There should be more “eye” than “I” in memoir, the saying goes. Walking with Abel by Anna Badkhen pleased me deeply, precisely because she is so good at getting this balance right.
Walking with Abel is her memoir of a year with nomadic cowboys in West Africa. She narrates her hosts’ journeys, only gradually letting her own come to light. She rarely alludes to the heartbreak that has brought her here, and when she does it is always in context of empathy for the often heartbreaking life of the Fulani people.
This is great travel writing. She doesn’t romanticize or sugarcoat a hard way of life, with its rigid expectations by gender and genealogy. She doesn’t flinch at the superstition that constrains them to neolithic medical practices. She doesn’t judge, doesn’t expect, just watches, helps, joins in. A favorite scene of mine:
The Fulani are telling stories before they fall asleep, scattered on their mats under the immense desert sky. Her turn for a story–she tells of the origin of the cosmos, informs them about the universe, galaxies, stars, the Earth’s place in it all. “Good story,” they agree. They like the Milky Way. Their own origin myth begins with a calabash of milk spilled across the sky.
I quote Goodreads reviewer “Anja” because I can’t say this better: “Her use of language is fresh, unusual and heart stopping. I often read phrases over and over again, not wanting to let go of the pictures she conjures of this unique area of the world.”
Here are a couple of examples that stopped me in my tracks–I saved them for use in future writing classes. To me, this is a perfect evocation of character.
And I love this poetic discussion…
Anna Badkhen was born in the Soviet Union but is now a United States citizen.
She has been a war reporter since 2001 and has covered conflicts all over the world. I can only imagine how she came by a vocabulary so immense she sent me to the dictionary with practically every turn of the page.
I am glad she took time out for a year of simple living with the Fulani. I am grateful she took us with her, via this stunning travel memoir.
Thanks for the great review! I learned something about memoir style, as well as now wanting to pick up this book and read more. Good introduction to an author who might otherwise have remained unknown to me.