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« When I was silent… »
— Interview with Sulaiman Addonia
Sander Pleij
13 June 2022
published in Issue One

After writing he needs to heal. In the hours past midnight Sulaiman Addonia watches ballet and listens to classical music. It is a ritual.

« Writing is torturous », he says. « I basically suffer. »

He needs the night.

« When you are damaged », he says, « you come out of your work completely reassembled. »

At night he sews the fragments of his personality back into that of a father, a husband, friend. While writing he’d been stripped.
One writes naked.

Stop! I am doing what they all do: presenting writer Sulaiman Addonia as one-who-has-suffered, because he grew up as a refugee. The problem is, in part, a problem of genre. Suffering has become an interviewer’s crutch: it becomes the driving engine we interpolate into the interviewee’s work, the thing that somehow explains a piece of culture. But the strategy backfires, veering into sentiment or cynical marketing, when it becomes a template. Addonia, in any case, doesn’t write because he suffered, nor does writing deliver, properly speaking, a catharsis. Writing is its own travail.

            Addonia has written two poignant novels: The Consequences of Love (2008), about Naser, a boy who lives as an Eritrean refugee in Saudi Arabia, and Silence is My Mother Tongue (2018), which recounts the tale of Saba, a girl in a Sudanese refugee camp. Both teenage characters live through horrible experiences, but the novels are sturdier than the interviewer’s crutch; suffering is not what makes them powerful. They capture a particular vividness and relate it (if the phrase may be forgiven) with the general human experience. And besides, as Addonia told me, as if it was obvious: everyone has their tragedies.

            The New York Times review of Silence is My Mother Tongue was serene and only mentioned in the second paragraph that « Addonia ... himself fled Eritrea for a Sudanese refugee camp as a child. » But The Guardian’s headline-makers went with « Murder, Migration and Mother Love » for their interview, and the lede demonstrated craftmanship: « As a boy he first fled a brutal war in Eritrea. » Notice the first, suggesting we’ll get even more. And the brutal: not just any war but a brutal one. The lede then has Addonia encounter « the oppression of Saudi Arabia » and intones (I hear a Hollywood voiceover now) that « the wounds of his early years may never heal. »

            Die Neue Zürcher Zeitung, meanwhile, has a headline several sentences long: « Sein Vater wurde zu Tode geprügelt. » Prügeln means he was not just murdered but beaten to death. « Die Mutter ließ ihn zurück. Marxisten beherrschten das Land, es kämpfte sich von Äthiopien frei. » Marxists running your country becomes one more torment added to having your father slain and your mother abandon you. But then we are back to our suffering hero: « Sulaiman Addonia erlebte all das – und er schreibt darüber. » And in comes agony again: « Der Schriftsteller Sulaiman Addonia hat Unmenschliches durchlebt. In seinen Büchern treibt er die Dämonen der eigenen Lebensgeschichte aus. »

            Silence is My Mother Tongue is translated into German as Schweigen ist meine Muttersprache. The reception will be similar in France when La Silence est ma langue natale is published, and in Italy, where Il Silenzio è la mia lingua madre arrives in stores.

This gnawed at me while I was reading Addonia’s essays, meeting him in his local café or on Zoom, emailing, and jotting down his words on the artists he admires, on beloved books, on the streets of London. « We can have different life stories », he’d told me, « but it is the world of ideas where we can meet. » But when I looked at the words on my own screen I saw myself falling into the trap of one-dimensionality: father killed - refugee camp - abandoned by motherracism in Saudi Arabiafifteen to London - writer in Brussels.

            One morning I was explaining all this to him via Zoom, in a long-winded, embarrassed way. Addonia was as sharply dressed as he had been when we drank coffee in Brussels weeks earlier. His white shirt was as starched as the cotton tablecloth of a Parisian brasserie. He sat in the room where the torturous writing takes place, surrounded by books and piles of paper.

            « I am very proud to be a refugee camp boy. I am not ashamed. It is a place that made me the determined person that I am. I know that I operate in a business that has been the domain of the so-called privileged people. But I have gained a lot of privileges by being in a refugee camp, by seeing people create ideas from nothing. And that’s what I do. »

            (His voice is not loud.)

