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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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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2018, 304 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2019, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Natalie Vaynberg
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An intimate account of life in a West African fishing village, tugged by currents ancient and modern, and dependent on an ocean that is being radically transformed.

In Fisherman's Blues, Anna Badhken takes an unforgettable journey to Western Africa and its ever-demanding seas. She spends months learning the way of the fishermen - their coarse language, their vivid stories and their rapacious hunger - and tells their tales through episodic vignettes and hand-drawn illustrations. Part ethnography and part journey of discovery, Badhken's narrative never quite finds a comfortable bridge between the two. On the one hand, her glimpse into these lives, so foreign yet so familiar, is illuminating. Yet, on the other hand, Badkhen never quite transcends her own preconceptions and her own mythology long enough to fully immerse herself.

The narrative takes place almost entirely in Joal, a Senegalese fishing city, and its surrounding waters. There are numerous characters that pop in and out as Badkhen's daily life unfolds, but the primary focus of the story is the Souare family - Ndongo and his three wives, his parents, his children and his ship's crew. Within this microcosm, all of Joal can be found; there are family disputes, stories of ancestral genie curses, sick children and a perpetual lack of funds. By focusing on the Souares, Badhken is able to convey her far-reaching observations, while always keeping real people and real struggles at the forefront.

The realness of the events is further underscored by Badkhen's illustrations - they are unpretentious, simple, and create the illusion of sitting right next to her on a gently swaying boat, watching as she quickly sketches in her notepad.

Unfortunately, that unpretentiousness is lacking in the rest of her book. Although Badkhen clearly joins in the work and the life of the Joal people, her writing has a curious undercurrent of self-involvement. Surrounded by the colorful, sometimes outrageous stories of genie magic (see Beyond the Book), avarice and vengeance, she finds it more appropriate to discuss Joal and its life in terms of Western mythology and letters; she talks of Neptune, of Perseus, of Goethe. In some cases, she deliberately takes the words of her subjects and assigns a different meaning to them - something more philosophical, more existential. While of course this is the poetic license writers sometimes take, it often feels more reductive than supplemental. In these ways, this is as much a story of Anna Badkhen as it is of Joal and its fishermen.

But she shines a spotlight on a community that is rarely, if ever, featured in the news or on screen, and for that she must be commended. Although it may seem like these lives are somehow simple and serene, she shows that they are plagued with the same worries that keep all of us up at night - the safety and well-being of our families, the desire for self-fulfillment and, on a larger scale, the impact we have on our environment.

Further, Badkhen (who has previously immersed herself in both the African savanna and rural Afghanistan) is fully willing to do hard work - she blisters her hands pulling nets, bakes in the sun while helping to build a boat and expends emotional energy consoling abandoned wives in the community; clearly she is not afraid to fully immerse herself. Yet there is a piece missing and it is the one she reserves for herself; her writing looks in more than it looks out and we find ourselves wishing to break free, to see more of what she has chosen to obscure.

Reviewed by Natalie Vaynberg

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2018, and has been updated for the April 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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