Silence Is My Mother Tongue


Sulaiman Addonia
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Longlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction

In a time of war, what is the shape of love?

Saba arrives in an East African refugee camp as a young girl, devastated to have been wrenched from school and forced to abandon her books as her family flees to safety. In this unfamiliar, crowded and often hostile community, she must carve out a new existence. As she struggles to maintain her sense of self, she remains fiercely protective of her mute brother, Hagos – each sibling resisting the roles gender and society assign.

Through a cast of complex, beautifully drawn characters, Sulaiman Addonia questions what it means to be a man, to be a woman, to be an individual when circumstance has forced the loss of all that makes a home or a future.

Addonia has written an insider’s view of the textures of life in a refugee camp. Both intimate and epic, this subversive tale of transgression dissects society’s ability to wage war on its own women and explores the stories we must tell to survive in a broken, in hospitable environment.


‘Elegant and descriptive . . . A riveting, mysterious, almost magical and delightfully chaotic depiction of the inner workings of an East African refugee camp. . . . As this story of young, codependent refugees is propelled into a revelatory, formally experimental and ultimately tragic conclusion, the initial depth and beauty Jamal witnessed through his ‘cinema” curtains has only further blossomed. The novel leaves us with the lingering imprint of the siblings’ many sacrifices, and their ever-growing love.’
—The New York Times Book Review

‘The exchange of masculine and feminine roles within the context of a sexually conservative culture makes for a gripping and courageous narrative.’

‘[A] richly written second novel, which brims with the sensory flavours of remembered experience.’
—Daily Mail

‘The novel’s vignette structure underscores the fragmentary, hallucinatory quality of trauma and memory. A memorable chronicle about “the bitterness of exile” and the endurance of the spirit.’
—Kirkus Reviews

‘Darkly poetic. . . . [Sulaiman Addonia] maintains a strong voice with vibrant lyrical imagery.’
―Publishers Weekly

‘Addonia, who spent his own early life in a Sudanese refugee camp, has a unique & intelligent voice which makes sensual evocative poetry of the deepest, fiercest emotions.’
—The Big Issue

‘Stunning. At once sensuous and provocative, Addonia s prose layers imagery and insight to keep us glued right to the spectacular end. This is a splendid, compulsive reading experience.’
Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion s Gaze

Silence is My Mother Tongue dissects how a refugee camp erases one’s individuality, what communities demand of women, and how, in the face of great loss and scrutiny, one can find a way to redeem individuality by redefining love, sex and gender roles.’
―The Rumpus

‘Sulaiman Addonia’s Silence Is My Mother Tongue, perhaps in defiance of expectations, sings with the confidence of characters who believe that they are going to end up somewhere better, someday, even if they have to wade through the mire to get there.’

‘Jagged yet subtle. . . . The structure keeps upending the ordinary. [Silence Is My Mother Tongue] reads like a picaresque in a nutshell, tightly confined yet full of reversals. Some are swift as a finger-snap, others unfold like a ballad. . . . Addonia [has] asserted the humanity of people often cloaked in shadow.’
―The Brooklyn Rail

‘Mesmerizing and provocative. . . . Addonia writes with poetry and depth. His sentences are plaintive vessels for what has been lost.’
—Triangle House

‘Addonia’s chorus of characters is exquisite, and his interrogation of both traditionalism and love in the desperate circumstances of a Sudanese refugee camp makes for a stunning, enveloping read.’
―Wayétu Moore, author of The Dragons, the Giant, The Women

Silence Is My Mother Tongue is a remarkably accomplished and circuitously constructed tale that highlights the poetic aesthetic of its creator as well as its central protagonist.’
―Ru Freeman, author of On Sal Mal Lane

Dimensions: B format paperback with flaps
Length: 208 pages
Published: 27 June 2019
Second Edition
ISBN: 9781911648062
Cover design: © House of Thought

