Refugees struggle to keep their lives on track in the confines of their camp

An exclusive Authorlink interview by Diane Slocum

Silence Is My Mother Tongue

 Author: Sulaiman Addonia

Graywolf Press

Saba, her brother, Hagos, and their mother are refugees from the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. They live in a mud hut in a refugee camp. The siblings are very close, despite their differences. Saba was a serious student before the war, with plans to go to college in Europe. Hagos is a caring homebody who doesn’t speak. Their lives unfold along with the other residents of the camp amid crowding and deprivation. Jamal views it all from his hilltop “cinema.”

AUTHORLINK: What started you thinking about this story? How did these first thoughts begin to develop?

“…I found myself alone, not speaking the local language. I isolated myself with books…”

ADDONIA: After the publication of my first novel, The Consequences of Love, [published by Chatto & Windus in the UK and Random House in the US], I remember feeling emboldened for my next novel, and I wanted to do an epic,  generational story about exile inspired by the impacts of the devastating war between my parents’ countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea. So, I wrote about a 40-page outline, detailing all my characters in a story spanning decades. Then in 2009, I moved from London to Brussels and I found myself alone, not speaking the local language. I isolated myself with books from writers such as Toni Morrison, Henry Miller, Tayeb Salih, John Berger, Marguerite Duras, and began to research art, paintings, nudity, photography, song, and the power of erotica, passion and desire in all of them. I think it was then that I moved away from this obsession with big themes, themes of wars, peace, etc, and I began to value the intimate space. I was convinced that the Intimate is Epic. So, I wondered then if I could explore Eritrean, Ethiopian, and African characters in their intimate settings even when they are in places such as refugee camps. I was driven by giving them the opportunity to live, struggle, enjoy nudity, love, suffer, feel hunger for food and sex, all in their huts and in the shadow of exile and scarcity. That seemed powerful to me.

AUTHORLINK: In your story, Hagos doesn’t speak. What are the other ways that your title refers to the silence of the characters’ lives?

“I wrote this novel over ten years, but this novel also re-wrote me. “

ADDONIA: I wrote this novel over ten years, but this novel also re-wrote me. I came out with new ideas that felt new and fresh to me. One of them was that Silence is a language. And that it is as diverse as the many languages we speak. So, in that sense, Silence refers to more than just not being able to speak or articulate our feelings in one way or another. It can refer to a body that doesn’t speak in the way it wants. I am thinking of love here. Love and desire have particular languages in a society, and Silence falls if you want to speak and embrace them differently from what is expected from you.

AUTHORLINK: Why did you decide to start the story in Jamal’s point of view, then go back to an earlier time with Saba’s POV through most of the rest of the book?

ADDONIA: Jamal’s story is really a story of cinema. I love cinema and it came to my life before books. When I lived in a refugee camp, we didn’t have libraries or books. But whenever I visited the nearest city, I’d visit one of its two cinemas. So, I’ve been influenced by the cinematic way of telling stories.

But more than an ode to a cinema, this opening wrote itself.

You see, I had debated with myself whether to include this chapter or not over the years I worked on SILENCE before I shared it with my first reader. In the end, I couldn’t leave it out, because I felt that it sets out the world of the characters from the start: a world that is surreal, a world where illusion and realism touch each other in the way boundaries do – you can cross them,  in the way Federico Fellini alluded to when he said, “I see no line between the imaginary and the real.”

“…the reality of my characters in a refugee camp is one of imagination, they use imagination to survive…”

And in fact, the reality of my characters in a refugee camp is one of imagination, they use imagination to survive, but also to reinvent themselves and the notion of life itself, the notion of gender, sexuality, and love. Through his invention of cinema in a refugee camp, Jamal sees how Saba and the two male lovers all live in the same compound, all share love in a way that challenges the reality of this traditional society. So, through the screen of his cinema, Jamal sees a rebirth of reality to mean something else than what he is used to.

AUTHORLINK: Did you live in a refugee camp? How much did you base your descriptions of camp life on your own experiences?

ADDONIA: I lived in two refugee camps in Sudan. I used one of them as the setting for this novel. I see myself as an ”imaginary architect”, if I can say so, because through my memory of my childhood place, I rebuilt that camp on my pages hut by hut, thatch by thatch, door by door and ally by ally. It took a long time to be able to draw out the camp in the novel as accurately as I could remember it. I like to set my stories in real places. Also, once I set out the architecture of the setting in place, then memories came to me: of the weather, the scarcity, and the lack of privacy.

AUTHORLINK: How have the circumstances of your childhood and teenage years impacted your writing?

“…over the ten years it took to finish, I am not sure I ever thought about giving it up. In fact, the opposite.”

ADDONIA: I really don’t have an exact answer to this. It could be that it provided me with strong will, discipline and determination. Writing this second novel, for example, was tough. But over the ten years it took to finish, I am not sure I ever thought about giving it up. In fact, the opposite. My determination really came through, and I now know what James meant when he said, “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope readers of your story will gain from it?

ADDONIA: I think I have a healthy relationship with readers. I say that because I didn’t think about any reader when writing this book. I had to write that book from a place of freedom. I surrendered to the story without worrying about the market, money, prizes, reviews, praise or the reader. I was on my own, isolated from the readers, in my solitude, surrounded by my doubts and my characters alone.

So now that the book is finished, I leave it to the readers, fully respecting the fact that they will take and gain from it whatever it is that speaks to them about it.

AUTHORLINK: How does writing, selling and publishing your second novel compare to what you went through with your first?

ADDONIA: Totally different. Everything went smoothly with the first novel, The Consequences of Love. I wrote the biggest part of it over one year. It was intense, but I was listening to Caesaria Evora all the time, and so I had imported the passion of her songs on the pages of my first book. My then-agent sold the novel in three days. And it was quickly translated into more than 20 languages.

“I wanted to go beyond the rules of writing a novel. So, I experimented.”

With the second, I moved from London to Brussels when I started it. Brussels changed me as a novelist. My ideas about what a novel is became different now. I wanted to go beyond the rules of writing a novel. So, I experimented. I failed and tried again. As a writer, I had to submit to the story. In other words, when writing, I’d transcend my body, everything that makes me the person I am and in the process to give myself completely to the story in my book. I think this is an art that took me many years to learn, but once I did, the story fell into place.

It wasn’t easy. The people I worked with on my earlier work didn’t support this change. I had to go my way, holding on tightly to my vision. So, I worked on the novel, slowly and for many years on my own. When I felt ready, I found people who shared my vision.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

ADDONIA: I’m working on a book that fuses fiction & non-fiction called When Verlaine Pulled the Trigger in a Brussels Hotel. Obviously as the title suggests, the book is inspired by the two French poets who became lovers and moved with their love from Paris, to Brussels then to London and then back to Brussels, where the shooting incident happened in a hotel in 1873.

About the Author: Sulaiman S.M.Y.Addonia was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother and Ethiopian father. After his early life in the refugee camp in Sudan, he studied in Saudi Arabia before seeking asylum in England with his brother in 1990. There he studied at the University College London. He lives in Brussels.