Black Refuge and the Novel of Ideas: A Conversation With Maya Binyam

Black Refuge and the Novel of Ideas: A Conversation With Maya Binyam

Black Refuge and the Novel of Ideas: A Conversation With Maya Binyam

“Fiction is so incredibly rife with ethical questions.”


Maya Binyam’s Hangman is one of those rare things in contemporary literature—a novel of ideas, in which the exploration of ethical and political questions animates and shapes the story itself. The novel’s narrative is deceptively simple on its surface: A man returns to an unnamed country after two decades in America to reconnect with his sickly brother; shenanigans ensue. But as it unfurls, it becomes clear that Binyam’s elliptical story and style are stretching language in an attempt to depict refuge and safety for Black diasporic peoples as something that is made impossible by settler colonialism, enslavement, the international-aid industrial complex, and the drive to accumulate and hoard inordinate amounts of wealth.

These are questions that inform Binyam’s work as a writer and editor, from her profiles of director Mati Diop and sex therapist Esther Perel to her work with The New Inquiry. What was most satisfying to hear in our conversations about her novel and her magazine writing was how deftly Binyam rejected the idea that explicitly political art is not intended for a popular audience or exempt from questions of beauty. Participating in and engaging with various literary forms allows her to meet and manage the various aesthetic and ethical obligations to her subject matter without ever disavowing a single imperative.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

—Rosemarie Ho

Rosemarie Ho: A basic question—how did you first come up with the idea for Hangman?

Maya Binyam: Right when I was writing the book, I felt like I had started undergoing this preparatory phase to reckon with death. Maybe that came from the pandemic, when death was in the atmosphere in a really palpable way. On my father’s side of the family, there were lots of ancestral mourning rituals that have been passed down through many generations that exist within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church but don’t necessarily have their roots in [the religion]. Traditionally, in my family at least, when someone dies, their closest family members won’t be alerted to the death until they can be surrounded by other family and friends and be prepared for it. That process can become extremely protracted when someone is living in diaspora. I watched this process play out throughout my childhood and adolescence. There’s something really beautiful there; I think it is a beautiful act of empathy. And at the same time, as a child, it felt extremely theatrical. It put a lot of pressure on this person who was about to be mourning, because there was a performance that they didn’t necessarily know they were being scripted into, but that they would nevertheless have to play a starring role in.

I realized my conceptions of death had very little to do with the experience of losing someone. I was also simultaneously attracted to and alienated by the rituals of death that I had grown up with. I was thinking about all of this while I started writing this book, which for me was very much led by the voice of the narrator. It wound up being the case that he, too, is really troubled by these questions of life and death. He struggles with a kind of binary thinking when it comes to life and death, which has a lot to do with his life in America—where he’s been conscripted into individualism, and where he’s sought refuge. And seeking refuge is always an individuating process: Saving one’s life requires leaving one’s collective life behind. The narrator really believes that his status as an American protects him from disease, from suffering, from death, which are qualities that he attributes to his country of origin.

RH: Hangman as a novel has a tendency toward abstractions and ambiguity, like putting in descriptions instead of proper names to ground depictions of very specific processes of racialization and oppression—specifically, a Black political refugee returning to his country of origin. How do these narrative strategies and withholdings relate to the bigger project you had in mind for the work?

MB: We tend to think of a refuge as a place of safety, obviously—of shelter, of livelihood, of life itself. It’s defined in distinction to a country of origin, which in the legal context must necessarily be a place of persecution and potential death. When someone is seeking refuge or asylum, they have to prove they are being persecuted because of their belonging within a social group, and yet they must present themselves as an individual apart from that social group. Legally speaking, “refuge” has no formally binding definition, despite the fact that it conjures so much. The governing bodies that are meant to provide refuge are not bound to anything. Certain government programs must provide housing for people; they must provide food for a certain period of time. But beyond that, what a “refuge” means is undefined. A lot of people in my family came to the States as refugees from Ethiopia, and for a lot of Black immigrants, the distinctions between a refuge, which is meant to be a site of safety, and a country of origin, which is supposed to be a site of persecution, become incredibly confused, because in countries like the US, daily life is still governed by the logics of enslavement and incarceration. That is something that has always really interested me, and I knew I wanted that to be mapped onto whatever was going to happen in this book.

