Sulaiman Addonia’s spare and precise Silence Is My Mother Tongue tells the story of Saba and Hagos, a young girl and her mute older brother who have been displaced from Eritrea during the country’s long War of Independence. They, along with their mother, now find themselves living in a refugee camp in Sudan. Saba and Hagos are Eritrean-Ethiopian—“half from an occupied country and the other half from the occupying”—and much of the novel closely follows the pair of siblings as they navigate private wars against their own inner selves, struggling against traditional expectations of gender and sexuality while growing up in agonizingly liminal circumstances.
The opening chapter is narrated by the purveyor of the refugee camp’s Cinema Silenzioso, a boy named Jamal who watches Saba longingly through the screen of his makeshift theater in a compound at the top of a hill. Thus, the novel opens with a framing device—quite literally so, as the Cinema Silenzioso is no ordinary cinema. Jamal has simply strung up a large white sheet “tied to two wooden poles embedded in the ground, with a big square cut out in the middle” framing the daily events of the camp. He explains that he and many of the other refugees have “bought into the illusion that the sheet was an actual screen and that everything inside it was a real film—scene after scene made in a faraway place.” By deliberately creating a sense of distance from his own reality, he turns life at the refugee camp into art and thus escapes into its stories, even as he must ignore the evidence of so much hardship to do so.
The device of Jamal’s cinema is a clever place for Addonia to begin this beguiling novel based on his experience spending his own early life at a refugee camp, as we are subsequently forced to consider what might be happening beyond the edges of the frame. By telling the parts of Saba and Hagos’s story that can’t be gleaned from watching Jamal’s cinema, Addonia reveals life at camp to be endlessly complex and riddled with struggles, both subtle and overt, and the device of the screen serves to highlight the shared sense of claustrophobia that permeates daily life—a claustrophobia not just of physical closeness, but also of cultural tradition.
Addonia is delicate about Saba and Hagos’s explorations of gender and sexuality, rooting their experimentations with queerness (in practice, if not as an identity category), as well as their quiet defiance of traditional gender roles, in the context of their relationship to one another:
Every woman, [Saba’s] grandmother told her once, carries an ideal man in her heart, someone who made the challenges of being born a girl a little bit easier. Hagos was that man for Saba. They linked each other’s worlds. He carried out domestic chores, bought her clothes and shoes, took care of her hair, all while she focused on her studies.
But she too sacrificed something for Hagos. She allowed herself to be turned into the woman he carried with him. She could see it in the way he dressed her, styled her hair, trimmed her nails, painted her fingernails.
They were a match, he and she the other of the other.
Early sexual experiences have also bonded the siblings in a close and complicated knot after an uncle repeatedly rapes them as children while they lay together side by side in bed. “You are both mute now, he said to Saba and Hagos. You hear?” And in that moment, Saba realizes that “Hagos might have been born a mute, but their society turned every child into one.” Yet while the unspoken nature of the connection between these two characters forces them to suffer their traumas in silence, it also frees them from the burden of articulating their desires and putting words to something that lives only in the body.
Not only does Saba consider the value of speaking, but also the worth of language itself. She wonders “how the camp took one’s language too as if it was flesh attached to bones. She could visualize the haemorrhaging of her words, everyone’s words.” Language, then, cannot be trusted, nor can those who wield it. It’s in the body where Saba finds comfort—masturbation becoming almost a political act: “Like the flag of a free country, she planted pleasure on her assaulted body with her fingers.” Saba’s body is under the constant threat of attack throughout the novel, as well as a site of suspicion. Her own mother, advised by a local midwife, forces Saba to undergo humiliating virginity tests and traumatic medical procedures leading up to her first experience of menstruation, after which she’s quickly married off to a recent arrival at camp—a man who has also taken Hagos as a lover.
The quiet sufferings of the enduring body are privileged in Silence Is My Mother Tongue more than the explication of inner conflict and emotional depth, as if to remind readers of what these characters have been reduced to: human beings simply trying to survive. There’s a purposeful distance to Addonia’s writing in how he often eschews interiority for a stark specificity of physical detail and action—especially during moments of violence, which is often rendered matter-of-factly, highlighting both its frequency and these characters’ numbness to its aftermath. And yet the act of violence that sparks the novel’s heartbreaking conclusion actually takes place both off the page and outside the jurisdiction of Jamal’s cinema screen, leaving readers only with the afterimage of a bloody cloth and the sounds of a young woman’s cries for help.
Silence Is My Mother Tongue, then, is ultimately an exercise on learning where to look—and how to truly see what we find when we do. “Once they were within the confines of my cinema,” Jamal explains, “[the residents of the camp] were not refugees bound by their exile; instead, they could say or do whatever they wanted. Because, I told them again and again, you are characters in a film made in a free place somewhere far away.” The frame, in the end, is only a fantasy.
About the Reviewer
Richard Scott Larson is a 2020 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He holds an MFA from New York University, and his creative and critical work has appeared in a variety of venues, including the Los Angeles Review of Books. His writing has also recently been listed as Notable in the Best American Essays series. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and he has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Vermont Studio Center, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and the Millay Colony for the Arts.