« I’m so determined and so not afraid of failure. I had my first business in a refugee camp when I was eight. I used to sell cigarettes and sweets. »

            (He never raises his voice.)

            « I don’t sit still. I don’t mind my territory. After coming to the U.K. I realized that a lot of my friends became what the system wanted them to become. I’m not laughing at that, or belittling what they’ve become, but the system is designed to make a refugee fit into, you know: driving buses, working in pubs. I’ve refused to do that. For me it’s always been: fighting the system. If I have an ambition, then it really doesn’t matter where that ambition might lead me to. So being a refugee doesn’t negate me. »

In Silence is my Mother Tongue, the refugee camp where Saba and her mute twin brother arrive is as desolate as it is blossoming, as cruel as it is sensual, and as ugly as it is beautiful. Saba has to survive in overcrowded surroundings,where frightened elders cling to their traditions and guard women and girls as if limiting their freedoms is essential for the survival of their society.

            But Saba, she is different. Books had covered the floor in her old bedroom: « History in Tigrynya, translated Russian novels in Amharic, poetry in Arabic. Pencils. Pens. Erasers. Politics. Art. Art. Freedom. Africa. Europe. » Her twin brother wordlessly brushes her hair, perfumes her, dresses her up and it seems as if he is not only grooming his sister but shaping the woman he secretly feels himself to be. Saba, in all her wisdom, knows this. For herself, there’s one thing she wants: education, reading, knowledge: « Saba could have been happy in the camp if there had been a school. » But she must make do with the few available books and with an old English newspaper. There are more obstacles on a girl’s path. And When Saba becomes that fertile being called woman, it is « bewildering for her that a woman’s passage into adulthood wasn’t through her intellect, her character, but through her vagina. »

If I have an ambition, then it really doesn’t matter where that ambition might lead me to

Back home in Eritrea, female soldiers fight alongside men against the Ethiopian army. They send recorded messages to their daughters and nieces in the camp. On some nights Saba will join the girls who gather to listen to the tapes. Their mothers and aunts explain that they are fighting not only for their land, but for their bodies and for equal futures.

            I met the writer of Saba’s adventures first in a café near his house. Brussels is now Addonia’s home, after Eritrea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and London. He is living here with his partner Lies, a Flemish woman who brings him yet another language, and their two children. Brussels is also where he teaches creative writing and founded the Asmara-Addis Literary Festival In Exile. He calls it a vagabond international literary festival with pan-African roots, an « international home for ideas that migrate freely and boldly in borderless literary landscapes. »

            Drinking black coffee, Addonia mused over Saba. 

            « She is someone in touch with her body. In a refugee camp, refugees are supposed to mourn, to grieve for what they have lost, but the first time she comes to the refugee camp she masturbates. That is not a victim. The moment I saw her naked I think she became a person like you and me. »

            He paused for a moment.

« You know that series of Degas? Of nude women? I saw his painting of a woman taking a bath in a bucket, and that is how we used to shower when I was in a refugee camp. So that bucket became a link to the place where I lived when I was a boy. But I am always interested in nudity. Because a lot of people like us – people from certain countries with a history of violence – are expected to write about certain things, like you know, the epic colonization. We’reexpected to analyze and explore big themes like war, poverty, colony. But to meeach garment that my character took off to reach a status of nudity is equivalent to taking off those epic themes. I am stripping this African character of all these epic things, one by one, of all the poverty, of all the cyclical violence, of all the war, this, that, and then you get to the intimate story. Degas kind of kicked off this process for me... I am undressing my character to get to the same form of nudity. »

Asked about why he wrote in Granta that one of Degas’ bathing women expresses silence, he describes her posture. It’s sensuous. He imagines that she is a sex worker, her body carrying the burdens of life, but in silence. He says: « her skin is equivalent to silence, if you see what I mean? » But I do not, immediately, see that. He replies with the story of his own silence. 

            « When I was a silent child, I think there was a suspicion around silence. People ask themselves: why is that person silent? Can what this person is thinking about become a threat? For me, silence was just a natural way of being. I’ve always felt comfortable with silence or people who don’t talk. »

            (As a child his mother left him behind.)

