Narrative Subversions: “Unnatural” Narration and an Ethics of Engagement in the Work of Mahi Binebin

Dr. Calhoun Doyl


This podcast presents work related to my first book project, The Suicide Archive: Reading Resistance in the Wake of French Empire—which concludes with a chapter on suicide bombing, focused on Moroccan writer and artist Mahi Binebine’s (b. 1959) novel Les Étoiles de Sidi Moumen (2010)—and a second book project, Narrative Subversions: Strange Voices in Francophone Fiction, which explores unconventional narrative configurations and includes a chapter on narrative techniques in Binebine’s work. 

In the final chapter of The Suicide Archive, and in a recently published article “Dead Narrators, Queer Terrorists,” in New Literary History, I show how literary texts such as Binebine’s novel—a fictional account of the 2003 Casablanca bombings—circumvent and unsettle the established discourses around suicide bombing. Narrated by a dead terrorist from beyond the grave, Binebine’s Étoiles uses “unnatural narrative” to ethical ends, helping us to understand the prerequisites for extraordinary violence. “Unnatural” or nonnatural narratives can be broadly defined as a subset of fictional narratives that violate “physical laws, logical principles, or standard anthropomorphic limitations of knowledge” (Alber). In postmodernist fiction, unnatural narratives often draw on impossibilities conventionalized by earlier or established literary genres but deploy them in otherwise realist frameworks. Unnatural narratives might involve nonrealistic or unconventional storytelling scenarios, such as a dead or unborn narrator; a narrator that is an inanimate object; or you-narratives/second-person fiction.

Mahi Binebine’s novelistic universe abounds with unnatural narratives and unconventional narrators: from his first novel, Le Sommeil de l’esclave (1992)—an extended second-person address that gives way to the memories of an enslaved woman—to his most recent novel, Mon frère fantôme (2022), which is narrated by the split or twinned personality of a touristic guide in Marrakech. Analyzing works such as these, Narrative Subversions shows how “unnatural” narratives emerge as formal solutions to historical and epistemological impasses and as a mode of ethical engagement: means of cultivating what Martha Nussbaum has called the “narrative imagination,” the ability to become an intelligent (and empathetic) reader of the other people’s stories.


Doyle Calhoun is currently Assistant Professor of Language and Culture Studies (postcolonial Francophone studies) at Trinity College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in French from Yale University this year, where he was an affiliate of the Yale Council on African Studies. Prior to Yale, he completed a Masters in linguistics at KU Leuven, in Belgium, where he was also a Fulbright Research Grantee. 

Calhoun’s research and teaching focus on the literatures and cinemas of Africa and the Caribbean, especially Senegalese literature in French and Wolof. Working at the intersection of literary criticism, history, media studies, and decolonial theory, Calhoun shows how aesthetic forms provide alternatives to dominant colonial and postcolonial scripts. Calhoun has published over a dozen articles, in journals such as Research in African Literatures, French Studies, and Nineteenth-Century French Studies, and his work is forthcoming from PMLA. His public-facing writing has appeared in Public Books and the Sydney Review of Books. In 2021, he received the Ralph Cohen Prize from New Literary History for the best essay by an untenured scholar. 

His first book project, The Suicide Archive: Reading Resistance in the Wake of French Empire, turns the difficult topic of suicidal resistance into one worthy of analysis, attention, and interpretation. Beginning in the eighteenth century and working through the twenty-first century, from the time of slavery to the so-called Arab Spring, The Suicide Archive covers a broad geography that stretches from Guadeloupe and Martinique to Senegal, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, and draws on an expansive corpus of literature, film, oral history, and archival materials to plot a long history of suicide as a political language in extremis. 


Primary Sources

Nabil Ayouch, Les Chevaux de Dieux (Les Films du Nouveau Monde, 2012)

Aziz Binebine, Tazmamort (Denoël, 2009)

Mahi Binebine, Mon frère fantôme (Stock/Fennec, 2022)

Le fou du roi (Stock, 2017)

Le seigneur vous le rendra (Flammarion, 2013)

— Les Étoiles de Sidi Moumen (Flammarion, 2010)

–Terre d’ombre brulée (Fayard, 2004)

Pollens (Fayard, 2001)

— Cannibales (Fayard, 1999)

— L’ombre du poète (Stock/Fennec, 1997)

— Les funérailles du lait (Stock, 1994)

— Le sommeil de l’esclave (Stock, 1992)

See also the author’s website:

Ousmane Sembène, La Noire de…/Black Girl (1966) (Criterion Collection, 2013)

— “La Noire de…” Voltaïques (Présence Africaine, 1962)

Secondary Sources

Jan Alber, “Unnatural Narrative,” Handbook of Narratology (De Gruyter, 2014), 887–95

Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing (Columbia Univ. Press, 2007)

Doyle Calhoun, “Dead Narrators, Queer Terrorists: On Suicide Bombing and Literature,” New Literary History, vol. 53, no. 2 (2022), 285–304

— “Looking for Diouana Gomis (1927–1958): The Story behind African Cinema’s most Iconic Suicide,” Research in African Literatures vol. 52 (2021), no. 2, 1–35. doi: 10.2979/reseafrilite.52.2.01. 

— “(Im)possible Inscriptions: Silence, Servitude, and Suicide in Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire de…,” Research in African Literatures vol. 51, no. 2 (2020), 96–116.

Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (Beacon, 1995).

Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Duke Univ. Press, 2007)

Jacqueline Rose, The Last Resistance (Verso, 2007)

Gayatri Spivak, “Terror: A Speech after 9-11,” boundary 2 31, no. 2 (2004): 81–111

  1. Mahi Binebine, wax and pigments on wood (2022) // Matisse Art Gallery Marrakech
  2. Mahi Binebine, wax and pigments on wood (2020) // Matisse Art Gallery Marrakech
  3. Mahi Binebine, Couple entrelacé (2009) // Musée Mohammed IV
  4. Place Jamaa el-Fna