Publicist: Phoebe Barker at the Indigo Press
Agent: Isobel Dixon at Blake Friedmann Literary Agency
Foreign rights: The Marsh Agency

About the author

Sulaiman Addonia is an Eritrean- Ethiopian-British novelist. He spent his early life in a refugee camp
in Sudan, and his early teens in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He arrived in London as an unaccompanied minor without a word of English and went on to earn an MA in Development Studies. His first novel, The Consequences of Love, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Sulaiman lives in Brussels, where he founded the Creative Writing Academy for Refugees & Asylum Seekers and the Asmara-Addis Literary Festival In Exile. In 2022 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Silence Is My Mother Tongue

Cinema Silenzioso

The night Saba’s trial was announced by the camp’s court clerk, I was sitting on a stool in front of my cinema screen. Cinema Silenzioso.

Dusk fell over the thatched roofs. A full moon appeared over the camp I viewed through my screen. Light like thick blue ink splotched on the walls and between the alleys, wood-burning stoves glowed red.

I saw the clerk riding his donkey in the dusty narrow streets. His silhouette skittered among the huts.
You are requested to attend the trial of Saba, the clerk declared through his megaphone. The courtroom is moving to the cinema compound.

On hearing her name I leapt to my feet. The sketch of Saba I was holding dangled above the open furnace next to me. The charcoal strokes defining her nipples glistening in the light of the smouldering fire. I looked at Saba’s compound appearing through the screen like a picture. She was nowhere to be seen. Her lime tree stood frozen against the clay colours of the surrounding huts. Grasshoppers hung off the slant of sugarcane leaves in front of her hut’s window.

When I first built my cinema inside my compound, I was inspired by the memory of the forty-five round lights on the facade of the Italian Cinema Impero in Asmara, where I worked before I fled to the camp. I made my cinema screen from one large white sheet I ironed and tied to two wooden poles embedded in the ground, with a big square cut out in the middle. I placed it near the crest of the hill on top of which my compound was located. Many thought I had done so to let the full light of the stars and the moon cascade over the performers on the open screen, the camp behind them existing in isolation. Like a mural, an artifice of a bygone era.

The real reason, though, was different. From the hilltop, looking through the screen when the light was right, you could see into Saba’s compound, fenced on three sides, letting the hill on which the cinema stood act as the fourth fence. I could watch her all the time, her world a part of mine.

The trouble was that I, like many, had bought into the illusion that the sheet was an actual screen and that everything inside it was a real film – scene after scene made in a faraway place. Illusion nested in my life with each day passing in front of my cinema. And the two worlds, the real one in which Saba lived, and the virtual one of the film I watched, where all is not what it seems, existed in harmony.

I saw her cooking, reading, ironing, working, teaching adults to read and write, but I also watched her do what people do out of each other’s sight. And as I talk to you now, a random selection of images of her replays in my mind. There was that evening she spent masturbating behind the latrine, as her brother cooked doro wot stew for her and her husband.

But that scene is blurred by another one. There she sat on her heels in front of the large curved stone placed on the ground, and, as she crushed the grain on the big stone, her bottom rose off her heels, and the hem of her black dress fluttered as she leaned her shoulders forward to grind the grains by moving smaller stones backward and forward over them. Her burnt thighs were glowing like candles, her history of wounds concealed by the cloud of white flour coiled in front of her and into which her head entered and exited, her hair turned white. Saba’s flour-dusted face exists in my mind next to her made-up face on the night of her wedding, when she sat next to her middle-aged husband wearing a dress once owned by a dead woman. Everything is recycled in our camp, happiness as well as despair.

And I keep returning to her wedding night. I still shiver at the thought of her brother tiptoeing his way to the marital bedroom long after the music had died and the guests had departed to leave the bride and groom to consummate their marriage. How he twisted as he placed an ear to the wall.

