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For your eyes only: Maya Binyam on "Hangman"

Sarah Selvanayagam

October 18th, 2023

A new series made of spoilers and other rewards.

Introducing our newest column: For Your Eyes Only, a series designed for close readers of all manner of texts. Authors and artists alike will untangle their own twists to reveal what it takes to both end a story and finish a work. This is a deeply intricate inquiry into what makes you turn the page, sit on the edge of your seat, rewind and rewatch, step back and look again. In other words, only spoilers to follow. Read at your own risk and reward. 

There is a kind of time travel that can accompany attending to the various drafts of a project, a feeling Maya Binyam, the author of the recently released novel Hangman, knows well. As a contributing editor to the Paris Review, and former editor at the New Inquiry and Triple Canopy, Binyam has spent considerable time on the work of others, attending to their writing with a fine-tooth comb. The process feels different on the other side. After a year away from writing the book, this interview marks her return to it on the eve of Hangman’s publication. As is evident in Binyam’s story of an unnamed man’s return to his unnamed homeland, going back can come with its difficulties. “I feel excitement,” she told me when we spoke over Zoom. “I'm coming out of a period of a lot of dread. I feel abstract appreciation for the book, but also abstract hatred…I don't think anyone's meant to read the same book 15 times in a single year, especially when it's a book they've written.”

Time isn’t the only thing traveled in Binyam’s enigmatic tale of diaspora. It’s a book about place as much as anything. “I was interested in the challenge of conjuring a place through the various fantasies people project onto it,” Binyam told me. “Fantasies projected by people living within it, people from there, people who haven't traveled elsewhere.” 

The narrator of Hangman has come back to the country he hasn’t returned to for some twenty years, looking for a brother he thinks is dying, though he’s not quite sure. If things sound hazy, it’s because they are. When a flight attendant asks him the same question in two different languages, it elicits two contradictory responses. The narrator hopes that strangers will tell him of his family. When he meets his family, they seem like strangers. Rooms seem to contract and expand. So does time. As it turns out, homecoming is equal parts physical and psychic journey—the line between made murkier by the disappearance of proper nouns. 

“There's a lot in the novel that's based on my own observations, or my observations of other people's observations, about traveling to Ethiopia, where my family is from,” Binyam said. “I wanted to avoid using the kind of shorthand of proper nouns. In my mind, they are psychologically imprecise. Like when I say ‘Ethiopia,’ that may mean something very, very different to a white American reader than it does to me. Ethiopia is not just a 1-to-1 description of a place.”  

Somehow, with Binyam’s sleight of hand, knowing less means knowing more. By stripping away identifying landmarks, she drops the reader into a startling honest—and specific—diasporic feeling: being lost in the familiar. It’s not simply names and places that are absent, but all anchors. Luggage, language, people all go missing.  When they do, how are we to orient ourselves?

In Hangman, the beginning of the end is the beginning. And so begins the first installment of our new series, For Your Eyes Only. Proceed if you’ve turned the last page and are dying (no pun intended) to hear Binyam’s thoughts on leaving and returning. 

A theme of alienation runs parallel to homecoming in Hangman. Do you think when it comes to diaspora, these two concepts are bound together?

I think that life in [the] diaspora is really conditioning. It changes the way that people relate both to the people they've left behind, and the person that they were when they lived at home. 

The narrator experiences that very explicitly. One of the only proper nouns that exists in the book is the United States. He’s really embraced the ideals of American individualism and personal striving. It becomes clear in his relationship with his brother, who he tends to see as needy and selfish in his requests for money and food and medicine. But he also brings that perspective to almost everyone he encounters in his home country. He uses them as a sort of metonymy for the state of the country.

That separateness is often accentuated during a homecoming, at the moment that's supposed to be a warm embrace and a return. Something I've been thinking a lot about is that seeking refuge is an individuated process. Like legally, when you seek refuge or political asylum, at least in the context of the U.S., you have to prove that you face persecution due to belonging in some particular social group. But, of course, you're securing refuge for yourself. And so, saving one's life requires leaving behind a collective life. That's something that the narrator is really desperately trying to navigate.  He's attached to his sense of sovereignty and separateness, and he does want desperately to belong again. 