            « I was happy being silent—that I remember. I think, looking back, it was like... a mother leaving and then taking with her that thing called a mother tongue. I just... felt like silence, as if I were stripped of the possibilities that make you communicative. I found myself almost naked of words. And that’s why it felt natural to me. Maybe I was dealing with trauma, as children do. But, regardless of that, the memory I have of feeling actually really comfortable, is: silence. »

            (She left him to work in Saudi Arabia.)

            « My mother and I never lived in the same place since I was three. I do not know her. I don’t know who my father was, because he was killed when I was two. So the idea of parenthood for me is... it’s more like a theoretical basis. Which is something nice for an artist, because you can fill that void with different possibilities. Imagination becomes a source of power. I have an imagination that is ready to serve me, because once you don’t have parents, once you don’t have a place you call home, then you become all about thinking of alternatives, and that’s when your imagination becomes stronger, empowering my imagination has been my key to surviving. When reviewers say: Oh, it’s autobiography, they don’t realize that I really have a strong imagination, because that’s the only thing I had throughout my life. It wasn’t the presence of parents, or wealth, or money or a home, or a city. It was just this imagination that was certainly being with me. And together we went to places. »

            When your mother left, you fell silent for about a year, do you remember this?

            « I remember a lot; the question is what memory to take. Let me tell you about later in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. There was a woman visiting and she said to my grandmother: he’s too silent for a boy. Like: a man has to have a voice. They were considering taking me to a doctor because... you know... being silent as a boy was the antithesis of being an able person. It’s almost like a form of illness that has to be treated. Bizarre. In the way we relate to each other in a society, talking becomes a form of declaring your presence. I think they were worried that I would not go and announce myself, that I was going to be invisible. »

            And she said it was a man that has to have a voice...

            « When she said that, she was saying that a man’s voice had to be the voice of the place. What she meant was: a woman or girl has to be quiet. That’s the tiresome thing about societies: we assign roles and the moment you deviate, you become a question mark. »

            The female gaze is important in his work. Feminism is important to him. He sees men not comprehending the privileges handed to them. He tells of his own struggle to shake off the mentality of patriarchy. It is tempting to connect that eagerness to his mother’s life: she went to work in a household in Saudi Arabia to get her sons out of Sudan and from Jeddah to London. But Addonia connects it to an upbringing in a compound full of women. He says he grew up with an extreme sense of the injustice done to women, the same injustice he sees in all societies.

Edgar Degas, Le tub; Louvre; via Wikimedia Commons.

The first novel, The Consequences of Love, is also set in restrictive surroundings. Basically it is a love story. A refugee boy arrives in Saudi Arabia, where he is not allowed to see women, so he and his friends spend their days fantasizing about them. Happiness comes from an open window in the bus: they might catch a whiff of the scent of a woman, wafting from the female section. The boys, partly to relieve their sexual urges, get into romantic relations with each other, and they are abused by older boys, and by adult men, who « have a boy » on the side. Young Naser recognizes this directly when a man is interested in him: « Let me guess. He wants me to be his boy until he gets married. I have heard it many times before but I am not going to do it. »

            When young Naser then falls in love he has no clue of what the girl (or is she an older woman?) of his dreams looks like under her full-face veil, how her voice sounds, nor what she smells like. Naser has to do with scribbled notes from a figure in black, that does not dare to tell him her real name, but he can still recognize her: when the two lovers are on the same street, she lifts her abaya a little and flashes pink shoes: « Now that the girl had shown me her shoes, I was walking everywhere with my head bowed in search of her pink feet. I had already noticed that I could work out the shape of a woman’s legs despite the loose abaya they wore. »

            Passion. He might catch an ankle. The girl writes to Naser « I am no longer sure who is the lucky one: you – blind to my face – or I, who have seen you for so long now that my desire to be with you rips me apart. »

            In Silence is My Mother Tongue, girls and boys are abused. In The Consequences of Love the boys fall prey to more powerful men. It is a devastating read. These are stories of violence, neglect, loneliness and abuse. In Brussels, Addonia told me that he needed to deal with violence. The silence kicked back in. He says he can talk about arts and literature, but when reflecting on what he calls « just a crazy history » like his and his mother’s, the words fail.

