maroon seaweed … that clarifies your beer and stabilizes your toothpaste” and “the bones of people who didn’t make it across.”

It can be easy, Badkhen said, to dissociate oneself from faraway cultures.

“James Baldwin called it ‘the guilty and constricted white imagination,’” she said. “I’m using ‘white’ here to describe a privileged chunk of Americans, regardless of skin tone, but definitely the white Americans who have a lack of desire to commit acts of imagination about how someone who is not like them might experience the world.”

The corrective to that, she suggests, is the kind of curiosity and generosity that her hosts in Joal afforded her.

“Imagine,” she said. “Imagination can be cultivated. Imagine that you’re walking down the coast in the evening, when the pirogues have come in, and you hear a young man doing jumping jacks and rapping an American song in a language he doesn’t speak. Imagine how connected we are.”

“Fisherman’s Blues” release party
Mon., March 19, 7 p.m.
Living Arts of Tulsa
307 E. M.B. Brady St.

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