[New York Review Books; 2022]

Last New Year’s Eve, I gave up doomscrolling. As part of my resolution, I committed myself to what I dubbed My Year of No. Not only would I stop consuming news on my phone, I would also stop posting about it on my social media feeds. I craved new ways of seeing the world. I had taken it for granted that my impulse to be informed was pure. What did it do to me to see horrifying images and then scroll on? After a sleepless night of swiping through articles, I began to suspect that my desire to know it all, as soon as it happened, wasn’t so innocent. What did miss as I scrolled through facts and photos on my phone, my fingers flying, head bent down? I wondered what would happen if I encountered a disturbing instance of human cruelty and did not seek the release of sharing my indignation with the world. How uncomfortable would I become? Very, very uncomfortable, I learned.

Without the news cycle to soothe and distract me, I stepped outside. I took long walks. I read books in the park. Specifically, I sought texts about sight and perception. The one book I found myself returning to again and again was Anna Badkhen’s Bright Unbearable Reality, a stunning exploration of grief, disconnection, and human migration. Through eleven linked essays, Badkhen searches for a better way of seeing and understanding our current anthropocene moment, marked by seemingly intolerable violence, loss, and uprootedness. “Why do we find it unbearable to acknowledge what truly is,” asks Badkhen in the book’s preface. A former journalist, Badkhen has spent a lifetime contemplating how ways of seeing influence our perception. Throughout Bright Unbearable Reality, Badkhen asks us to alter how we take in the world. She urges us to lean in, look closer, longer.

Everywhere in Bright Unbearable Reality, Badkhen shows us how proximity stokes empathy. Proximity, real and imagined, is often a matter of perception. Consider the bird’s eye view, a popular method of depicting human tragedies past and present. I admit, when I consume the daily news on my phone, I find myself going full bird mode. I’m cruising through the blue, taking in the political landscape below, all of it, at once, at a remove. I’m so high up. I understand the events I read about and see in the photos. But I can’t empathize with the people who experience those events. Not at this distance. The great gift of Badkhen’s essays is that they zoom in. 

“The distant gaze turns people into things,” writes Badkhen in the book’s titular essay. By tracing the history of aerial photography from nineteenth century Flemish Renaissance paintings to modern drone warfare, Badkhen highlights how humans have long chosen to depict and consume human suffering from a distance. This distance has, at times, ignited our collective compassion, as in aerial photos of natural disasters. When surveying the damage from an earthquake or hurricane, we seek altitude. We want to see the big picture, the scope, the complete story, as if the story can ever be wholly absorbed in a glance. In this way, the big picture view obscures as much as it reveals. As Badhken reminds us, the main aim of bird’s eye view photography “has been to give the military a better sense of its targets of destruction or of the destruction’s aftermath.” The violence of the distant view is double-edged. Our confidence that we have a right to look is coupled with our steadfast belief that we can fully capture the after-effects of human violence.

Our compulsion for big-picture takes skews our perspective. While researching human migration, Badkhen spends hours looking at panoramic images of migrants online. In one image, people fleeing atrocity appear as “beadwork at first,” then “a column of people,” and finally “hundreds of tiny faces.” In another photo, she sees bright, zigzagging lines of human bodies that could be mistaken for roads, or mineral deposits in rock faces. Although these images are intended to show the scope of human migration, they are dehumanizing. They show “tragedy from above,” says Badkhen. The ease with which she consumes these images then scrolls on unnerves her.  “The roving eye of God—left me strangely uninvolved,” she tells us. “I, the viewer, cannot participate in what I see.” She is wary of the disempowering effect of consuming these images that allow us to voyeuristically consume human tragedies with impotent despair before quickly moving on. Instead, Badkhen seeks a better way to show the scale of human suffering than zooming out. This search animates every essay in Bright Unbearable Reality.

Readers seeking answers from Badkhen won’t find them. Bright Unbearable Reality raises more questions than it answers. But what is living without the thrill of seeking? One of Badkhen’s great skills as a writer is her self-restraint: She lets the questions hang. “I like puzzling out the meaning of things, imagining what else is there,” she tells us. In the gaps of what we think we know lie possibility and promise.

Wherever she finds herself, Badkhen puzzles over the place’s past, knowing full well that she can never grasp the full story, because the story is forever being written and rewritten in the present. Across interconnecting essays, we follow her through Western Africa and the American Southwest as she does research for a writing project. Badkhen is the author of six nonfiction books, and she has spent most of her life traveling and writing about the Global South. In each place she visits, she questions the political and historical circumstances that have allowed her to travel there. “Place is essential to humans,” Badkhen tells us in a recent interview. “We fight for it. We leave it. We arrive at it.” An estimated 280.6 million people around the world are currently unsettled. Many of these individuals were forced to flee their homelands due to political conflict, ecological degradation, starvation, and violence stemming from a worsening climate crisis. Badkhen urges us to confront these intersecting violences with candor. The first step to confronting them is to recognize ecological destruction and food inequity as violences. For our survival, we must name violence as violence whenever we encounter it, if for no other reason than the fact that violence is “basically effective.”

“Among the things I’ve learned about violence is that it requires no imagination,” she writes. The shock others experience in the face of human violence perplexes her. “It’s as if violence is a fence that has only just been erected in our path, not a condition we have sustained since prehistory,” she writes in “Dark Matter,” one of the collection’s most arresting essays. From a ranch in Texas, she contemplates the violence of fences in the American Southwest. She fixes her attention on pronghorn sheep, an animal habituated to run over large expanses of open space. Pronghorn thrived in the deserts of Texas until the first fences were erected in the late nineteenth century. Pronghorn can’t jump. Unable to adapt to the violent changes in their environment, pronghorn populations dwindled, eventually becoming an endangered species. Badkhen draws a parallel between the pronghorn’s inability to adapt to their new environment and humans’ inability to adapt to our own violence. If we cannot see and understand our own violent appetites, how will we avoid the fate of the pronghorn?

Instead of answers, Badkhen offers us more star stuff. “Dark matter is what scientists believe holds the galaxies together,” she writes. “Scientists have not yet been able to detect it. It is, put simply, beyond our ken.” In the cold, dark space of the unknown, we can imagine other possibilities. We can dream. Badkhen’s belief that a different world is always possible makes Bright Unbearable Reality a hopeful book, despite the many human tragedies it contains. Each essay is a love song to beauty, awe, and the pleasure of language. Badkhen’s crystalline prose dazzles. Her sentences are sharp, clear, full of light. On every page, daily beauty exists alongside daily horror. She shows us that we can witness beauty while also denouncing human cruelty. Badkhen’s commitment to beauty is as much an ethical decision as it is an aesthetic one. Without awe, how can we dream up a different reality? Without wonder, the dark matter of possibility, how do we find the courage to zoom in on our unbearable humanity?

Every day since I stopped obsessively consuming news on my phone, I’ve felt tempted to cheat. I want to let myself go whole hog, read it all, hours in bed, just me, scrolling through the infinite sluice of human suffering. Badkhen’s essays squashed this temptation once and for all. Bright Unbearable Reality gave me the final push to keep putting the phone down, turning off the TV, and seeing what’s right in front of me. “It’s all about how we choose to curate our attention,” Badkhen tells us. There are 1.75 million unsettled migrants currently living in my home city of Los Angeles. I don’t have to look any further.

Elizabeth Hall is the author of the book I HAVE DEVOTED MY LIFE TO THE CLITORIS, a Lambda Literary Award finalist. You can find her on instagram at @badmoodbaby.

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