Poetry and Exile
Baba Badji – poet, immigrant, and Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow – writes about being black and African in America.
Safety is important for poet Baba Badji. When he emigrated from Senegal at age 11, Badji left behind a number of dangers. “We have dictators. It’s poor. People are hungry. We want to run away from it,” he explains. But upon arriving in New York to live with his father, Badji found himself in a culture rife with its own dangers – especially for black men.
In a new and uncertain space, even at a young age Badji found both comfort and excitement in words. The 11 year old already spoke four languages – Wolof, Mende, Diola, and French. Still, he was drawn to the English-language learning tapes given to him as a refugee.
“When I moved here, the thing that got me going was the English language,” he recalls. “I was struggling with my real dad. I was very alone. So I would just read and write. There was an obsession. There is still an obsession with this English language.”
Badji’s obsession eventually led him to earn an MFA in poetry, translation, and fiction from Columbia University. It led him to the 2014 Translation Slam, part of the PEN World Voices Festival. And, in 2015, it led him to Washington University in St. Louis. Here, Badji joined what he calls a “Renaissance diaspora” – a growing cohort of writers from around the world.
Discovery & Trust
Badji first discovered Washington University’s PhD Track in Comparative Literature for International Writers through Susan Bernofsky, an alumna of Washington University and one of Badji’s mentors at Columbia. (At WashU, Bernofsky studied under celebrated author William Gass.) Through her encouragement, he got in touch with Lynne Tatlock, director of the comparative literature program in Arts & Sciences.
Badji had never set eyes on campus. He’d never been to St. Louis. Yet a single Skype conversation with Tatlock convinced him take a leap of faith.
“I felt how earnest she was,” Badji says. “I was like, ‘This is the place I want to go and grow up as a writer. She’s not going to let me play, and she’s going to protect my work and protect me.’ As a writer I think that’s what you need. So I just jumped into it.”
As a writer, “especially a black immigrant writer in this country,” Badji feels that this kind of protection and support is crucial. “I feel safe because I know she’s around,” he says simply. “You don’t feel like you’re swimming with sharks. I trust my work because I trust my environment. Because of Lynne.”
Global Literature in the Making
The safest place to work, Badji says, is his apartment. Every morning he wakes up early, sits down at his neatly organized desk, and flips through notebooks of ideas. Then, he settles in to read. “For my personal work, I read for two hours. The week is just collecting information. No email, no nothing,” he says. Fridays are reserved for writing.
On campus, Badji and his cohort members regularly share their projects in a workshop-style class called Literature in the Making. Tatlock and German writer Matthias Goeritz, the first William H. Gass Fellow in the program, lead the discussions. The class brings together a remarkable diversity of subjects, forms, and backgrounds.
In addition to Badji, doctoral students in the track include Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, a writer from Cuba; Katja Perat, a poet from Slovenia; Alireza Taheri Araghi, a writer and translator from Iran; and Thomas Scholz, a fantasy writer from Germany. The results are electrifying.
“I hope my friends and colleagues from Columbia won’t be upset about this, but this is the best workshop I’ve been in,” Badji says. “When it comes down to craft and talking about literature, it’s just amazing. I just want to melt all their brains and bottle it every morning before I sit down to write.”
Diversity of perspective and opinion leads to strong writing – and also strong critiques. “We bump heads. That’s part of it,” Badji acknowledges, laughing. “Either the work gets ripped apart, or it gets loved. That’s the process. It’s like a lab.”
Both Tatlock and Goeritz make sure the writers get the pressure and feedback they need. “It’s like a family. Lynne is like a mother. She doesn’t let us get away with anything,” Badji says, still smiling. “And Matthias is like the older brother. He’s the fire. He’s the one that twists the knife, that pushes us. Because he knows. He’s trying to make the environment comfortable, but also uncomfortable.”
Despite the necessary discomfort, the writers find a surprising amount of common ground. They’ve found that certain topics – the ways that food brings people together, how music and history intertwine, the feeling you get at the end of a poem or a story – are universal across cultures and genres.
“The way I write about food in Senegalese culture is not really different than the way Orlando writes about food or the way that Aaron writes about food,” Badji says. As for form, he’s learned that closure to text is always important. “You find it in translation. You find it in a poem. You find it in a story. I think it was just a brilliant idea to bring those together.”
Blackness & Exile in Poetry
Through all the reading and thinking and workshop time, Badji is focused on creating two collections of poetry. His current project, Ghost Letters, tells the story of a character traveling from Senegal to Spain illegally. Through a series of poems, Badji shares the news of the exile’s difficult, and sometimes violent, trials.
“I’m trying to discover the connection between blackness and exile,” he explains. “But I’m also trying to see the difference between Senegalese-ness, African-ness, and blackness in modern America.”
Badji’s work exposes truths about safety and danger around the world. Despite the difficulties of life in Senegal, in poems like “THE SEED IS IN ME,” he expresses how in some ways he felt protected there.
“You don’t question the mind when you’re in Senegal. You know you’re black. Nobody cares about who you are. We like to unite. Even eating, we all eat together. We are a very welcoming culture,” he explains.
This experience contrasts with some of Badji’s experiences in the United States. “If you are a black man and you come to this country, you don’t feel safe,” he says.
“When I’m crossing the street, any street in America, people won’t say, ‘Oh he’s Senegalese, or he’s African, or this poet or a PhD student or a scholar.’ It’s just this black guy crossing the street. But if I talk to you and you hear my name, you say, ‘Welcome, come sit. You’re not the poison. You’re not from the ghetto. You’re from Africa.’ It’s sad. That division doesn’t sit well with me. Because I’m black.”
Badji reveals the complexity of his subject matter and experiences, in part, through his use of multiple languages. “You have couplets in French and words in Wolof and words in Diola and Mende. They bump each other in the work, and I love it. It’s a fun arsenal to play with,” he says.
If unknown words and phrases make things somewhat difficult for readers, that’s okay, Badji believes. “I think it’s a really nice bond when you make people want to understand your work. They have to stop and look it up. They have to do the work to actually understand it. They’re curious more. That’s what I want. I feel like the Western subject should work more to get our culture.”
Along with a greater awareness of languages around the world, Badji hopes to open his readers’ minds to ideas about “American-ness, exile, and blackness. What’s it like to be all that. I want my work to make people think.”
“I love this country,” he explains. “That’s why I write about what I write. If you love someone, you have to tell them the truth.”
Badji still regularly talks over Skype with his grandmother in Senegal. She’s 87 years old, and she worries about her grandson living in a nation that she hears attacks other people and countries. Speaking in Wolof, she asks what any grandmother would: “Are you happy? Are you eating?” But also, “Are you safe?”
For the time being, the answer is yes. Badji has a green card, but right now he does not feel comfortable traveling back to Senegal to visit. Instead, he’s taking advantage of the time and support here to focus on his writing.
“I feel protected by WashU. That’s why I love to be here. It’s a safe space,” he says. In addition to Washington University as a whole, Badji credits the Chancellor’s Graduate Fellowship Program for providing him and many others with an atmosphere ideal for learning and growth. The 25-year-old program provides financial, academic, and social support to graduate students from diverse backgrounds planning to enter academia.
After earning his doctorate, Badji envisions teaching during the academic year and splitting his summers between trips to Senegal and St. Louis. “Right now I can’t write anywhere but here,” he says. “St. Louis is the only place that I want to stay and write forever.”
“I’m really grateful,” he says. “It’s an amazing gift. People have different opinions, but as a young writer I see the world differently when I walk on this campus.”