Fishing for the Truths of Our Times: Some Thoughts on Anna Badkhen’s Fisherman’s Blues (2018, Riverhead Books)

The sea is primordial.  The sea is powerful.  We are of the sea, which means that its waters—our waters—harbor the deep truths of the human condition.

Where did we come from?

What is the ebb and flow of our existence?

Where are we going?


(Photo by Paul Stoller, 2017)

Changes in the nature of the sea (its currents, its acidity, the pollutants that infect it and taint its fish, and rising water temperatures that shape weather patterns) change the nature of our social lives.

Most of the writing about climate change comes to us in the bloodless prose of plain style, the centuries old writing convention of science.  General audiences rarely are able to read works on climate change that describe its implications for the everyday lives of people in the world.  Anna Badkhen’s Fisherman’s Blues is a wonderful exception to this representational pattern. It is a marvelously rendered poetic evocation social life in Joal, a fishing village on the Senegalese coast.  Through breathtaking descriptions of sea, beach, village and people, Badkhen recounts a central story of our times:  how can people like Ndongo Souare, captain of the Sakhari Souare, a 30-foot ocean-worthy dugout, confront and adjust to changes (over-fishing, climate fluctuations, rising seas and rising sea temperatures) that have altered the sea?  How do these changes disrupt Ndongo Souare’s family’s historical linkages to the sea?  How do they alter the social relations among Ndongo Souare’s colleagues and their fisherman families? What can Badkhen’s riveting tale teach us about present and future life in the Anthropocene?

Fisherman’s Blues is about the power and majesty of the sea, a power and majesty most of us take for granted.  Consider this passage:

Dawn spills astern: lavender, violet, golden.  Capillary waves gently scale the ocean all the way to the horizon. Winds clots low fog. The Sakhari Souare glides at full throttle west-southwest, rolls over lazy six-foot swells.  The shore’s low skyline of baobab and eucalyptus and doum palms flashes in the light, sinks into the sea.  Its bruised cumulus vanishes too. Black against banded east a seabird, an early rise, falls out fog the fog and scoops something out of the water and banks away.  The pirogue’s six crew balance spread-eagled on the thwarts and on the foredeck, dig their bare soles into the slippery wood, lean into one another, watch the sea for fish. (p. 2-3)

How can six men face the ever-changing sea?  Will they haul in fish on this misty morning off the coast of Senegal, or will they return tired and empty-handed?  Will they return safe and sound from yet another voyage on the mercurial sea?  How can they endure the ever-changing currents of our rapidly degrading environment?

Through poetic description and riveting narratives Badkhen shows—rather than tells—how Senegalese fisherman attempt to co-exist with a sea that periodically gives to (provides food and a livelihood) and takes from (injures or kills) those who seek its bounty.  In the West African spiritual universe, this kind existential give and take defines the nature of the spirit world. In this world, spirits, which control the forces of nature, among other elements of social life, are fickle, volatile and unpredictable. As Badkhen shows, the power of spirits—of the sea—must be continuously respected through small and large ritual celebrations. Confronted by the immense power of nature, these events are humble human attempts to enhance the success of a harvest or ensure a good catch and a safe return from the sea.

The story of this Senegalese fishing community is a testament to the profound precarity of contemporary social life. How can they endure? Should we feel sorry for them?

Clearly, life on the Senegalese coast is quite challenging. But Fisherman’s Blues is more than a tale about climate change, rising seas and the ongoing depletion of fishing beds.  Badkhen also focuses her refreshingly unobtrusive ethnographic gaze on how life on or near the sea shapes family life in Joal. Guided by Badkhen’s skillful narration, readers are witness to family dramas–the complex tangle of relations of fishermen to their wives, sons and daughters. She also describes the set of reciprocal obligations that link the fishermen to their parents, their in-laws as well as to colleagues in their social and economic networks. From this intricately woven patchwork of stories there emerges one central theme:  the people of Joal confront their substantial challenges with deep dignity and enviable resilience.  In the face of precarity, they are quietly courageous and serenely resolute. As we confront our own social and ecological challenges, the story of this Senegalese fishing community, so ably described by Anna Badkhen, is a model for us all.

Fisherman’s Blues is ethnography at is very best. It demonstrates how narrative and poetic evocation are potent tools of social description.  Using narrative, Badkhen deftly evokes place and character as we follow the dramas of everyday life as they unfold in an ever-changing set of social economic and environmental conditions along the Senegalese Coast.  These dramas demonstrate a larger set of human connections.  Although the social dramas of a Senegalese fishing community may seem remote from our own set of social and cultural experience, they have much to teach us about living in the contemporary world.

In these times we all confront some sort of precarity. In Fisherman’s Blues, Anna Badkhen describes how we can adjust to existential uncertainty with dignity and resolve. In the end, her new book is a poetic example of how cultural critique can highlight the fundamental truths of our times.




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