           There will always be gaps. In 2021, he was a writer-in-residence in the Dutch city of Haarlem. In an essay, he describes wandering the beautiful, historic city, but he also saw through it:

The more I averted my eyes from the cafes and bridges, the boats, the buildings, the water and focused on the people around me, the clearer I felt and saw Haarlem’s missing part:

There’s beauty in clamour too, in ugliness,
and sorrow,
in filthiness.

Perhaps what Haarlem needed was to give its dark side a chance to showcase itself, to open the gates to the torments swirling under its skin. But this was also advice to myself. »

He tells me about the process he developed for dealing, as a writer, with violence and evil. Weeks, months, years of people-watching while drinking coffee on a bench or during nightly walks through Brussels. This was in a transformational period in Brussels, well before Silence is My Mother Tongue. He read the canon of feminist literature, studied feminist art, interviewed friends. At last behind his desk again, he tried to let go of it all, to forget what the awareness of who he was and what he had learned: gender, color, class. It would all come forward again while writing, to be sure, but at another, somehow less conscious frequency. Since then he says he writes naked.

To be a writer is really to abandon my humanity

« The way I write, it is almost like I am in a rocket ship, there is a lot of tension involved, a lot of movement. It feels violent. My head is banging. This is why I need classical music and ballet after. There is a softness to them that I need like cold water when you’ve burned your skin. There is that soothing in them that reminds me of my humanity, because... to be a writer is really to abandon my humanity… »

            He pauses, but there is no need to fill the silence with a question.

            « ...a lot of people will say: writing is about humanity, but I am sorry: writing some characters means really going into the depth of the darkness of humanity – then I am abandoning what makes me a father, or a human being, or whatever... there is a lot of... being in touch with violence and extreme forms of emotion, I need the music after, to patch myself up again. »

            Better to follow him, meandering, from violence, to silence, to darkness, and to violence again.

            « I’ll sit in my bed, in the dark. Darkness for me is the equivalent of what a darkroom is to a photographer. It is the only way I can see my characters the way they are. I don’t believe you should write a character if you don’t see their dark side. »

            And then to beauty:

            « We are all capable of violence, as much as we are capable of love. If you’re writing about love, you need to see the other side. This is why it is a privilege to write, when you sit in the darkness, you are abandoning yourself, but that form of abandonment can land you at something so beautiful as to write a round character with all their complexities. »

            He spoke of standing in front of a mirror after undressing, peeling off all his clothes and looking at his body, examining its different parts. This beautiful man with his fine features and elegant movements: silent, naked and fragmented in front of a mirror. He talked about the importance of unveiling, unlayering, of looking at the different parts of one’s body, one’s damaged personality – « not just mine is damaged », he quickly added there, « everybody is damaged in one or another way. » 

           His essay in Granta illuminates this more precisely:

I remember the day I stood in front of a mirror naked after a dance. I opened my body to my own inquisitive stare. I wasn’t looking at the massacre I had survived as a two-year old boy, the years I spent in a remote camp, and those that followed in Saudi Arabia. My image of myself now wasn’t disturbed by the challenges I had faced in London. I was look- ing at this half-Eritrean half-Ethiopian man still standing, still dancing. Nudity enabled me to see me and not all that surrounded me. As I looked at the pictures I had taken of myself in different poses, unclothed by fabric or history, I began to discover things buried deep inside me: the woman in me as well as the man, the immigrant, the wanderer, the silent boy, the stubborn, flawed human being that I am. I was more than a refugee. I was one hundred other things too.

He sends me a press release of a new novel, set between Eritrea and London. The Seers is about the first weeks in London of an immigrant named Hannah; it will « detail the sexual conquests of queer young African immigrants in London, who are fluid, trans and androgynous. » Someone who read it told him that she was scared about how people will react, but he insists that « I wasn’t aware of my imagination when I was writing this. I don’t know. I knew I had to be prepared to lose myself. » And he dismisses as stale the concern with labels: « People ask me: are you an African writer? A Black writer? An Afro-European writer? Blablabla. Honestly, my job is… I submit myself to my imagination and then I become unconscious. »

The first thing they will teach you is how to become subtle. I think that is wrong

The word « imagination » is a moving target in Addonia’s reflections: it is the thing one consciously submits to in order, paradoxically, to become unconscious; or it is the thing that serves you; or it is the faculty of thought that one consciously and experimentally shapes, over time, through reading, walking, people-watching. This needn’t be a contradiction. All are strategies of developing a craft.

