Silence Is My Mother Tongue
(Graywolf Press, 2020)
The gifted poet Tom Sleigh recently stepped away from his Hunter professorship in order to spend time with some of the most desperate people on earth. Around devastated Baghdad, then in Somalia and elsewhere, he worked with the displaced of war. The refugees (for whom he continues to do what he can) joined him in poetry workshops and more, and in the process spurred Sleigh to fresh creation. In one new essay, he asks: “We have all seen hundreds, maybe thousands of pictures of starving people. What do we learn from such pictures except to deflect them?” These challenging materials appeared in 2018, on Graywolf Press⎯the same house that now brings us Silence Is My Mother Tongue, the jagged yet subtle second novel from Sulaiman Addonia, which takes place entirely in an East African refugee camp. I daresay readers have never been brought so close. After living a while with Addonia’s lost peoples, there’s no way a reader can ever “deflect them.”
Born in Eritrea, his family torn apart by the war with Ethiopia⎯ two of the poorest countries on earth, at each other’s throats⎯Addonia spent his childhood in a camp in the Sudan. His novel’s dedication at once takes us there: “To the girls—my playmates…: [o]ur playfulness was our painkiller.” But then, this author’s adversities didn’t end when a compassionate relative paid his way out. The teenager was brought to Saudi Arabia, a smaller community in which young men and women were strictly policed. Such inhumanity generates the drama in The Consequences of Love (2008), Addonia’s highly regarded debut. But that text, like this, was composed in English, in London⎯where he’d sought asylum without knowing the language. So the new book’s title has a personal meaning, for an author whose career, like Joseph Conrad’s, has taken him away from his “mother tongue.”
Inevitably perhaps, this results in occasional clumsy moments. I could’ve done without a ponderous truism like “Nature has ways of rebalancing, of compensating for the absence of things.” Yet, while I tripped over a phrase or two, I never lost faith in the novelist’s imagination. Not only is the former Eritrean working in his third or fourth language⎯characters here often dip into Italian, a holdover from colonial days⎯but also in the opposite gender. His protagonist is Saba, a girl who’s fled Asmara with her mother and brother.
Just shy of puberty, Saba suffers all sorts of disorientation, even at first sight of her family hut: “Aren’t refugee camps built with tents?” Later, between the huts, she gets lost in “alleyways… a labyrinth.” Complicating matters, by local standards Saba’s a mongrel, “Eritrean-Ethiopian… half from an occupied country and the other half from the occupying.” The genetic mix has made her pretty, but in time her father had to flee. Now, every hut in camp mourns some loved one, most either “martyred” or still “fighting for our country’s independence.” The girl seeks a silver lining, affirming “life in this place would be about… alternatives,” but for others the mindset remains medieval. The camp’s closest thing to a doctor is the midwife, and with the ragtag imam, this woman conspires to enforce rigid roles. To them a girl has value only so long as her hymen remains intact. Saba herself experiences the appeal of such abnegation, in a rare moment: “In that supine position, on her back, arms lifeless by her side, she felt at ease. Perhaps this was the natural position of a girl, she thought. If not, why did surrendering feel so much easier?”
This is the central tension, pitting youthful energy against crippling old ways, not unlike in Addonia’s first. The opening chapter of Mother Tongue builds to an ugly demonstration of male sovereignty, a virginity test for Saba. Yet though she “passes,” setting off ululations and gunfire, her trial plays like a farce, another shadow-play in the camp’s “Cinema Silenzioso,” which of course has neither equipment nor the electricity to run it. The episode proves an anomaly in other ways too, quasi-surreal, its point of view outside the protagonist. Otherwise (with brief exceptions, late) we’re with the growing girl and the forces⎯all too real, mostly male⎯arrayed against her. Saba, determined to become a doctor, must outwit these while devouring any scrap of education she comes across.
If this drama flirts with cliché, the structure keeps upending the ordinary. It 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. The camp’s name may be an empty signifier, “Refugee Camp,” but it contains “all this chaos,” in which “nothing… is what it seems.” Saba’s brother for instance is a mute, yet he never fails to get across either his needs or his sister’s. What’s more, his surprises include his homosexuality, which he finds ways to express, and indeed the camp proves rife with unconventional hookups⎯including a couple of Saba’s. “We do our love differently,” she observes in the end, and with that the girl may, like her author, find asylum. Certainly she and Addonia have asserted the humanity of people often cloaked in shadow. This is a novel like an African double-drum, which can “heat the blood of the dispossessed with one side… and soothe the hearts of lovers with the other.”