Marina Benjamin Goes All In
Marina Benjamin writes to parse the questions that loom largest in her life. It’s a self-examination, yes. But never self-obsession.
Marina Benjamin is an editor and writer known for her essays, journalism, and memoirs.
Her work blends personal recollection, scientific history, social commentary, and philosophical reflection. Rocket Dreams (2003) tracks the disappointments of the space program and childhood in the 1970s. Last Days in Babylon (2006) explores her heritage in the story of the Jews of Iraq. The Middlepause (2016) delves into aging, menopause, and feminism. Her latest work, Insomnia (2018), ponders the semiotics of sleep and its absence.
Born in London to Iraqi Jewish parents, Benjamin studied history of science at Cambridge University and worked as a journalist and—for a time—professional gambler, before turning to non-fiction and memoir writing. She served as arts editor at the New Statesman and deputy arts editor at the Evening Standard. She is now senior editor at the digital magazine Aeon and a consultant in life writing and communications.
(Excerpt from Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia)
My insomnia often feels like this: turbocharged. It is not one idea that teases and prods me awake, a finger tickling me in a single spot, wriggling my mind into consciousness. It is as if all the lights in my head had been lit at once, the whole engine coming to life, messages flying, dendrites flowering, synapses whipping snaps of electricity across my brain; and my brain itself, like some phosphorescent free-floating jellyfish of the deep, is luminescent, awake, alive.
For the British writer Marina Benjamin, the page is a safe place to tackle troubling topics, like approaching middle age, reconnecting with her Iraqi-Jewish heritage, exploring how a pastime can become an addiction. Every book an attempt to confront something bothersome.
Marina Benjamin: Something that niggles me, something that I find painful, something that’s difficult, and writing is a way of kind of doing battle with the demon really.
AJC: Is the idea of all these books to find peace or to find knowledge, or both?
AJC: And do you?
Benjamin: I do actually. With each one I kind of feel like I’ve put something very difficult about life, or my life, behind me.
Benjamin’s breakthrough was 2016’s Middlepause, in which she analyzed, questioned, and often rejected everything she had been taught to fear about turning 50.
Benjamin: Everything that you’ve taken for granted as a driving force in your life is questioned. You become, I suppose, much more aware that the time left to you is less than the time that’s behind you. So, you’re not gonna waste time anymore. So, there’s a more, I think, a more directed sense about how you wanna use your energies. And the nice thing about being in your 50s, is you still have, you’re not elderly, you still have those physical energies, and you have an emotional maturity. So, there are two things that come together in quite a nice way, I think, in your 50s, once you get rid of the detritus of expectation around it. I mean I have wonderful conversations with, kind of, middle aged women about how liberating it is not to feel the pressures of youth anymore, not to feel that appearances, or desirability, or any of those issues are much of a factor. A lot of women have said that to me. I mean, a lot of women have sort of said, in terms of celebrating menopause, you know, “Thank God, thank God I don’t have to look good anymore.” You know, “Thank God I’m not visible.” And there’s definitely a little power flip going on there. ‘Cause if you’re not seen, you walk through the world as a seer. You know, you’re the one who sees, you’re the one with the power of the gaze. You can take things in without exposing yourself.
These days Marina Benjamin has grown ever more at peace with who she is and where she came from, but growing up in bigoted 1970s London she tried unsuccessfully to hide her Iraqi-Jewish origins.
Benjamin: Certainly, in my primary school, people were forever teasing me. Kids were always teasing me and saying, “You’re foreign, where you from?” Even teachers would ask.
AJC: Why, did you look foreign? You didn’t have an accent, I mean, you were born here.
Benjamin: Yeah, I was born here. I mean at some level they knew, so it was a kind of, it was a jibe. Because they knew that I wasn’t British. So, I think I was always dealing with an outsider status. So, and I internalized those questions, and jibes, and insults, and whatever it was, and desperately, as a teenager, desperately wanted to be seen as British. I wanted nothing more than to belong, to be seen as English. And that made my life at home very difficult, because my family were always saying, “But you’re Iraqi.” And I was saying, “But I’m not. I’m not Iraqi, I’m English.”
Over time, Benjamin’s appreciation for, and curiosity about, her heritage blossomed. So, in 2004, she went to Baghdad, where her grandmother was raised, in search of the remnants of a once-dynamic Jewish community. But unlike almost every other journalist in that war-torn country at the time, Benjamin traveled alone, un-embedded, and thus without military protection. She found barely a trace, but in the process discovered that the culture she had been seeking had been relocated, and was alive and well in the diaspora of all Iraqis, including herself.
Benjamin: I felt more Iraqi the less reality there was to that history and existence, the less of it there was to find the more of it I decided I’d feel myself, and preserve.
AJC: But whose Iraqi are you? Because you’re not an Iraqi of now, and you’re not a diaspora Iraqi–
Benjamin: And I don’t speak Arabic.
AJC: Right, but I’m just. Like, who, what Iraq?
Benjamin: Yeah, it’s a very good question. But, actually, in a way, that was one of the lessons that came out of the book for me. Because if Iraq had at one point had this multicultural experiment that went so badly wrong, then what was it now? What was this thing, this nation we called Iraq, if it wasn’t just this kind of botched experiment, a strange colonial experiment, a patchwork of ethnicities that were, kind of uneasily, sitting together in a nation state? What can we call Iraqi? To me, at the end of the day, it came out as being cultural, largely cultural. So, there was shared language, shared literature, music, food, dress, mores. Those were the things that made it a nation state. So, those are the things that you find now among the diaspora. So, you can bring together, you can find a Kurd, you can find an Iraqi Jew, you can find a Muslim. You can bring them together in the same room and they will have far more in common than they have that divides them.
AJC: And, certainly, more in common than if they were living on Iraqi soil.
Benjamin: Probably, yes. Where their differences are magnified at every turn.
Benjamin’s parents, first-generation immigrants, had hoped their daughter would forego college and accept an arranged marriage like theirs, but they ended up disappointed. Not that their own marriage was perfect. Benjamin’s father was a degenerate gambler, her mother was the grownup.
Benjamin: Well, she kept him on a fairly tight leash. She would take his winnings from the table. I mean, just lift them away and run away with them when they were in casinos.
AJC: When there were winnings.
Benjamin: When there were winnings, mostly there weren’t, you know. And she’ll tell the story of him coming home at night, having walked across London in the rain because he couldn’t afford a cab, turning out his pockets to show that he didn’t have a penny left.
AJC: Must’ve been horrifying.
Benjamin: Yeah, I mean it was kind of, it was. But it came also, funnily enough, the other side of him was this incredibly lavish generosity. So, when he did have money, he liked nothing better than lavishing it on his family, on the, had this sense of adventure. “Let’s go to France!” Or, you know, “Let’s go out.” “Let’s go to the fair. Let’s–”
AJC: But that’s classic.
AJC: It’s money from the gods.
AJC: So, therefore, it doesn’t
Benjamin: That’s right.
AJC: Need to be spent sensibly.
Benjamin: That’s right.
In her early 20s, Marina Benjamin began to wonder if her father’s addictive tendencies might have been passed on. And so, gambling with genetics, she entered the world of professional blackjack, joining the ranks of a skilled team.
Benjamin: When I was interviewed for the job, which I was, through a formal process, they basically said, “If you have any gambling tendencies in you, we’re not gonna take you on, because it’s our money you’re playing with, so we’re not risking that. You play by the rules or you’re out.” So, there was no gambling tolerated in that circle of professional gamblers. We played according to mathematical algorithms.
AJC: And you could win using mathematical algorithms?
Benjamin: Yes, the margin’s very narrow, but yes. It’s one of those equations, it’s a differential equation, because it involves, many, many, many runs. So, what you do with a differential equation is you aggregate the probability of what happens, the outcomes of those runs, of those many, many runs.
AJC: Well that’s how casinos make their money.
AJC: They have those algorithms as well. But how did you beat the house then?
Benjamin: Ah, very good question. It’s what you would call skilled playing. So, it’s about using the information that every single player at the table has, but you’re making something of that information. You don’t have more information than them, because that would be cheating.
AJC: But you were thrown out and banned from casinos none the less.
Benjamin: Yes, because we were winning.
AJC: When did you realize that you didn’t have the bad blood of your father?
Benjamin: When I got bored. It didn’t excite me. I mean for him, he never lost the excitement of the magic, “Maybe it’ll happen to me.” You know, Lady Luck. Or maybe this special thing.
AJC: But you never. Yeah but you never allowed the magic to come in.
Benjamin: Because it wasn’t magic. It was everyday run-of-the-mill magical thinking. It wasn’t stardust magic, it was the kind of magic that allows you to be duped.
(Excerpt from Marina Benjamin’s essay “Is gambling a kind of play, or a narcotic trap from the soul?”)
The word casino, meaning “little house”, derives from the Italian “casa”. The promise is that the casino will open its doors to you at all hours and embrace you, just like home. You can stay for as long as you like. In fact, the casino does not want you to ever leave. It offers itself up as a bounded field of play that is safe as houses, like a soft-play center for grownups. The illusion is that you cannot hurt yourself in a casino. But, of course, you can.
Though Marina Benjamin’s works draw from personal experiences, she’s careful to make sure that her writing is directed outwards, to an audience, and not mere navel gazing.
Benjamin: If you’re writing about yourself, the worst kind of thing you can do is just overshare. It’s like somebody showing you their holiday photographs and expecting you to be interested because it was a meaningful moment for them. How you make it meaningful to them, that transposition from the personal into the public realm, is what interests me in memoir. So, it’s how I make my personal obsession, how I make it resonate for other people. And so, it seems to me, that what you have to do is you have to touch base with what it is to be human at some level, to make it resonate with someone else.
Marina Benjamin is forever hunting for new truths, insights that might transcend her own thoughts, experiences, and feelings, and tap into something bigger, something more profoundly human, something useful for all of us.