            In an essay on Lithub, Addonia called bullshit on the classic advice to aspiring writers —that they should read a lot of books. (« How Do Writers Without Access to Books Develop a Craft? ») He is likewise grateful, he tells me, for never having studied creative writing.           

            « The first thing they will teach you is how to become subtle. I think that is wrong. I think subtlety teaches us, in a way, to become just a carrier of the form of society that exists today. »

            This, he says, is why the next issue of his festival is called Say It Loud - An Exploration of the Art of Unsubtlety.         

            Of course, there have also been books that brought him ideas at the right moments: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, George Bataille, Joe Brainard’s I Remember, or more recently Elmear McBride with A Girl is a Half-formed thing. In Jeddah it was his brother - « my hero » - who would go after smuggled literature. Sulaiman was just following him. Arriving in London the boys had read Charles Dickens, the Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi, Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih. For young Addonia, Salih’s novel Season of Migration to the North, a short book from 1966, flipped a switch. It recounts two stories of dealing with colonialism, by men who migrate to Europe and then return to Africa.

            « I was too young for it. This book was banned, it is very sexual, it has a lot of sexual violence. In the sixties it was brought in by readers and artists as the greatest novel ever, written in Arabic. I was twelve. It corrupted me. »

            He highly recommends it. And yes, it’s a powerful novel. It is difficult, while reading it, not to have young Sulaiman in mind, encountering the vitality of Salih’s protagonist as he returns to « my people in that small village at the bend of the Nile ». Or when the narrator sits himself down beneath an old acacia tree on a riverbank and dreams to himself:

The muscles under my skin are supple and compliant and my heart is optimistic. I want to take my rightful share of life by force, I want to give lavishly, I want love to flow from my heart, to ripen and bear fruit. There are many horizons that must be visited, fruit that must be plucked, books read, and white pages in the scrolls of life to be inscribed with vivid sentences in a bold hand.

Did Salih ignite your love of art and literature?

            « When you live in a society that tries to restrict you, to make you think black and white, to tell you how you should think, how you should love, how you should become, what gender you should identify with – then when you find a book like Salih’s... it really opened my eyes. This person was so sexual, so sensual. I realized there were other possibilities in the world. And that’s the power of ideas to me. That’s what literature is. I think literature has the profound ability to not really change you, but set you on a path of discovery. »

            In London, Addonia and his brother would soon go to museums and sit there with a coffee talking about what they had seen. Books, paintings, arthouse movies: they fed themselves culture. When he applied for University in 1994, his English was tested. A teacher handed him a newspaper and told him to write something about what was in there: just his emotions and feelings upon reading. After reading what he wrote she casually said: « Oh, you’re gonna be a writer. » But Addonia had applied for economics. « A mistake », she said, « you should have studied English literature. »

            After Economics he pursued a Master’s at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He was offered a promotion to the position of deputy head of the center, but quit the next night. He wanted to become a writer, writing in English. So, Lies not happy: her partner turned down a well-paying job to become a writer in a language that was not even his second but, like, his fourth. He admits the choice was not logical, but that was the point: everything he had been doing at University was logical. Why was Ethiopia underdeveloped? Why was Africa underdeveloped? Reasons one, two, three, four. All was approached logically, according to supposedly scientific ideas of development. Better to pursue illogical thinking.

            So you quit. But you needed a plan, an income...

            « I became a freelance researcher and did something really interesting. I interviewed people about social cohesion. White people would tell me: « I am sorry you are an immigrant, you are black, but I don’t accept immigrants, I just tolerate them. » Or a Christian Nigerian woman would tell me she hated Muslim mothers. It was really good hearing these voices. I wasn’t offended. That’s when I learned that being a writer is a privilege. You have to allow yourself to hear points of view that will choke you, but that too is a privilege. »

            You sat there listening, as a writer?

           « Writing is a shield against insensitivity. Those moments make me a writer, my ability to take punches. There are people who hate you, people who accept you, people who love you, people who have an opinion about you. Will you only write about people who you agree with, the people you see and that love you? I suffered racism in the U.K., and intolerance. Being an immigrant I have seen things. But being a writer is also a form of abandonment of all these senses. »

            He was helped, of course, by Lies, his brother, friends, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, who read his first story, and many others. So now he helps others, with teaching and with the festival, and he looks back on his own trajectory.

