Silence is My Mother Tongue (Review) – Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
country perched on the horn of a continent, it is easy for Eritrea to slip into
the ocean of forgetting. But through the sheer force of prose, Sulaiman
Addonia’s sophomore novel, Silence is My
Mother Tongue (Indigo Press, London), drags Eritrea from the literary precipice
into the spotlight. Even if the Eritrea he writes about is not the geographical
expression on the map but the Eritrea of the hearts of its people forced to
settle in a Sudanese refugee camp where the story unfolds.
breaking out of these boundaries from the very beginning, Addonia sets the tone
for the novel, as one that will not be limited by lines on a map, as a fluid
novel—fluidity of language, characters and gender roles—and interestingly,
fluidity in the sexuality of his characters.
centres around Saba, a young Eritrean woman navigating life in the camp, where
she, alongside her deaf and mute brother, Hagos, her mother and hundreds of
others flee to following the outbreak of the Eritrean War of Independence. When
we first meet her, in a cloud of mystery, she is standing trial for allegedly
committing incest with her mute brother.
At this trial, we learn a lot about how little of Saba her accusers know. Her prosecutors, despite having lived with her for a while, could not establish her age, if she is Eritrean or Ethiopian, or if she is Muslim or Christian. This cleverly sets the tone for the randomness of life in refugee camps, where people are reduced to a mass of indiscernible faces living in nondescript shelter.
Addonia tries to do with this, I suspect, is to convey the drudgery of life in
a refugee camp. Because after the initial excitement of Saba’s trial, there is
a lull, an extensive period of detailed observations of life in the camp—something
Addonia is quite familiar with having lived as a refugee in Sudan, just like
Saba—mirroring the lives of his characters. There is a beauty to Addonia’s
prose, a luxuriant, sometimes indulgent, quality, detailed and with a poise
reminiscent of the famous Edgar Degas Ballerinas or maybe even his paintings, (apparently,
Addonia is a huge fan of the French artist).
kick off in the camp and in the novel with the coming of the “businessman,” who
brings a whole new dynamism to the camp and the plot and with him, through him,
Addonia allows himself and his characters to explore new relationships that
bring much needed urgency to the story.
little portraits of people and incidents, often seen through Saba’s keen eyes,
Addonia skillfully leads us through life in this camp, until we come to know
how fiercely Saba loves her brother and the sacrifices she is willing to make
for him, and how this love, and everything else for that matter, is curtailed
by the bounds of tradition.
is a strong antagonist in this story, a massive unseen force, sometimes
manifesting through some of the characters, casting shadows over everything and
everyone. Something Saba herself acknowledges when she tells one of the
witnesses testifying against her that, “Traditions go with us where we go.”
also conveniently dispensed with by the fluidity Addonia gifts his characters,
the power he has given them to push the boundaries of what is acceptable or
not. Hence, Saba’s sexuality is fluid, as are gender roles, where the beautiful
Hagos, Saba’s brother, is scorned for performing traditional female roles,
which he enjoys doing. He cooks, cleans and devotes time to looking in the
mirror. The female characters are not pliant, bending under the firm hands of
patriarchy, like Zarah’s mother, who had gone off to fight in the war, or even
Zarah’s grandmother, who though a peripheral character, delivers some of the
most empowering lines in the novel.
instance, she recounts to some young women how one of her lovers had once
proposed to make love to her and she had countered by saying, “You do not fuck
me, we fuck each other.”
It is her
role in the background, as that of an idea whisperer, which one finds most
her, most especially, Addonia makes it clear that this is a feminist novel.
When a man says to her, “In our time, we treated women like goddesses,” her
witty response is, “Just treat us like human beings…that will solve the world’s
novel concerns itself with, right from its opening where Saba’s sexual life is
subjected, quite literally, to a trial, is the attempt, in the virgin territory
of the camp, to impose the old laws that have stifled women and the pushback by
the women against this imposition.
the enforcers of this law is the old midwife, who birthed Saba and preoccupies
herself with ascertaining Saba’s virginity—subjecting the young woman to intrusive
physical tests, once at the behest of the camp’s court, to establish the state
of Saba’s sexual ‘purity.’
Tedros, also obsessed with Saba’s virginity, or lack thereof, the interrogation
of Saba’s sexuality takes a disturbing dimension. In his going about with a
white handkerchief, determined to establish with it Saba’s “impurity”, we
encounter the extremism of the patriarchy Addonia confronts in his novel.
also tries to contextualize this fixation when he has the character of Azyeb,
in response to the question of men’s obsession with a woman’s blood, saying, “It
shows how much violence there is against women, if even love has to be equated
with drawing blood from a woman.”
did not stop at giving context to these issues, or attempting to, he empowers
the women to resist, to dream and to have the courage to attempt flight.
parallels to be drawn with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies where characters are put in a previously
uninhabited space, where the chance exists to create something new. Instead,
both groups seek to re-establish the old order—in Golding’s classic, the
stranded children resort to the most primitive expression of human dominance—
violence, while in Addonia’s novel, it is the attempt to impose cultural
shackles, through which one group enforces dominance over the other.
context of these similarities exist in how Golding’s little heroes find
themselves on an island where they eventually give expression to their inner
demons and Addonia’s refugees find themselves in a camp so far removed from
anywhere else and from anything they’ve known that it might as well have been
an uninhabited island. In both cases, these inherent yearnings to, somehow impose
dominance, through violence or restrictive ideas, are met with the quiet desire
novels are very distinct from each other. Addonia’s prose is lush, the
imageries are something only someone with the mind of an artist would conjure.
through the gem-field of delectable expressions Addonia scatters like blooms in
a garden, one finds broken characters trying to pick up fragments of their
dreams and hopes shattered by the war in their country. It is through these
characters that we find reflections of ourselves and our desires to hold on to
things that have always defined us, the same things that sometimes hold us
back. Dangerous notions such as those of the dark-skinned parents of the
midwife celebrating the birth of a fair-skinned daughter as a sign of God
forgiving them for whatever sin they believed had made them dark skinned.
There is no doubt Addonia, as a writer, is an artist and by casting his bedraggled refugees in the light and colour of the Renaissance masters, complete with grand poses and whatnot, all swaddled in luxuriant prose, he has managed to give them the dignity and courage they have mostly lacked in contemporary literature. He also gave them a grand aspiration—to take back their lives and their country in whatever small ways they can.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is the author of the novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms.