The Poems of “Ghost Letters” Erase Boundaries of Language

Baba Badji uses English, French, Arabic, and Wolof to find belonging and move through the trauma of being an outsider

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Baba Badji’s new poetry collection, Ghost Letters, begins in English, but quickly defies the category of “Western” or “American”: One by one, other languages—French, Arabic, Wolof—join the fold. His technique of mixing languages on the page not only reflects his personal background, but also imbues the poems with a diasporic resonance that complicates the themes of heritage, homeland, race, and trauma. 

Badji, a Senegalese American poet, translator, and scholar, beautifully waves images from his childhood together with scenes of contemporary life in America. Many of the poems, written as letters, address various “Ghost Mothers”—women both real and imagined—who haunt Badji’s collection. “I have nothing but Ghost Mothers and a thick accent resembling a baobab trunk,” Badji writes. “I have nothing, but a thick accent. Its western beat. A Rabbi’s Challah bread. The blessing.” Lines from these poems have nestled into my brain and stayed with me long after I finished reading the collection.

These ambitious poems move through the trauma of being an outsider; the beauty, pride, and pain of Blackness; and the unceasing desire to belong with both clarity and compassion. Each piece is a seedbed for different languages, religious experiences, and voices to flourish.

I spoke to Badji—whom I first met when we were translation students at Columbia University—about his collection and how the poems are inspired by his personal history and the current landscape of America.

Shoshana Akabas: I want to start out by talking about language. One of the most remarkable features of your collection is the number of languages intersecting in every poem. And of course, each language plays a different role, which comes out in lines like, “I dream in Wolof and write in English”. Can you talk a little about the different languages in the collection and why you chose to include them?

Baba Badji: I’m originally from Senegal and growing up, I would speak in Wolof and in other African dialects like Manding and Diola. So, you would have your family speaking Wolof, and you have friends who you play soccer with who do not speak Wolof, so you play soccer in a different language. Or you go and play outside in different languages. You learn these languages as a young kid. And they stayed with me. I was really lucky to have not forgotten the Wolof. 

In a sense, the Wolof is my way of reaching out to my roots. Without the Wolof in the poem, the poem becomes a European poem or a Western poem. Without the Wolof in a poem that also doesn’t have French, that poem strictly becomes an American poem, whatever that definition is (I’m still trying to figure out what is an “American poem”). But for me, a diasporic poem or a universal poem has to have Wolof, has to have English, and has to have French together. And what happens when all these worlds meet in one text? Does it allow the text to travel across the Atlantic? Does it force the poem to move around the diaspora? 

SA: As a fellow translator, I’m curious if your translation background helped you approach this multilingual project? 

BB: Oh, absolutely. I feel that I’m always translating, even when I’m reading, when I’m writing, when I’m thinking. And in a sense, this is almost like a confession: when you write in English, you are thinking in French, or you are thinking Wolof. But the style of writing is different. So, this is where translation comes as a space for freedom to allow you to express yourself the way you want to express yourself. But definitely translation is a big part of my work. Translation has been sort of like the backbone. My creative artistic devices are basically sealed in theories and methods of translation. Because every line you read, even when you read newspapers, you read a line you wonder, how do I write this in French, or does this word really exist in French or in Wolof? 

SA: You use the word confession — that strikes me, because so many of the poems are in letter form and feel confessional. What drew you to that structure?

The Wolof is my way of reaching out to my roots. Without the Wolof in the poem, the poem becomes a European poem or a Western poem.

BB: I started working on these letters, and then I thought about how letters are really important spaces to express oneself, whether it’s love, whether it’s fixing a relationship, whether it’s forgiveness, whether to discover oneself, right? The only way, I think, to recover the past is to return to the correspondence—in those spaces we find so much. And I flip it, so in these letters, the main figure is the ghost mother. Every letter is written for “ghost mother.” And for me, this is a way to reach out to the motherland. The letters actually are a way of corresponding or linking the Diaspora to a ghost mother figure, and it is me confessing to that powerful figure that I’m still working with, and I think I’ll always be working with. I suppose there’s a sense of freedom, too, in the letters: that only you know what you are telling to that person.

SA: You mentioned that some of these poems were written many years ago in an MFA workshop, but some of the poems reference very recent events. How did you go about interweaving the past and the present in these poems?

BB: We’re always told when a poem is done, that poem is put away, but that’s an idea I’m trying to challenge. You can always return to those lines and change them and speak about today. You can always feel present in a poem, and I wanted to link the past in the present. I always take notes, so a lot of these poems were “done” and then when I went back to my notes.