RH: Your comment about wanting to explore these sites of relation is really interesting, given the fact that the novel is also structured around reported conversations, or rather monologues from others that the narrator annoyedly reports. As the novel progresses, there’s an increasing sense of storytelling as a kind of uneven transaction, and the refusal to explain itself becomes a way of refusing the terms of that transaction. 

MB:How much is someone conditioned by other people they’re around, their family and friends, and by the various social forces (like the regimes they live under) that are acting on them? How much is someone just themselves? How much is someone an individual in the world? These questions, which I think are at the heart of figuring out how to live an ethical life, become literalized in the narrator’s case. The narrator is so attached to this conception of himself as a sovereign individual, and he doesn’t want to be made vulnerable to the experiences of other people.

The narrator is divided against himself in the sense that he desperately wants to feel at home, he wants to feel a sense of belonging, and at the same time, he’s really, really attached to his individualism, which has been conditioned by his life in America. He has a really hard time shedding the vantage of diaspora. He struggles to regard the people he encounters as individuals, as opposed to signs and signifiers of the state of the country as a whole. And so the narrator doesn’t see himself as someone that is marginal or disenfranchised at all. Two women call him by the N-word, and he’s like, “Who are they talking about? Because they can’t be talking about me.” He was in prison as a political prisoner, he was tortured, but he’s unwilling to accept that those things could continue to influence who he is in the world. But oftentimes the things that he attributes completely to other people are things that actually are very intimate to his own life. People are saying out loud what he isn’t willing to reveal about himself. That’s traced with the news stories, which he seeks out not always as sources of entertainment but as accessory narratives that attend the narrative of his own journey—stories that don’t actually influence the movements of his life. And, of course, that’s just simply not true. The farcical nature of those distinctions that I think a lot of people make are literalized in the book, because, of course, everything that’s happening does relate in some way to what’s happening to the narrator.

The narrator has an interest in language to the extent that he is constantly thinking about his own self-narration and that of others, but he kind of rejects the symbolic meaning of things as an overarching framework, even as that meaning follows him around. He senses that things are not as they appear; he knows something strange is happening. He’s not completely happy to be pulled along on this journey, but he is willing to play along to a certain extent. His withholding things is ultimately an attempt at saving face or remaining respectable. And so I think his narration of events is not as close to his interiority as we might expect from a first-person narrator—there are many degrees of separation, because he is still desperately holding on to this image of himself that is very quickly slipping away.

RH: What were the kinds of lineages you were pulling from as you were writing Hangman and thinking about this refusal to narrate?

MB: There are a few books that have been extremely influential to me that I’ve read and reread throughout my writing life. One is Season of Migration to the North. It’s about this mystical figure [Mustafa Sa’eed] who is coming home from the colonial metropole back to Sudan. He studied economics and spent time in these highly intellectual communities in the colonial metropole. When he gets home, people don’t know how to regard him, in part because he’s been so thoroughly changed by the metropole—but he’s also left behind him this violent, murderous rampage that in my mind literalizes the ways in which imperialism fundamentally changes the colonial metropole as well. Mustafa is more in control of the narrative that he’s spinning than the narrator in my book, but I was looking to Season of Migration to the North not just as a tale of metropole and colony, but for how it’s so rife with storytelling, with stories about individuals giving life to the community in which they live.

I was also thinking about The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, which is about a group of people in the Windrush Generation who came from the West Indies and are making their home in London, and which also does not have a conventional plot. It’s told through the antics of this large group of people that’s just forming and just starting to take on an identity, which becomes clear through how these individuals’ stories intersect. Both of those books are not so tethered to the first person, unlike Hangman, which is told through a first-person narrator and has a strong narrative style that’s still constantly subject to other people. I was interested in how much you can diminish the first person while still utilizing it.

