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A doctoral student’s converging of themes into chaotic beauty

Baba Badji is a 6th year doctoral candidate in Washington University’s Comparative Literature PhD program. He is a Senegalese-American poet, translator, researcher and a Chancellor’s Fellow who earned a Graduate Certificate in Translation Studies from WashU as well as an MFA in poetry and translation from Columbia University. He is also a member of the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society. Earlier this year he released his first book, “Ghost Letters,” a collection of poems which weaves together and juxtaposes complex and influential themes of his own life.  

The first thing a reader notices about the book is its unique format, a collection of letters. “Letters are a surface where you can conceal your secrets when you write them. You can write a letter, hide it and then return to it,” said Badji. He believes letters are a construct that literally and symbolically promotes the need to launch a conversation. He began composing these epistles as an undergraduate student, to express himself in a very personal medium. Each letter is written to a “ghost mother” figure: some of these figures are the real influential teachers, mentors and caretakers that have nurtured and supported Badji since childhood and others are imagined.

The poetry compilation weaves multiple languages, including Wolof, French and English, together throughout the book, and often within a single letter. The use of these languages is as important as the words themselves, bringing disparate cultures together.  Badji calls it, “chaotic beauty and a form of resistance.” The tangling of tongues and ghost mothers contribute to the complicated convergence of themes beautifully expressed through the book.

Badji has had the great fortune of accumulating these “ghost mother” figures throughout his life in America. From his high school teacher in the Bronx to a Riverdale mother who initially offered him room and board while attending a year in a highly competitive high school, to the many influential people at Columbia University and currently at WashU; these are the influencers who have pushed him, encouraged him and believed in him. “These ghost mothers are my angels – they keep everything together,” said Badji. “I look for calm and humble people – those are the powerful figures; these professors trust me and protect me – they have taught me not just how to write but how to think critically,” Badji said of his WashU mentors.

Badji credits the Chancellor’s Graduate Fellowship Program as the safety net that has allowed for all of his successes to be possible. “The fellowship has proven that if you give me space, protection and a community, I can produce,” claimed Badji. The fellowship offered him an opportunity for leadership that he didn’t realize existed. “With the Chancellor’s Fellowship, there is a level of immediate respect from day one. Through this respect, you see yourself as a leader. You show up as a performer and you are expected to both perform and to show leadership. You become a leader without knowing it,” said Badji. The fellowship community within the larger WashU ecosystem, along with access to professors across departments, gave him confidence in himself as well as a place to belong. “Being in a program with heavy hitters like Aaron Coleman and Paul Tran, coupled with professors who know, trust and protect me, gave me courage and gave me confidence,” stated Badji.

Badji is in the home stretch of his doctoral program, working on his dissertation and planning  the road ahead. His has also started work on a novel about his paternal grandmother, who he visits in Senegal regularly. In his spare time, he reads books written in French and watches Senegalese theater to keep his language skills sharp.

Badji wrote “Ghost Letters” to teach the next generation of writers about the importance of bringing cultures together, as well as to reinforce the concept that it is acceptable and noble to take risks, even if one fails. His aspiration is to pass the baton to the next generation of writers, through teaching and writing. “You have to hand it over – you can’t hold it all,” Badji said.