There’s one poem where I’m reaching out to what is happening today in America, a poem where I mention Abner Louima, “Bush Boy’s Nationalized Hymn.” This poem was written a long, long, long time ago. But then I was just looking through my notes on Arbery, Amari, and Zari. And then Théo Luhaka and Adama, they rhyme in the end, and I thought about how everything that’s happening to the Black body is actually linked. So, we have this really brutalized awful event that’s happening in France, not far from Paris. And then you have another crazy, crazy situation that happened actually in New York, years ago, so I thought Briana, Sandra, and Abner Louima, they actually rhyme too, and I was like, this would be really nice to put together and see: Do we hear these ghosts? And for me, every single person in this book is a ghost. Whether it’s Floyd, whether it’s Sandra Bland, whether it’s Breonna Taylor, whether it’s Abner Louima—and these people don’t know each other, but I’m just trying to tell people: When you read these poems, you can do the work, and you can see why these people are related.

SA: What you mentioned about drawing connections and starting a conversation really goes back to the idea of the correspondence, right? Even the parts of the collection that aren’t in letter form still felt like letters. As you’re quoting Baldwin and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, it feels like you’re writing back to them, in a way.

BB: Absolutely. That is one of the big knots I’m trying to untangle in my personal creative work and in my criticism, because the only way to reach out to those people is to write back to them. When we write to our heroes this way, it’s like reaching out to them, and it’s meaningful when you read a poem and the ending lines are Baldwin’s lines.

SA: The idea of “reaching back” connects to the themes of “return” and “belonging” which seem to echo in your work. I wonder how your experiences have informed how you think of home and belonging?

BB: Those themes are really important for the work, in the sense that I’m still trying to define my home. I am an American citizen, but it is a very complex fate. I think Henry James said that being an American is a very complex fate. So what is home for me? I’m Senegalese, I’m Black. But, my adopted mom is Jewish. We’re not afraid to talk about race at home, but, you know, I’m a Black man, I have hair, I have an MFA from Columbia, I’m getting a dissertation done. But I’m Black, so when I walk into a store right now, or walk on the streets, people don’t see that. All they see is, Oh he’s a Black man. So you become regularized by the gaze. In a place where you’re supposed to call home. The place where you’re supposed to belong. So, to tell you the truth, every time, before I leave my studio or my apartment, I have to calculate everything I have to wear for the gaze not to disturb my day, or my way of thinking—whether I’m going to the park, whether I’m going to a bar, whether I’m going to see a friend. You always feel that you want to belong, but I’m just speaking for myself, there’s always a question.

All they see is, Oh he’s a Black man. So you become regularized by the gaze. In a place where you’re supposed to call home. The place where you’re supposed to belong.

It’s crazy, whenever I return from international travel, when I hand my passport to the security guard, the TSA folks will say “welcome home.” It’s so powerful, but then you question that, too. So home, belonging, exile. For me, those are really important themes in the sense that it allows me to push my artistic creativity. It allows me to push the boundaries and question things, and criticize things. I love America so much. It’s a very complex relationship, too. I always criticize America, or the idea of being American, the idea of being French. So those themes are really gonna be questions for the rest of my life.

SA: I also see the theme of belonging with the religious references in these poems. You’ll mention the Quran and Jesus in the same stanza or line, and the image of the braided challah comes up a few times. How do these different religious traditions coexist or overlap for you?

BB: I just mentioned my adoptive mom is Jewish, and I was beaten to attend the Quranic school in Senegal. I’m not religious, by the way, but I pray to something. I pray to the Rabbi, I pray to Jesus, and I pray to Allah, because I know the Quran. My religion actually is my poetry. I don’t do it because it’s cool, because it’s hip, because it’s smart; I do it because it heals me, as sad as that sounds. I’m exhausted after finishing this book. In this particular space, it leaves you with something—whenever you go back to the poem, you are at peace.

When you think about religion in general terms, it can be violent, it can be scary, it can be sexist, and people have used religion to brutalize other folks. But for me, that sense of not knowing and reaching out to these people, whether it’s a rabbi, whether it’s Jesus, whether it’s the Quran… Pope Francis comes into these poems, he’s a very important figure. And he’s a very important figure in my general work. I think the sense of freedom he portrays heals me. The sense of freedom that Jesus portrays heals, and the sense of freedom the Rabbi gives heals me, as well.

SA: That’s interesting, because you don’t often hear that religions are not mutually exclusive.

BB: Exactly. And this is also my way to start a conversation. It’s beautiful when we allow people to explore religion in this sense. So write a poem and put Jesus in there, put the Rabbi in there, and put the Quran in there. That’s what I’m trying to do with the church and the mosque—those two spaces are symbolic. They portray peace, for me. 

SA: That’s beautiful. I guess my last question is: What do you want readers to know about the collection? 

BB: They should be patient with the book because it’s dense. And also they should not be afraid to read it however they want to read it. There is no specific way to read this book. You can start with the notes, you can start from the front, you can start from the middle.

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