Portrait of Sulaiman Addonia in May 2009. Photo: Effigie/Leemage/ AFP

CAIRO – It took Sulaiman Addonia almost 10 years to write Silence is My Mother Tongue, his second novel, which was long-listed for the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. “Writing is torturous” to him, he tells Asia Times, and he has made great sacrifices to buck the expectations of a writer of color.

Born to an Eritrean mother and an Ethiopian father, who was killed at an early stage of his life, Addonia spent his childhood in a refugee camp in Sudan, where he is processing some of his memories in Silence is My Mother Tongue.

Apart from writing, Addonia is very much engaged in promoting young African literary voices. He is founder of the Asmara-Addis Literary Festival (In Exile), which was held in Brussels in February, and co-founder of the Hybrid and Collective Writing Competition, which encourages submissions in Amharic, Arabic, Somali, and Tigrinya, as well as English. The winner of that competition will be announced on September 20, this year.

He sat down with Asia Times to discuss his writing, the rise of violence during Covid-19 lockdowns, and how he relates to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Sherif Abdel Samad: Do you see any connection between your work and the Black Lives Matter movement?

Sulaiman Addonia: I stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. I am in awe of the revolution led by the movement. As a black person, I know the dangerous consequences of racism that I faced both here in Europe, but also in the Middle East. I actually wrote about blackness in Saudi Arabia for Granta.

But my writing is all about imagination. I don’t set out to write about race or the struggle, I just give my imagination the artistic freedom, and I follow it wherever it takes me.

I worked hard to earn this freedom to write what I want, rather than fulfilling the role expected of a writer of color. I have isolated myself, went through hunger, mental struggle, insomnia, all that just to give the best of my mind, my body and health in order to write the best book I can, a book that’s purely led by the story playing out in my head, rather than anything outside it.

Samad: Your novel Silence is My Mother Tongue revolves around a young Eritrean-Ethiopian female refugee living in a refugee camp and the humiliations and deprivations she went through. You yourself spent eight years of your childhood in a refugee camp in Sudan. What did those camp years mean for you and what do you think of when you watch videos of the appalling conditions of refugee camps worldwide?

Addonia: It really is not easy to summarize what these eight years in a camp mean to me, simply because every day had its own layers of experiences, emotions and feelings. Also because, you have to remember, I came to a camp when I was around two years old, so it was, even with all the tragedies happening around me, a normal place for me as a toddler to be opening my eyes every morning to. It was my home, a place where I had childhood friends and lost them, a place where I cried, laughed and played. 

Only on reflection, once I left the camp, and once I started to reconstruct my memory of that place and the “appalling conditions”, as you put it, that what I see on TV or read in articles become triggers in a way, reminders of what I lived and experienced. But I don’t remember it only as an appalling time as such. It is more complex than that. 

A woman carries a sack of grain on her head as she stops to buy some local pastries at a roadside stall in Wau, South Sudan on February 1, 2020. Photo: Tony Karumba / AFP

Samad: You chose the title “Silence is My Mother Tongue”. Why?

Addonia: The book took about 10 years and it took me eight years to come up with a title. And it came to me in one of my night walks in Brussels … but I think it has childhood roots. I was three years old and living in a Sudanese refugee camp with my mother, siblings and grandparents. My father was murdered in Eritrea when I was about two. Then when I was three or four, my mother left for Saudi Arabia. At that moment, I fell silent. It was as if with her departure, my mother also took my language and instead silence became my mother tongue.

Samad: Your protagonist Saba is subjected to different kinds of violence, physical, sexual and verbal. Though she defends herself as good as she can and preserves hope throughout the novel, she and her deaf mute brother cannot speak about their suffering. Does that speak for refugees who are shut down in camps somehow?

Addonia: Sadly, violence, especially against girls and women, happens everywhere, anywhere. But being forcibly confined, as is the case now almost all over the world, with this lockdown due to Covid-19, can breed a dangerous level of resentment, frustrations and rage and the obvious targets are yet again, girls and women.

We are seeing that there has been a sharp rise in violence since the lockdowns. That’s why, I believe, aid provided to refugees living in refugee camps should never have been just about giving refugees food to survive, it is also paramount to support those who suffer abuse and provide them with safety and shelter.

Samad: Your novel is particularly imbued with the suffering of women, for whom your prose clearly takes a stand. How much violence against women did you perceive at your young age?

Addonia: I grew up surrounded by women. I was brought up by my grandmother and so I began to see the world through her eyes, and she was my hero. She was a woman who defended us and herself. And she was engaged in a constant struggle against men and patriarchy. 

When I conceived the idea of this novel and followed my characters fleeing a war to a refugee camp, the war against women took center stage. We can’t look away from it. We can’t look away from the violence Saba experiences on a daily basis and how she tries to carve out her own life, pursue her own dreams as she fights those who perpetrate deeply unspeakable violence against her. 

Samad: Your narrator writes at one point that refugees are all the same, the same as the shrubs. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 70.8 million have been displaced in 2019. What do you think they have in common? Also with you as a child?

Addonia: I think my novels show that refugees are individuals. My book unravels the word “refugee” to examine the lives, ups and downs, ugly and beautiful sides of the many individuals living under that generic term. We have to remember that people flee to camps not necessarily with money, but they flee with their individuality and unique selves. 

So my book is about people like Saba, Hagos, Jamal, the midwife, people trying to live ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances, people who have in common that they are refugees but I insist that we see them and examine them and write about them as we do those living in free cities and places. 

Samad: In your novel you draw an analogy between cinema and real life. Is literature a medium in between. We observe the intimate secrets of life and yet project our own images and emotions that are blended with the written word?

Addonia: Cinema came to my life before books. When we lived in the camp, we didn’t have books or libraries, but when we used to visit the city of Kassala (eastern Sudan), we’d occasionally go to the cinema. And people tell me that my prose is rich in imagery and that comes from cinema. So you can say that cinema has its own language and that language found a place in literature. 

In my last edition of the Asmara-Addis Literary Festival (In Exile) held in Brussels in February this year, we talked about cross genre influences, where artists take inspiration from other genres to enrich their own medium. We discussed how musicians are influenced by poets, and novelists by photographers. It is beautiful when you broaden your mind and allow all genres to breathe into your own art.

Samad: You live in Brussels now with your family. You have an 11-year-old son, who cannot imagine the life you left. Your father was killed at an early age. You, your siblings and mother barely managed to flee from a massacre and you still bear a scar. Your mother then had a very rough life and worked as a servant in Saudi Arabia. Do you think your literature will somehow engulf this past life you witnessed?

Addonia: My literature exists outside my body. It soothes, but it also challenges me and drives me forward. I don’t know why I write but it is not to escape or to soothe wounds or record events. Writing is torturous to me.