           « I am thinking about what I call the loss of memory: When you go through various forms of migration, you can lose the memory of the people you love. They become a disjointed memory, not whole anymore. You are no longer in love with your mother, you are in love with parts of your mother. You are no longer in love with the society, you become part of a particular part of that society. I think that migration teaches you all you need to know about details. As you move in between countries, your power is linked to detail, to moments, not to a whole. Nothing whole exists in my life, my life is: fragments. »

            Is this specific to migration?

           « It is not necessarily about people fleeing war, what I mean is... absence, I don’t know what it means when you live in the same country and you don’t see your parents for ten or twenty years. The loss of memory was forced on me. But if you are from Latin-America and come to Europe and you live here – that space, the ocean, the distance... – to understand Europe I think we need to understand the role of fragmented people living in Europe. » 

           He points at a man who’s reading his morning paper.

           « He is from Wales but has not lived there for thirty years. He never goes back. He lived in Italy, because his wife is Italian. People here are scattered. If he’d go back to the UK, he’d go with different ideas, different possibilities. Europe is not a fixed identity if people are migrating back and forth. »

            And you just greeted that man in English: the European language?

            « There is not a European language. A European language is a language in translation. Everything foreign that comes into your language becomes part of you, always. That is the mutual interplay between languages. A pure language doesn’t exist. English is not a pure language. »

            Maybe for a few native speakers?

            « No. Even for native speakers it is not. English borrows so much from other societies. If you really go down, then to what extent is it native? The same with Arabic: when I was a child I was speaking Arabic, and then in Arabic you would hear Persian terms. Words are like human beings: they also move. And ideas. There are no native languages. »

            As a kid he learned Tigrinya and Amharic, then Sudanese Arabic, and classic Arabic to study the Quran, in Jeddah another Arabic dialect followed. Later came English. In Brussels he orders his coffee in French. The mother tongue of the mother of his children is Dutch, or more specifically the Flemish that is drifting further away from Dutch. I ask if he has words attached to certain feelings, or certain feelings associated with particular words in particular languages.

The beauty of a new language is that it brings a new persona out of you.

I think you can always find some form of translation. What you cannot find is the feeling that a word gave you when you lived in a society. I can completely understand why people want to hold onto their language. You affiliate certain feelings with it. So you want to keep it pure. Language is a form of memory. If you are living a very difficult life, the language that you spoke with your parents can be soothing. You can’t translate that feeling, nor always be looking back. I think life is all about finding new feelings, finding new meanings, and that is what people do when they migrate between countries. Even at my age: when I came to Brussels, it took me such a long time to realize I cannot replicate my life in London. My feelings, my relations with my friends in London, all is totally different. So it is about: how do you adjust not only culture-wise but feeling-wise as well, not only to the fabric of society but also to the content of a society. And language is part of that content. »

            Fluent or not, does a different language illuminate different parts of your personality?

            « I am studying Dutch now and I realize that every single sentence I say is broken. But it’s like... almost love. Like when you meet someone the first time and you are deeply in love. You don’t notice what is broken. It becomes a love affair. The beauty of a new language is that it brings a new persona out of you. It’s not about how well you speak it; it’s about how it highlights different parts of you that you haven’t encountered before. »

Weeks later he is in a Flemish town on a mission: he wants to learn more Dutch by reading poetry in villages. He asks me to send him a poem, and I reply with the Flemish poet Paul van Ostaijen, who wrote about the siege of Antwerp during the first World War in a thick collection of poems called Bezette Stad (Occupied City). But just after the war, recuperating from what he’d seen, and just before commencing that magnum opus, he wrote another poem that I have always seen as a prelude. I translate the first sentences of that one for Addonia as:

I can not collect stamps

I can not collect pictures of women

I can not collect love-affairs

and no wisdom

I can not do anything anymore

            I can not do anything anymore

The poem’s very last lines are:

I want to be naked

            and begin

(Ik wil bloot zijn / en beginnen.)

Top image of Sulaiman Addonia: drawing by Patrick Doan after a photo by Frank Ruiter.