In a lot of diaspora narratives, there's an assumption that familial ties, once broken, can come back together. There’s an insistence in your novel on not knowing if that’s true. Can you talk about how the fragmenting of familial bonds factors into the narrative?

I'm really interested in the relationship between the nuclear family unit and a commitment to collective living. I think oftentimes those two things appear to be in conflict with each other, and a lot of people have a very difficult time navigating how to exist within a family when they feel very strong commitments outside of it. It's not a spoiler to say that the narrator was a political prisoner and a revolutionary and was very committed to that.

The family can feel extremely claustrophobic. It can come into conflict with the principles of living as an individual with the world.  

Another trope of diaspora stories is that no matter how far you go away from home, no matter how many ties are broken, food is the sustaining link that binds you to home. 

In this narrative, there are so many scenes of the narrator choking down food, being repulsed by what he's eating, and being at war with his body once he eats. Can you talk about your approach to food in this story?

Food is material and also symbolic, imputed with meaning. The narrator is initially really excited to be eating foods that he hasn't encountered in many years. He’s seeing things that should symbolize a sense of belonging. But at the same time, [as] you mentioned, he literally struggles to digest it. Because food is something consumed and metabolized by our bodies, it calls attention to the membrane that exists between our internal selves and the outside world. 

To speak personally, I've witnessed so many friends and family members go back to Ethiopia and be afraid of food, in part because they've been instructed by Western doctors to see food that exists in their home country as dangerous and having the capacity to make them sick. There's something very, very tragic to me about that. I've experienced just so much pleasure going back to Ethiopia and eating foods that I can't find or that don't taste the same here. But the narrator has been so thoroughly shaped by the vantage of a diaspora that he has a hard time enjoying foods, foods he theoretically craves.

He also reads food metaphysically as a signifier for the success of the various people who are feeding it to him. He looks for meat as a sign of excess income. If the food is without meat, he thinks that it signifies that the people who are serving it to him are living in poverty. That also distances himself from his own sense of enjoyment.

In a separate interview, you mentioned how Ethiopian mourning rituals influenced the inception of this story. Can you describe that? 

In the community I grew up in, when someone passes away, the person who’s closest to that person doesn't get alerted immediately. Obviously if they're there, they'll know. But if someone close to me, knock on wood, were to pass away, It's not like I would get a call telling me that it happened. My friends and family would gather together and all tell me. 

It’s something that I experienced throughout my childhood. I always found those moments to be incredible feats of empathy. This kind of surreptitious gathering in preparation for telling someone that they're about to begin grieving and then modeling that grieving for them. But there was something intensely theatrical about it, too, and that involved, at least with my family, a lot of deception. Which was kind of tragic and then also sometimes funny. 

The process becomes incredibly protracted when people are living in [the] diaspora and have to travel home. One time my father's brother, who was living in Ethiopia, died. My father was in Boston. He got a call from family in Ethiopia saying, you need to travel here because your brother has died. But they told him that a different brother had died, a brother that he wasn't as close to. It wasn't until he arrived that he found out his close brother had passed away.

So there are all of these manipulations of reality in order to make it so that the moment at which the mourning person is going to feel the most intense grief [is the moment] they will be surrounded by other people. 

Another funny version of this was when my stepmother was organizing a surprise birthday party for my dad in Boston, where they live. She had invited a bunch of family members and friends. And in the days leading up to the surprise party, she was cooking a bunch of food. And my dad was confused as to why she was cooking so much food. He was like, “you know, this is way more than we typically eat in a week. Like, why are you doing so much cooking?” And she was like, “oh, well, you know, my brother is going to Ethiopia and we're going to have a goodbye thing for him.” 

But it was too much food. He was very confused. And he sensed that maybe someone had died and my family was going to be gathering. So he made all these calls to Ethiopia, to cousins and his sister, basically asking “is everyone in the family okay?”

He was extremely paranoid. And then on the night of his birthday, all these people came to the house and he was like “Oh my God, this is horrible.” And then finally they were like, “Surprise! Happy birthday!” There's a really hilarious photo of all his friends gathered. He's in the middle looking completely harrowed.