Now, I was thinking about Saba, her crime, her impending trial, when she exited her hut and appeared on the screen in her black dress, her other skin. Sitting back on my stool, I returned to watching my cinema and Saba through it. She perched on her bed under her lime tree, a book in hand. The oil lamp by her bedside flickered. Saba always slept outside in the open air, and I would watch her every night as the moon and stars cascaded over her taut skin.

I assumed she would read her book now. She’d been rereading Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, which the English coordinator had left in our camp with his British newspaper, as if by reading it over and over again she would have an equally happy ending to her own love story. But whom did she love?

Jamil Jan Kochai for The New York Times, 15 September 2020: ‘In This Novel of Exile, Sulaiman Addonia Writes From Experience’

BellaNaija, 17 December 2019: Book of the Month’

Sulaiman Addonia for Brittle Paper, 4 December 2019: The Voices I Overcame To Write Silence Is My Mother Tongue’

Abubakar Adam for The Lagos Review, 17 November 2019: ‘Silence is My Mother Tongue: Review’

Preti Taneja for New Statesman, 13 November 2019: ‘Books of the year 2019’

Sulaiman Addonia for Granta, 23 October 2019: ‘In Search Of Beauty: Blackness As A Poem in Saudi Arabia’

Sulaiman Addonia for passa porta, 2 October 2019: ‘For Virginia Woolf’

Alessandra Bassey for Literandra, 21 September 2019: ‘Review: Silence is My Mother Tongue’ 

Alastair Mabbott for The Herald Scotland, 20 July 2019: Paperbacks: A Breath On Dying Embers; Lying For Money; Silence Is My Mother Tongue’

BBC World Service, 16 July 2019: Sulaiman Addonia speaks about his writing journey, living with his grandma, the life of his mother, and the secret library in Saudi Arabia (27:41-44-31)

RFI, Africa: Stories in the 55, 27 February 2019: ‘Life and sensuality in a refugee camp in Sulaiman Addonia’s “Silence is My Mother Tongue”’

Ilham Essalih for The New Arab, 6 February 2019: ‘Silence is My Mother Tongue: Exile, survival and breaking the shackles of traditionalism’

Jane Housham for The Guardian, 14 December 2018: ‘Silence Is My Mother Tongue by Sulaiman Addonia review – life in exile’

Review 31, 12 December 2018: ‘Review 31’s Best Books of 2018′

Ainehi Edore for Brittle Paper, 3 December 2018: ‘#WeLoveBooks | Silence is My Mother Tongue by Sulaiman Addonia’

Sian Cain for The Guardian, 21 November 2019: ‘Murder, migration and mother love: the making of the novelist Sulaiman Addonia’

Jane Graham for The Big Issue, 6 November 2018: ‘Review: Silence is My Mother Tongue by Sulaiman Addonia’

Claire Allfree for Daily Mail, 1 November 2018: ‘Literary Fiction’

Susan Osborn for A Life in Books, 26 October 2018: ‘Silence is My Mother Tongue by Sulaiman Addonia: The quiet power of the novella’

Sulaiman Addonia for Granta, 23 October 2018: ‘Writing Like Degas Paints: Sulaiman Addonia on how Edgar Degas’ nude portraits inspired his latest novel, Silence is My Mother Tongue’

Emma Clarendon for Love London Love Culture, 6 October 2018: ‘Review: Silence is My Mother Tongue’

North American edition

Silence Is My

French edition

German edition

Dutch edition

Italian edition

First edition

Arabic edition

Books in Brussels

Susie Nicklin

I’ve always enjoyed my visits to Brussels, although I can never get the topography straight in my head. Perhaps it’s because I’ve stayed in different hotels and districts; maybe it’s because of the changes in elevation, with unexpected hills leading one up, down and around intriguing corners. One of the most famous examples of this is the glass lift from the Palais de Justice down to Marolles – from the top you can see the city displayed in picture-postcard splendour on even the greyest of days.