RH: Both of the books you mention are very much interested in masculinity as a corrosive force, and so is Hangman. Do you think there’s a connection there—that the novel’s interest in masculinity is related to its interest in diminishing the first person?

MB: I’ve been framing the narrator’s unwillingness to be vulnerable to the experiences of others as something that has almost completely to do with his attachment to individualism, but of course it also has to do with his attachment to his sense of himself as a man and his masculinist tendencies. He engages mostly in conversations with other men, and quietly and forcefully refuses the idea that the women he talks to could get anything from him, or that anything they discuss could relate to him. And at the same time, women are helping him along his journey in quieter ways the entire time that he isn’t entirely willing to recognize, but that he does happily receive. He eats food; he takes medicine. He takes a ride from his son’s mother, of whom he has a very negative view. The fantasy of existing as a sovereign individual capable of fully representing their psychology without the interventions of others, and the masculinist fantasy of being impenetrable to things happening in others’ lives, seem to me to be fantasies that depend on each other. This embrace of the collective tenets of masculinity reveals itself throughout the novel to be just that: an unrealistic position.

RH: Which links us to a long conversation in your novel between two graduate students about historical progress, which the narrator eavesdrops and comments on, but where the historical mutates into the highly specific personal. I’m really curious about how you were thinking about these two different scales that coexist but are irreducible to each other while you were writing the novel.

MB: The two graduate students are arguing the two sides of the same thing. The extension of hopeful thinking can often loop back around and become a depressive position. The argument that people who suffer political persecution ultimately suffer in vain because things are bound to continue apace is a defensive position to take, to the extent that it negates the possibility that things could be otherwise. It’s a conversation I’ve had a lot in my family. My father was a political prisoner in Ethiopia in the ‘80s, and I think he has guilt over how he belonged to a political movement that got incorporated into people’s psychologies to the extent that they believed that their suffering or their deaths were OK because it would usher in this new world. He lost a lot of friends, but of course has continued to live on, and he has seen that the socialist image that he and his friends had of the country changing fundamentally has not yet been realized. People only live for one lifetime; the feeling of things not yet being realized can become a dire one, insofar as it seems like it will stretch out into infinity, because it’s hard to imagine that things may be realized after you die. That question of history, but also the future, can feel intensely personal. I think it is really, really difficult on a daily basis to maintain the belief that the world will get better, that it will get more just, even if it doesn’t happen within our lifetime. It’s really hard to conceive of time in such extensive ways unless, I think, you really commit yourself.

For the good-looking graduate student, the question of history becomes a substitute question for his relationship with his father and his old feelings of abandonment. It’s a tale as old as time, you know—a man is more committed to the revolution than to his family. But I am interested in how political ideals exist among kin. Political persecution and how history moves are obviously big questions, but they manifest most often on a kind of small, everyday scale.

RH: Do you think there’s something politically efficacious to the project of your novel, then?

MB: If the book has a political project, it’s a surreptitious one, even though there are a lot of big political signifiers in the conventional symbolic sense. This relates back to the obstruction—I wanted readers to be alienated, perhaps from their ingrained associations with how those signifiers work. The country, while unnamed, is obviously a sub-Saharan African country. I don’t think of it as Ethiopia exactly, but of course I was drawing upon my experiences there. If I were to name it as such, as Ethiopia, probably a lot of American readers above a certain age would think of it as a horrible place where there was a massive famine. There’s something politically useful about alienating people from their immediate associations. The narrator is alienated from those associations too. But I’m trying to more directly answer your question—like, what is politically useful about that?

A novel is obviously a political object. It acts on our collective and individual consciousnesses, but the way that it does that is so difficult to trace. There are the obvious examples, like Chinua Achebe reading Heart of Darkness and learning to think of himself as apart from the place that he’s from. Most books are so powerful [in that regard], and yet their impressions can be so difficult to trace, especially when they aren’t explicitly programmatic.

