Silence is My Mother Tongue (eBook)


Sulaiman Addonia
Product Price UK Shipping EU Shipping ROW Shipping
eBook £6.99 £0.00 £0.00 £0.00
Paperback £8.99 £3.00 £5.00 £15.00

North American customers should contact local and online retailers

SKU: 006850009010 Category:

Sulaiman Addonia’s Orwell Prize for Fiction longlisted second novel of love, judgment and sacrifice

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 space, 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.


‘Gripping and courageous . . . A feminist book, and, exhilaratingly, so much more.’

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

‘Stunning. At once sensuous and provocative . . . a splendid, compulsive reading experience’
—Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King

‘Makes sensual, evocative poetry of the deepest, fiercest emotions’
—The Big Issue


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, 15th September 2020: ‘In This Novel of Exile, Sulaiman Addonia Writes From Experience’

BellaNaija, 17th December 2019: Book of the Month’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBC World Service, 16th 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, 27th February 2019: ‘Life and sensuality in a refugee camp in Sulaiman Addonia’s “Silence is My Mother Tongue”’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sulaiman Addonia for Granta, 23rd 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, 6th October 2018: ‘Review: Silence is My Mother Tongue’

North American edition

Silence Is My

You may also like…