The Brooklyn Rail


All Issues
JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Maya Binyam’s Hangman

Maya Binyam
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023)

There are no names in Maya Binyam’s debut novel Hangman. We are introduced to a mysterious narrator, who finds detached observations about the peculiarities of a return to his country. We are not certain what country this is. We don’t know this man’s name. We know that he is round, bald, and has a beard. We know he is searching for his brother. We know his brother is searching for him. We know that his brother sends him emails asking for money.

From small talk to missed opportunities for connection, the narrator drifts somewhat afloat across this country, and the environment greets him in a similar manner. Bizarre things happen to him without his significant consideration. A man dies within the first few pages while the narrator is on a plane to his home country. Enthralled in the movie that the dead man was watching, the narrator cares more about the laptop going dark than he does the fact that he is sitting next to a deceased passenger. He doesn’t even realize that the man is deceased until a flight attendant screams. His reactions to anything remarkable are in fact unremarkable.

This country is bizarre to the narrator the minute he steps into it. He can’t recognize his own cousin, there is a pigeon in his bathroom, and he mistakes the maid for the cousin’s wife. The land that he came from is both foreign to him yet he greets it with casual normalcy as if he was merely whisking his body on a cloud from one place to the next. He exists as a body without a mind—a body with organs, but without soul.

Throughout the book the people of this country are looking for someone to listen to them, just as the narrator’s brother does in his emails. And just like his brother seeks a man from a developed world with resources, the citizens of this country similarly ask the same of him in the form of a listening ear. 

Hangman is not novella length, although it might have been better served if it was. While we do get a mix of ups and downs, the plot structure doesn’t bear its classic intrigue. All the characters have a life story to tell, and they make sure to tell the narrator, though the character development doesn’t accelerate to its pinnacle until the novel’s very end.

While the plot lacks a classic structure, the prose itself is beautifully rendered. When I first read an excerpt of Hangman in The Paris Review I was captivated by how Binyam’s writing conveyed the narrator as a character of one that speaks for many. The narrator listens politely rather than with curiosity, often wondering why people speak to him at all. The narrator occasionally shares his own life story with strangers but doesn’t divulge much except for stoic facts: He messed up his son’s life; his son doesn’t want to speak to him. Eventually, the narrator loses everything he has brought with him: his suitcase, his wallet, his memory, and his sense of reality. 

Binyam takes a sudden twist that coalesces rather quickly near the last few chapters, where we find out why she has controlled the mystique of this anonymous world. Withholding names from characters is a choice, we come to learn, that expresses the identity-less nations that people from developed nations hear about but never actually travel to. As the narrator refers to characters as “my son’s mother” or “my son’s mother’s brother,” we get the sense that the talk of his own brother seems to evolve into a general reference to any brother. The narrator doesn't identify with anyone from a nation like this. And in that sense "my brother" comes to mean, I will help you, my brother.

Or, in the protagonist’s case, he will not, just perhaps as any of us wouldn't. The narrator is dismissive of his brother’s emails in a similar way that many comfortable in wealthier nations would write off say an email scammer. 

Meanwhile, from the book’s advance summary, we know that this is a story about the Sub-Saharan diaspora. It is an estrangement story from one’s own home once one leaves and becomes part of a developed nation. This process may be similar for anyone who comes out of a developing nation, but what Binyam seems to suggest is that any person from a developed nation will treat those from a country full of poverty, helpless inhabitants, and desperate patrons in the same way the narrator does. In doing so, Binyam creates a memorial for those from the diaspora who are lost and dead, a topic long begging for exploration. 

The book both begins and ends with death. The death at the end astutely calls on the reader to examine their perspective and the attitudes they have towards the people of the country in Hangman. What to think of this country at all, we come to wonder? And where is this brother? Why can't the narrator and his brother connect fully, and why does it take so long to find him? In Binyam’s simple yet controlled prose, maybe this isn’t the point, and in that sense, could it be that one is always searching for their brother in a country like this?

Perhaps Hangman isn't the story of this country or this man, but more about what migration does to its citizens, who become engorged with Westernized culture, and return to their homeland one day only to never recognize themselves in it at all. 


Sarah An Myers

Sarah An Myers holds columns at Psychology Today and Free Inquiry. As a freelancer, she covers human rights, sustainability, and books. She is earning her MFA in creative nonfiction at The New School.


The Brooklyn Rail


All Issues