I also get a buzz from the range of culture and politics on offer, with world-class visual art, opera and film vying with the apparatus of the EU. But above all it’s the plurality of the city’s inhabitants which makes it so appealing. Everyone speaks Dutch, French and English as a minimum; you’ll also hear West Flemish, German and Arabic pretty much everywhere you go. It’s full of vitality, its demographic range resulting in a huge variety of bars, restaurants, music. The appalling violence of Belgium’s colonial past isn’t ignored, but its triumphs and wars over the centuries are commemorated in churches, plaques and museums throughout the country, and especially here. The LA-based writer Paul Holdengraeber’s father called it ‘the centre’; but, asked the young Paul, of where? His parents had left Vienna in the thirties, fled to Haiti where they found themselves among a community of 137 Jewish families, moved thence to Mexico and on to Texas where Paul was born and lived for four crucial days, granting him a US passport. When the family returned to Europe and made their home in this city for four decades, it was obvious to Holdengraeber senior what ‘centre’ meant.

I learned Paul’s family history during a panel of the third edition of the Asmara Addis Literary Festival in Exile, founded and curated by Sulaiman Addonia. He is an Eritrean/Ethiopian/British writer whose second novel, Silence is my Mother Tongue, my publishing house The Indigo Press published in 2018. This panel, entitled The Return, featured writers who had previously spent time in the city; it was chaired by the vivacious and hospitable Canan Marasligil, who translates from her native Turkish, lives in Amsterdam, speaks fluent Dutch and has just completed her first novel in English. Other panellists included Jay Barnard, the London-born poet who was less lucky in the passport lottery; describing their life as a series of residencies, while actually residing nowhere, they missed the chance to acquire EU citizenship while here on a residency with the outstanding, multilingual, literature house and bookshop Passa Porta.

This panel also featured the Vietnamese writer Nguyen Phan Que Mai, whose husband works for the EU and whose peripatetic life brought her here when she had two small children; the generous welcome of her neighbours notwithstanding, she was alone for much of the time and started writing her first book in English, The Mountains Sing.

It followed on, with beautiful creative logic, from a panel chaired by British-Eritrean writer Hannah-Azieb Pool, called Writing in the Margins. Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi made us laugh with bittersweet descriptions of finding a home for her novel Kintu. Alvin Pang reminded us that the novel is a colonial construct, and exhorted writers not to confine themselves to this genre when other literary forms such as poetry and the short story thrive all over the world, to reject a hegemony in which an imported literary ideal gets imposed on local talent; he read us a poem in ‘Singlish’, written for his home country Singapore, to prove his point. The line-up was completed by trans Dutch writer Tammie Schoots, who talked about place and identity both literally and metaphorically.

And this was a recurring theme of the two days I spent here (pressure of work and a general Belgian public transport strike prevented me from attending the third day). Addonia’s talent for collecting people was evident in their enthusiasm for his project. I met two women volunteers on his team, both of whom had recently completed their first books; one, called Soife Verraest, speaks most often in Dutch and West Flemish but has written her first non-fiction book in English; the other, Julia Galaski, has French, German and Israeli nationalities and speaks perfect English. Her first novel Le Passeport was recently published by indie collective Editions les Etaques based in Lille, northern France.

And these two writers were among the hyper local recruits. People came from a long way to talk and to listen. Gary Younge, formerly a columnist for the Guardian, took part in a session on travel writing chaired by Desta Halle, along with three eloquent speakers who set the stage alight: Lola Akinmade, whose life has taken her from Nigeria to Sweden; Mylene Gomera, a London-based actress of Eritrean ethnicity, and Ethiopian-born Seada Nourhussen, editor in chief of Dutch media platform OneWorld.