Honestly, it depends a lot on readers, which I’m just beginning to encounter. Up until this point, the book has been a private object for me, and I don’t believe that it can have a political function as a private object. It’s something that has acted on me, something that has deeply affected me, even though I’m the one who wrote it, but fundamentally it’s private up until the point that it’s shared with readers.

RH: Given these comments about readership, how do you think about your fiction in conjunction with the rest of your career in magazine writing?

MB: I’ve always been writing fiction alongside the various things that I’ve done, though it’s at various points taken up more or less of my time, a consistently waxing and waning activity. I do really believe in the capacities of nonfiction writing or writing for hire to be political, but I do think that there are more impediments to the kind of work that can be done when I am working in conjunction with for-profit businesses that have their own goals in mind. That’s not always the case; like, I do think I’ve been able to write things that express a politics that I fully believe in, but there are just so many other factors at play. Magazines, some subjects I uncover, publishing houses—all of them have their own desires for how they want to be seen in the world and their own profit margins to fill, to a certain extent. What I’ll say is that because of the time pressures of magazine writing and all these forces I mentioned that are at play, I’m thinking very explicitly about political questions—not always, but it’s ingrained into my writing habits/styles and how I ask questions.

With a work of fiction, or at least with this book, those questions of course saturated my mind. They feel intensely personal, they affect how I view the world, but they also feel unformed—they can continue to be unformed when I’m writing through the psychology of the characters. The writing itself can be a means of exploration. It can be a relief to know that the questions that I’m interested in explicitly in my everyday life as I’m working, talking with friends, are percolating [inside me], but I don’t have to pound away at them. The questions I posed in Hangman are perennial ones for me; they’re not ones I feel like I’ve addressed [completely]. I don’t feel any kind of generic allegiances—I do love fiction writing; I don’t think it could ever be the only kind of writing I do—but trying to get at these questions with different modes of engagement feels like a lifelong project. Unfortunately, I’m not a painter or a visual artist. I mean, life is long, who knows! Obviously, I can understand these things in conjunction with other people and through organizing. But I feel like language is kind of the only way I can understand these things for myself.

There’s a real psychological difference for me in terms of when I approach a work of fiction and when I approach a work of nonfiction that I’ve been hired to do for a magazine. With fiction, the unconscious can be given free rein, and then the more explicit questions emerge retrospectively through conversations like this. When I’m writing nonfiction, I really am trying to manage how things are moving [in the piece], and how something might act on a reader—I’m thinking much more about: Who am I aligned with right now?

RH: That’s actually really, really interesting. What do you mean by “who am I aligned with”?

MB: Fiction is so incredibly rife with ethical questions, and it’s not like what I’ve written here doesn’t reference real history and people. But oftentimes when I’m writing journalistically and reporting—where I’m talking to people who are in the midst of experiencing something—what I’m writing is meant to frame it in the contemporary moment, in history, in terms of people who are acting against it. That’s when the question of “Who am I aligned with?” comes into play. Those questions are not ones that are asked by traditional producers of the news, who are attached to the idea of objective journalism, but of course it winds up being the case that they are nevertheless aligned with someone. You’re always going to be aligned with someone or with some group of people. I try to keep that question more explicit when doing that kind of work.

I could write a book of nonfiction that’s functionally similar to the novel, that addresses the idea of Black refuge more explicitly. Novel writing can be an extremely isolated act, and there’s a lot that I relish in that. I could imagine deciding that I need to engage in these questions alongside other people, by bringing others in, or by doing more explicitly historical forms of research. But if I were to write a nonfiction book about Black refuge, about how the lived experiences of refuge interacts with refuge as an ideal in countries that are still governed by a logic of enslavement and incarceration, it would have to answer questions much more explicitly and historically, especially when there are ethical obligations that are really strong and binding. It would require a very different way of working and engaging with other people.

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