Maya Binyam’s debut novel Hangman was born from its first sentence. “In the morning, I received a phone call and was told to board a flight,” the narrator notes, unsure of why he’s returning to his home country in sub-Saharan Africa after 26 years in America.
The slim novel that follows is a hazy, dreamlike recollection of his journey (first starting on the plane, where his seatmate dies in her sleep and he has to remain next to him for the duration of the flight). Binyam’s narrator, with simple yet funny narration, encounters people who tell him their stories, diving in and out between policy, culture, news, and psychology. And by the time the narrator figures out where he’s headed, he might already be too immersed to get out of it.
Our Culture talked to Maya Binyam about narration style, liminality, and refuge.
Congrats on your debut novel! How does it feel for it to finally be out?
It feels good. I would say that the months leading up to it entering the world were not great, jubilant months. But now that it is out and now that I’m having conversations with people about it, it feels good.
I’m curious to know what the first jolt of inspiration of the book was — it seems as though it could have been born from its first line and taken from there.
No, that’s exactly what it was.
Yeah! I really didn’t know what the book was going to be about. I mean, I knew certain things. I had a really strong grasp on the voice before I started writing the book. And before I had a plot in mind, the voice was something that was intensely familiar to me. And so it felt like, through the writing, I could follow the voice. It sounds strange to say that. It’s something that’s very difficult to chart out when writing where intention and happenstance meet, because it did feel like I was following the voice, even though I was obviously, as the writer, putting the narrator in various situations. But it did really begin with that first line. I had the idea of him being on a plane, and I had some sense for where he was going. But beyond that, the movement of the book was something that came about mystifyingly to me. At a certain point, I think halfway through writing the first draft, I knew where it was going to end up. But I did a lot of rewriting and edits because the thing didn’t become itself until I had written it.
The thing that struck me first about the novel was the dissonance between the narrator’s lack of knowledge of where he was going vs the feeling that the writer, you, did. It led him and us down a mysterious path, but it always seemed like you had control over it. Was this a conscious choice?
I do think that was a conscious choice. I knew from the beginning that he would come to believe at a certain point that he was going to a funeral. I knew that he would believe eventually that it was his brother’s funeral. But I wasn’t sure exactly whose funeral it was. But I did know that the people that he encountered, many of them would have some sense of the journey that he was on, and would hold knowledge about his final destination, knowledge that they were obscuring from him or knowledge that was only palpable to him in these bits and pieces. And that structure is gleaned from these morning rituals that I was raised with, in which someone who has lost another person may not be told that that person is dead until they can be surrounded by friends and family members. And I’ve watched that ritual play out throughout my life, and often it becomes very protracted, especially when someone is living in diaspora and the person who has died is, in this case, in Ethiopia. And there’s a lot of care work and deception involved in that process. And that was something that I knew I wanted to replicate in the text.
The narrator is observational and even pretty funny in his narration, almost coming across like he’s in a video game. ‘This door’s closed, so I’m going through another.’ How was it writing in this simplified and odd style?
It was so pleasurable for me. It’s really hard for me to dissect where exactly the voice came from. It’s based in part on some people I know and how they self-describe. But also, of course, it’s based on a million things that I’ve read and my own experiences of the world and my own sense of humor or my projected sense of humor that I’ve observed. But it was totally pleasurable to be in his head, and also kind of alluring. I wrote the bulk of the first draft when I was at a residency, and while I was there, I was in this group of ten strangers who I had no meaningful connection to. And I found that my mode of observing them began to mimic the way that the narrator observes the various strangers that he encounters on his journey. And that confluence of things was a little bit crazy making, but it was also very fun.
Something that was interesting to me is that our narrator didn’t seem to be comfortable in his country. Even when he’s with his family, he’s put off by customs like eating everything you’re given and regarding his family with a sort of distance. What do you think caused this?
I think he’s been conditioned by the process of leaving his home country. We find out at a certain point that he fled the country and found new life as a refugee. And I think generally, the process of seeking refuge is a kind of individuating process. It requires leaving collective life behind. It’s predicated on that collective life. People need to prove that they belong to some collective that is facing persecution, but then ultimately saving one’s own life requires leaving that life behind. And I think he’s been conditioned by that and also subsequently by life in the country where he’s found refuge, which is a place where individualism and consumerism reigns supreme. And he feels attached to that conditioning and at the same time, when he goes home, he wants again to belong to collective life. And he has some sense that the story that he’s meant to be producing, an immigrant returning home for the first time in many years, is meant to be a happy one. He says that at one point, explicitly in the text, it’s meant to be a story where he’s sort of, like, returned to the land of the familiar and welcomed with open arms, and he wants that for himself. And at the same time, he’s been somewhat irrevocably changed by the way his life has gone. And so I think that disjuncture between what he wants to experience and what he is experiencing produces the kind of alienation that you’re describing. He wants very badly to enjoy the food that he hasn’t been able to enjoy in many years, and yet his body rejects it at every point.
Something I also think contributes to that is how the novel is set up — there’s these long stretches of pages that are composed of single conversations. So he has these snapshots of the country, but never the full picture.
That’s interesting. Now that you’re saying that, I’m realizing that those kind of snapshot moments in which he’s receiving some information or information about his home country is made palpable through these instantaneous interactions. I think that combined with the namelessness produces something that I was trying to get at, which is the ways in which these various places are produced not just by their geography and their national borders, but by the interactions that happen between people who live within them or people who exist outside of them, but nevertheless talk about them and so conjure them, through that process of kind of applying language to them. And I was more interested in that process than I was in referencing any place in particular. Although, of course, many places are referenced in the text through allusion and projection and also just firsthand experience. But, yeah, I think if proper nouns were being evoked, like if he was saying that he had come from America and was traveling back to a particular country, I think that would evoke the kind of wholeness that you’re describing as not really existing within the text. And at the same time, I think that using those proper nouns could strangely produce a kind of vagueness. I found it easier to be psychologically specific through writing about these interactions that you’re describing.