Oh, my God. You mentioned the theatricality of it. It's beautiful that everyone would make the effort to deceive. But also that the grieving person would accept this. 

There's a line in the book, where the narrator is talking about the traditions he's been raised with: “The process of dying was communal, even if you wanted to experience it alone.” Whether you like it or not, you won't be grieving alone. There's something really beautiful about that. Yet a lot of people that I'm close to bump against that. I don't know if that desire for solitude and grief is a natural one. I don't know if it's been conditioned by the American culture of dying, which is incredibly isolating. 

It is so different from Western traditions, where we demand clarity. This is the more explicitly spoiler alert part of the interview. How did the ending of this story come to you?

When I started writing, I knew that the narrator believed he was going to attend a funeral. I knew that he was actually going to attend a funeral, but I wasn't sure whose funeral it was going to be. I thought it might actually be his brother's funeral. I thought, maybe it's his son's funeral. And so while I was in the process of writing the first draft, I think I figured it out halfway through. But before that point, I wasn't really sure. 

I was also kind of disoriented. And part of that is because the essential trajectory of the novel is based on this journey that I went on with my dad when I was living in Ethiopia. When his brother passed away, we were told that his brother was sick, but not that he was dead. We knew the whole time that he was actually dead. 

There was that active deception through the four day journey that we took to go to his funeral. That was in my head, and it was helpful for inhabiting the psychology of the narrator—who is pretty convinced that his brother is sick. And then eventually that his brother is dying. And then eventually that his brother is dead. 

But through the process of writing, I realized that something else was happening, that it wasn't his brother—it was in fact him. That all of the qualities that he was imputing on to his brother were qualities that he himself inhabited. 

Part of that, I think, had to do with the narrator thinking he has been fundamentally warped by life in America, and that life in America has given him certain protections. I mean, he has quite literally found refuge there. And he thinks that because he's found refuge there, he is resourced. If he becomes sick, he'll be able to get better. His brother is thought of as fundamentally sick and needy, someone who is bound to be ailing until he eventually dies. And the more that I wrote him [the narrator] out, the more I realized that he was actively deceiving himself and that the protections that are supposedly conferred by refuge, especially in a place like the U.S., are kind of mythic or fantastical.

His last words are about him trying to understand the concept of home. What do you think it means to come home?

Oh, that's such a good question. It's hard for me. I really identify as someone who has been without a geographic home. Part of that is because my dad came here as a refugee. And so my tether to Ethiopia is not as strong as it otherwise might be. 

And also, I didn't have a single residential home. My mom moved us around constantly. I think the longest I've lived in any one apartment is two and a half years. I kind of feel fundamentally without a home located in that space. 

That's something that my whole life I really yearned for and it's been in recent years that I've stopped yearning and started trying to think of home or feel like home is a sense memory. 

It feels really tangible in moments. Like going back to the various places that I've grown up and feeling almost the impression of a past life. It feels almost like [a] substance in the atmosphere. But you can't use any of your five senses to really feel it.  

The narrator kind of figured that out by the end, too. He's tried really hard to experience his homegoing through taste, and it hasn't worked, through speech, and it hasn't really worked either. Through sight, which also hasn't worked. He doesn't really commune with people intimately or physically. And then finally at the end, he realizes that all [of that] is something that is in him. Which isn't to say that it's not also in his relationships with other people—but it's not quite a place he can go to.

Do you think mourning rituals imbue death with its own meaning?

Oh, absolutely. I grew up with this highly ritualized process of mourning on one side of my family. My mother's American and not religious. I do think that she has complicated views of death and her own kind of spirituality. But as a child, I was kind of a vehement atheist before I knew all of the ugly things that attend atheism. I wanted to believe that people died and then they ceased to exist. 

Recently, I've been in a much more active period of trying to change my understanding of death. I've looked to these mourning rituals that I grew up with, that I was kind of dismissive of, or scared of, or skeptical of. I found a lot of meaning in them. 

I had never experienced anyone I loved dying. And now that I have, and it seems to be just on the horizon for the rest of life, I have to have a different way of understanding death. Otherwise it's too tragic to not remain connected to the people who go.

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