That Place Becomes a Wound

In naming me, my father insisted on my presence.

Photo: Dawn Endico/Flickr

The first time my father lost his body was in 1962. He was eight.

His father had sent him to the store to buy a bottle of arake, a liquor made from the roots of the false banana tree. On his way home, he sat down to rest in a field. He looked at the bottle, but there was nothing to read. Just a clear bottle with a gold cap, nothing to tell him about the taste inside. My father took the bottle, brought it to his mouth, and sucked the clear liquid through his teeth.

My father doesn’t remember the rest of the story. His brother told him he was found dead on the side of the road. The woman who found him carried him home. She told his father here is your son and he is dead. I am sorry. I am so sorry, she said.

My father’s father did not cry. He called the servant and instructed him to cut down a large tree and build a coffin. He said, tonight we will bury my son. The servant built the coffin. Another servant called the neighbors. Everyone came into the field for the ceremony. My grandmother, Wusenyelesh, or She Without Borders, denied my father’s death. No, she said. Binyam cannot die. She repeated that: Binyam cannot die, Binyam cannot die, but gave no reason why.

Midway through the ceremony, my father woke up. He vomited on his body and on the coffin; he spilled his drink onto his father’s floor.

On most days, I feel like the surface I am named after. Like the water in a shallow pond, or more likely a puddle. Translucent, but from certain angles you may see your reflection in me. Ma-ya. In Amharic, my father’s first language, ማያ. As a child, I was told that this was the meaning of me. I was named after someone else’s fleeting image.

Before I was born, my parents split up. My mother, who is white, moved into a two-bedroom apartment in a majority-white suburb of Boston. My father rented a small apartment in a mixed-income neighborhood; his rent was subsidized, and he lived there with his brother, my uncle, who had just arrived from a refugee camp in Sudan. On Sundays, when I was done living at my father’s, we’d meet my mother at Au Bon Pain so she could bring me to live at hers. My parents are good friends. This is something I’ve always liked about them. Sometimes they buy each other coffee, even when I’m not there.

The Au Bon Pain in Central Square does not encourage lingering. Coffee is kept in large thermoses, as is hot water for tea. Customers fill their own cups, their own bowls of soup, then pay at the register before sitting down to eat or drink. It’s a bit like a high school cafeteria; someone is always acting out. Most often it’s the white managers, who routinely make a scene of kicking out the homeless patrons, many of whom are also white.

When my father goes to Au Bon Pain, he fills a large cup with hot water and slips in two tea bags. He then places this large cup within another large cup, pays for one large tea, and, once at his table, splits the tea between the two cups so he can share with whomever he is with.

A few years ago, my stepmother’s limbs began to swell. Her legs and arms, even her neck and face, swelled rapidly with something we could not see. We thought maybe it was salt: she has too much salt in her and so she is becoming larger than she is meant to be. We decided to take her to Mass General, where the doctors ran tests. My father and I went down to the cafeteria, and he prepared his usual cup of tea for us to share. We went to pay, but the cashier charged him for two large teas. No, he said. I have prepared one large tea to share with my daughter. It is two teas, the cashier told him; I must charge you for two. It is one tea, my father insisted. It is one large cup of hot water, and it is only after paying that I will split this one into two, for me and my daughter. Our primary cost in providing this tea for you, argued the cashier, is in the tea bags, not in the hot water. You have two tea bags, therefore we must charge you for two teas: one for you, and one for your daughter. You must pay for two teas or you must throw the cup away and pay for none. My father dumped the tea into the garbage bin on the floor next to the cash register, and we left the cafeteria to check on my stepmother, who seemed to be expanding by the hour.

One day, a Saturday, I went to Au Bon Pain with my father and my uncle. My mother wasn’t there. I assume my father and uncle were sharing a tea. This is how I tell the story:

I was three, and I walked from table to table, greeting each customer. I said hello to one customer, then I moved on and said hello to the next. I smiled, I said hello, but not a single customer said hello back. Instead, they looked from me to my father and uncle drinking their tea. They looked back and forth, back and forth, and not one of them said hello. My father and uncle were tired of being looked at, so they called me to their table. Let us leave, said my father. Yes, said my uncle. Let us go. My father stood up from his chair, and then I took his place. I poked his neck and climbed up onto his table. I raised my arms above my head, then yelled: I AM FROM ETHIOPIA.

I told this story during my college interviews. I’ve told this story on dates. Sometimes when I tell this story, I’m telling a story about growing up in Cambridge. Sometimes, I’m telling a story about Bob Marley, whose song “Get up, Stand up” I used to love and still do. Other times, I’m telling a story about my uncle, who died of a heart attack five years later. When I tell this story I am always telling a story about racism, about aligning myself with my father’s blackness, even and especially when white people try to see themselves in me.