Speaking of, I loved the intangibility of the novel, how you distort our sense of place. We know it’s a sub-saharan country, but really no other clues are given. Often, our narrator will say, ‘I walked somewhere.” Was it difficult to work inside of a less-defined space?
It wasn’t difficult. And I think it’s because the book is pretty simple. The structure of it, I mean, it takes place over the course of four days. Each of those days is narrated from the beginning of the day till night, chronologically. And he is often moving through spaces that are meant to guide movement in a particular way. Like, he goes to an airport, he goes to a bank, he goes to a church. There are all these conventions of behavior that I think we’re all familiar with and that we all experience when we move through those various institutions. And I think, given that kind of concrete structure, I found that I could play a lot within it and play with his own sense of placelessness. And also, I could allow his idiosyncrasies to develop because it’s interesting when someone goes to a bank and deposits money without having an account. That is a very clear way of signifying that something unconventional is happening and that the narrator is experiencing some trouble.
Something I really enjoyed is that apparently, the narrator is friendly-looking enough for everyone to spill their secrets to. He learns of so many life stories, when the reader isn’t totally sure of his own. Why did you want to write a narrator that mostly collects stories as opposed to having his be the forefront of the book?
I mean, it’s something that I did kind of impulsively. It’s not something that I necessarily intended to do. But as I wrote, it certainly became true of the narrator, and that truth had meaning to me. I think, like I said before, he’s really attached to his own sovereignty. And as you said, too, he’s nice enough that people want to tell him stories. He’s a very polite person, and he’s very attuned to the conventions of respectable behavior, but he’s almost so attuned to those conventions that they become empty of meaning. They no longer facilitate direct and mutual communication. Instead, they facilitate this kind of unidirectional communication in which, like you said, he’s collecting stories, but not necessarily producing them. And I wanted to do that in part because I felt like it heightened the boundaries between him and other people. And I wanted to call attention to that because I think that he’s fixated on that. He really wants to belong to other people. And at the same time, he doesn’t want to be made vulnerable to any of the bad things that have happened in their life because they may remind him of the bad things that have happened in his life, which he’s very actively trying to not necessarily suppress.
But he’s trying to convince himself and convince the people that he encounters that those experiences don’t have meaning. They no longer have any relation to the person that he’s become. And that’s in part because he’s bought so thoroughly into the narrative of having found new life in another place.
It’s a deeply political novel, and with many conversations, our narrator learns about policy, organization, and class, and his internet searches dig up a continued kidnapping story back in America, as well as other news. What was your goal in merging seemingly nonfiction elements with this character?
It’s an interesting way of framing it, these nonfiction elements interacting with the narrator’s fictional journey into the world, because it’s all fictional even if it has some grounding, in at least in my experience of the world, it gets warped through re-presentation. Part of it is who he is. He is somewhat fixated on the idea of current events as this collection of things that are happening in the world that have very little to do with an individual, in this case, him, moving through it. That distinction is very important to him and he likes to seek out stories about a kind of objective politics. Politics that are at work in the world but which have no bearing on him — he seeks that out kind of compulsively. And that isn’t because he’s not a political person, we learn that, in fact, he was a political revolutionary in his country and had a very intimate understanding on how politics acted on individual psyches and on the shape peoples’ daily lives take. He’s very resistant to that view of things in his life at the moment in which we’re encountering him. I think I brought in those elements to dramatize and hyperbolize what I feel to be a common mistake in understanding the world, which is that there are things that happen on a political level and then there are things that happen on an individual level, and those two things don’t have to do with each other. That’s kind of the myth that’s operating throughout the novel, that I think by the end, is revealed to not be true. All of the people he encounters are basically telling him that that’s not true, they’re describing the ways their lives have been thoroughly transformed by forces that seem unpeopled, cold, or intangible.
I think I thought of these elements as nonfiction because there’s these stretches of vagueness in narration, where he’s like, “I went somewhere,” next to these really concrete examples of immediate politics in these citizens’ lives.
Right, well sometimes also there are things, for example, the news stories that appear in the book are based on news stories I’ve encountered throughout my life. There’s one about a couple who trained their house cats to go and steal jewelry and cash from their neighbors’ homes, and I probably saw that on the morning news, or a dumb news clip one of my family members sent me years ago. But those things read like fiction, they have a fantastical element to them or it feels like they’re communicating — not necessarily in that case — some kind of moral or ethical lesson, like the kind you’d encounter in The Canterbury Tales or something like that. So I think, in my experience of life, those two things are constantly being mixed.
Do you also think that your journalism work influenced the novel, in a subconscious or even explicit way?
Definitely. I think when I’m writing fiction, I’m in a different mode than I am when I’m writing journalism. It feels like the subconscious is more at work when I’m writing fiction, for this book too, and of course it’s at work when I’m writing journalism too, but I often in that case, especially with reporting, I have some sense of the story I’m trying to tell. And also I have things and people I’m bound to. But the fundamental questions I’m interested in asking and attempting to answer are the same.
Finally, what’s next? Do you have any more fiction projects coming up, or a second novel?
That’s a very good question and it’s still somewhat mysterious to me. I hope to work on another novel, but… we’ll see!
Hangman is available now.