As well as more formal panels there were also walks and readings from aspiring writers, including those with The Creative Writing Academy for Refugees and Asylum Seekers set up by Addonia. Given my incompetence with Brussels’ spatial challenges, see above, I managed to navigate our group to the endpoint of the walk rather than to the start, so we missed the readings along the way, although we did get to have a much-needed tea break and a discussion about European publishing of the kind that haunts every book fair and literary festival.

‘We’ included Sulaiman’s German publisher Annette Michael of Orlanda Verlag, based in Berlin, and his Dutch publisher, Jurgen Maas of the eponymous house based in Amsterdam. (The transport disruption caused by the strike resulted in the latter offering the former a lift to Amsterdam during which they exchanged professional intel about small presses in their respective countries – an example of how we publishers turn setbacks to our advantage.) And it also included Catalan writer Ennatu Domingo, whose book Burnt Eucalyptus Wood I am publishing next year; we met to work on the manuscript in person, as she is based in nearby Maastricht. Ennatu was adopted from her native Ethiopia at the age of seven, and we listened together to several panels which reflected the experiences she describes with passion and sharp political antennae.

At Passa Porta we heard literary agent Jessica Craig, US by nationality but based in northern Spain, discuss gatekeepers and ‘permitted’ subject matter with the effervescent Ebisse Wakjira-Rouw, a publisher and writer from Holland, joined by Belgian-based, Rwandan-born Dalilla Hermans and moderated by Raf Njotea. Later, after Dalilla had delivered a funny and wistful keynote about representation and role models, we listened, aghast, to a session with Swedish-Eritrean Vanessa Tsehaye in which she described her work as Horn of Africa lead for Amnesty International and her personal pain for her uncle Seyoum Tsehaye, who has been imprisoned in the Eritrean desert for more than 20 years, with no word from his captors, following a crackdown on press freedom in 2001. This event was created in partnership with Flanders PEN and included readings in Tigrinya.

Lest this all sounds a bit worthy and possibly dull, let me reassure you: it was nothing of the sort. Yes, the painful and shocking facts of the past and the present are real, and cannot be wished away or ignored. But the festival pulsed with laughter, and fizzed with determination to agitate for change. Gary Younge’s daughter asked Vanessa Tsehaye, ‘but why didn’t the people reject that terrible government?’  and the latter responded with dignified yet barely-restrained rage as she outlined the steps from the repression of a free press to the abolition of democracy.

Vanessa and Lola were both called upon to explain a subject then trending on the socials, about Swedish families not offering hospitality to children who come home after school for playdates, and, after making us laugh, pointed out that this is what happens to the white children – imagine the fate awaiting those from other ethnicities.

Despite the brilliance of the curation, we go to festivals as much for the downtime as for the formal programmes. On Monday 30th May we gathered at midnight outside a new bar in Ixelles, 25 people from all over the world relaxing, chatting, drinking beer, swapping stories. I have some snapshot memories – a tall waiter cheerfully waltzing with a much shorter waitress while they must have been wondering if we’d ever leave, a skinny man opening a window above the bar and shouting at us to keep the noise down (it turned out he’d moved to the square when the bar was a sandwich shop and the change in operations was playing havoc with his circadian rhythms). It’s the serendipity, the connection, the affirmation that we crave.

Saleh Addonia, Sulaiman’s brother, was sitting opposite me; we had previously met in London, their journey being the focus of many narratives. He proudly showed me his short story collection The Feeling House, recently published by London-based indie Holland House, and as I flicked through the contents page I noticed the word Gondar, a place mentioned frequently in Ennatu’s book, and Ebisse’s birthplace. As we were discussing this Sulaiman walked past and the two brothers reminisced about their father’s Ethiopian hometown, the beauty of the mountains, the rising of the Blue Nile, the exceptional fecundity of the landscape. I would love to visit, to see these meadows for myself; but for now I’ll content myself with a return trip to Brussels and the festival next year, where I’ll probably get physically lost again, and will immerse myself once more in this joyous celebration of difference, the movement of peoples, the transformational possibilities of the written word.

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