Excerpt from Fisherman's Blues by Anna Badkhen, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Fisherman's Blues

A West African Community at Sea

by Anna Badkhen

Fisherman's Blues by Anna Badkhen X
Fisherman's Blues by Anna Badkhen
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2018, 304 pages

    Mar 2019, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Natalie Vaynberg
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Print Excerpt

Fisherman's Blues

End of the rainy season, high tide, a viscous black predawn. The Milky Way bulges, drips stars. Mahogany keels of fishing pirogues grate against the sucking purl. In the wrack before the moored thirty-footer the Sakhari Souaré her groggy crew stand barefoot in silence. It is not time yet.

A light approaches along the tideline, winks, grows. A fishwife. Her pace is measured, her slack arms swing lightly with her step, her back is very straight. She is wearing a mermaid dress. On her head flames a colossal brazier. She does not slow down when she reaches the fishers, and she passes them without greeting and walks away until she flickers out into the sweaty black.

* * *

Dawn spills astern: lavender, violet, golden. Capillary waves gently scale the ocean all the way to the horizon. Wind clots low fog. The Sakhari Souaré 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 the banded east a seabird, an early riser, falls out of the fog and scoops something out of the water and banks away. The pirogue's six crew balance spreadlegged on the thwarts and on the foredeck, dig their bare soles into the slippery wood, lean into one another, watch the sea for fish.

A school of fish is an indentation in the surface, an irregularity in the wave pattern, a boil of bubbles you can see even in the blowing water of a gale. When a school rises, a patch of the sea stirs, jiggles, churns. Or it can be a hue: a denser ovoid sea, a shifting silver nebula. A kind of anticipatory shimmering, like something about to be born. You hold your breath for it.

When you spot a school of fish you signal with your hand. This is for the helmsman, usually the captain, who cannot hear over the droning outboard motor from his place in the stern. Right arm flies up: fish to starboard. Left arm: fish to port. An outstretched hand, loose wrist, fingers wave: bubbles. An out-stretched hand, a jerking upturned palm, fingertips kiss and open, kiss and open: fish are jumping. The sign language is contagious. Come aboard and within hours your arms rise and your fingers wiggle as if by reflex. Maybe it is a reflex, one land-dwellers have learned to suppress.

When you see no fish you keep your hands occupied or tucked away, lest you confuse the helmsman. He watches the dance of hands, adjusts the pirogue's course to the flutter of the crew's fin-gers. Adjusts his expectations. Thumb to the forefinger's first knuckle: fish too small, don't bother.

Genii herd the fish. Before coming aboard you try to divert their attention. This takes magic because genii remember backward: never the past, always the future. So you utter a prayer. You score kabbalistic shapes into the sand where it meets the sea. You pay a marabout or a sorcerer to pacify the genii on your behalf, to ask the sea for specific fish that sell well at the harbor: white grouper, say, or shadefish. The pricier the fish, the more elaborate the ritual to distract the genii that herd it. But in recent years, even fishers who go to sea for ordinary sardinella have been offering sacrifices to the genii, and even their sacrifices more often than not fail to secure a catch. Entire trips go by during which the captain stares at the limp arms of his crew. The sea is broken, fishermen say. The sea is empty. The genii have taken the fish elsewhere.

There is another explanation for the diminishing catch. It holds that man has meddled with the ocean's temperature, that increased salinity and chaotic weather patterns disrupt habitats, scare schools away. It holds, too, that man has decimated the fish stocks: along the three hundred and thirty miles of Senegal's coastline, twenty thousand pirogues like the Sakhari Souaré and dozens of foreign mechanized trawlers are wasting the fishery recklessly and daily.

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Excerpted from Fisherman's Blues by Anna Badkhen. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Anna Badkhen.

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