I find the emphasis on one’s given name a generally annoying trope of personal essays, especially when responses to one’s given name are generally benign. My name is rarely mispronounced. On occasion it’s mistaken for the near identical Mia, which I don’t mind. I could have been named Mia.

My last name, however, almost always attracts attention from non-Ethiopians, and they almost always manage to make it sound ugly, which is ironic, because it is a direct translation from the Bible, meaning only Benjamin. I could have been named Mia Benjamin. Or Maya Benjamin, or Maya after Maya Angelou, because I like her poems and so do my parents. It’s plausible they named me with her in mind.

Names are often arbitrary, which is why I sometimes feel bored reading about other people’s boring names. Mia is a boring name, and so is Maya. But naming is also always, and especially in places haunted by colonialism (which is everywhere), a tool of classification, of bringing an image into sharper focus for the purpose of recognition, or more often, control.

I could have been named Mia Benjamin, but I am from Ethiopia. My father’s first name is my last name, the first and last syllables of my full name are reflections of each other, and in trying to bring my image into sharper focus, my parents made me into a mirror. Maya Binyam.

In 1977, my father’s name, Binyam Tamene, was announced on the radio, and then he was taken to a prison where he was detained for two years. He was arrested along with sixty-five other anti-revolutionaries, many of whom lost their bodies in that prison. This was during the Red Terror, or Qey Shebir, a period of mass violence in which a military junta called the Derg killed more than 500,000 Ethiopians and Eritreans. My father almost lost his body, but he didn’t. He was released along with the twelve other anti-revolutionaries who had been kept alive.

My father left Ethiopia to regain control of his body, but when he arrived in Romania, to attend Babes Bolyai University on scholarship, he was detained and threatened with deportation. When he finished his studies and arrived in the U.S. as a refugee, he was detained again, this time outside the apartment he shared with my mother; the police suspected him of trying to burglarize his own home. My father is often stopped or followed by the police. He fled Ethiopia to find refuge in the U.S., which is also a site of persecution. Still he is in danger of losing his body. Black people are in constant danger of losing their bodies, of having their bodies taken from them.

“There are people whom we do not fully know, and yet they live in a warm place within us, and when they are plundered, when they lose their bodies and the dark energy disperses, that place becomes a wound.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates

Our hurt has value before we die. I’d like to call attention to my stepmother’s swelling limbs, my uncle’s high blood pressure. Black lives matter, even before they are taken away. Black bodies matter, but they also have matter. We take up space. Because I am a light-skinned black woman, sometimes white people want to make me a part of their privacy. They would like me to believe that my body is not in danger.

Sometimes I think if I can mimic my father’s wounds, he won’t have to worry about his body being taken from him. I write my father’s wounds. I try to create characters who speak from his memory. If my father recognizes himself in my writing, maybe I can guard him. I can keep his life from being taken away, or worse, forgotten.

If this theory of protection, however, is a virtue not only of my being my father’s daughter, but also of my mother’s whiteness, of my proximity to my mother’s whiteness, then I’d like to scrap it altogether. But then I remember that my brother, whose mother is not white, protects my father too, albeit in ways that are different from my own. My brother’s name is Behailu, which means With Strength. My brother carries my father’s strength. I reflect his wounds.

My grandmother was without borders, but she died in the same village in which she was born. My father crossed borders to save his life, which is still in danger, and now he can never go home. I can go wherever I want, and so last year I moved to my father’s home to learn the language he shared with his mother, my grandmother, who is now dead.

I don’t like talking to strangers because they are always telling me things I don’t want to hear. Living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, I found myself talking to strangers more often than I would’ve liked, which was mostly due to the fact that I know very few people there. One night last winter, in a neighborhood called Gotera, I was talking with a man I didn’t know at a bar I like called Facebook. He asked me if I knew what my name meant. Yes, I said. Like a pond or more likely a puddle. Translucent, but from some angles reflective. No, he responded. Your name means my vision. Your name means my sight. Maya is the view, the thing I see from the lookout.

This was not supposed to be the meaning of me. My parents made me transparent: seen through, or, in rare moments, seen onto. The surface upon which an image is transposed. I must have looked unsatisfied by his corrective, because the stranger continued. If your father named you, it means he has made you visible. You are in his line of sight. What I mean to say is, you are your father’s vision, but you are also what he sees.

In naming me, my father insisted on my presence. Here I am, in plain view. Not the surface, but the thing itself. We are losing our bodies, me and my father, my brother and my stepmother, as well as many people like us, which is to say many other black people whose names I do not know. We are losing or have lost our bodies. I want to mourn my body. I’m trying to bear witness to our reciprocal wounds. This is not the same thing as saying my body is a reflection of these other bodies. We’re cleaved together.

“come celebrate/ with me that everyday/ something has tried to kill me/ and has failed” — Lucille Clifton

Maya Binyam is a writer based in New York.