The Hangman's Game

Written by David Katz for Caribbean Beat, Issue 95 on

Guyanese-born author Karen King-Aribisala won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (African Region) last year for her intriguing novel The Hangman’s Game, which drifts between the historical past of colonial Guyana and late-1990s Nigeria. It’s a masterfully crafted work that invokes a range of weighty issues as past and present increasingly intertwine, and in which the writing of the book becomes an embedded subtext.

“I am concerned with differences and sameness within the differences,” King-Aribisala reveals by e-mail from Nigeria, where she is a professor of English at the University of Lagos, “the need for harmony while still respecting our differences. The Hangman’s Game is set in two countries in two different eras, but each is ‘enslaved’ by a brutal political authority, and both societies are struggling to realise freedom by various means. 

“By linking the two periods, I am saying that they actually address the age-old issue of communities and individuals trying to set themselves free from political and governmental tyranny.”

Central to the historical sections is the Rev John Smithers, an Englishman who becomes involved in sedition. But although he strives to aid the liberation of the enslaved, Smithers is gradually revealed as flawed and self-motivated. Meanwhile, in the Nigerian sections, the devout Christian narrator—who may or may not be the author—describes a difficult pregnancy that is affected by her writing of the book, drawn against the terrifying backdrop of Sani Abacha’s despotic regime. As conditions in the country worsen, and the narrator becomes increasingly fixated on the word game of Hangman, parallels between the bloody events in historic Demerara and the increasing chaos of contemporary Lagos come into focus.

“I think that it is crucial to dialogue with history, with a particular time and place and people, so that we as human beings can address those issues which, rather than divide us, unite us—the suffering of mind, body and spirit which is occasioned by any form of slavery,” King-Aribisala explains. “Such a dialogue enables a kind of learning back-and-forth sympathetic process of shared suffering and reveals that, as a communal human body, we have the resources to alleviate, if not put an end to, our suffering; that we do have the capacity to secure freedom on every level if only we could perceive of ourselves as a collective force.”

As King-Aribisala’s parents were UN employees, she grew up in many countries, spending part of her youth in Nigeria and meeting her future husband, a Nigerian, in Rome, before studying literature in Barbados and the UK. Her own experience may inform the novel, yet King-Aribisala suggests that the book’s unusual structure was not necessarily premeditated. “The unconscious plays a vital role in the very act of writing, I actually write everything in longhand very quickly so that my thoughts will come from the gut and the spirit, and when I’m done, I read to see what happened to the character, to the situation. And it can be a surprise. In fact, I think it has to be a bit of a surprise, because then that means the characters are alive and in a sense making their own choices. 

“When I was writing the novel, I began by writing the Guyana part and it became something of a frightening process, because as I wrote, similar circumstances, issues began to be reflected in my real life in Nigeria, and the stories merged in that way.”

As the book continues being lauded, King-Aribisala is busy with other projects, including a collection of interrelated short stories called Shakespeared Black, a collection of stories centred on women and food culture in Nigeria, and a “rather ambitious project” relating to a life-changing event.

David Katz