If there’s a pattern running through this year’s reading for me it’s the power of the novella. Ghost Wall, Four Soldiers, El Hacho and Soviet Milk all spring to mind, each of them dealing with weighty subjects often in spare, careful prose, and there are many more I could mention. Sulaiman Addonia’s beautifully expressed Silence is My Mother Tongue falls into the same category. Set in a Sudanese refugee camp, it tells the story of a young Eritrean woman who sacrifices everything for love.
Saba arrives at the camp with her mother and her mute older brother, Hagos. She’s a bright young girl with her eyes set on a future in medicine who wanders the camp on her first day looking for the school she’s been promised. She finds a friend in Zahra, proud of her mother fighting for equality in the war at home in Eritrea. Embattled in a thorny relationship with her own mother, Saba is protective of her brother who seems destined to live a loveless life. These two look out for each other, sharing a secret which Hagos can’t and Saba won’t tell. Time stretches out endlessly in the camp. Saba grows into a beautiful, sensuous young woman, attracting unwanted male attention but never losing sight of her ambition and her devotion to Hagos. When a businessman arrives with his son in tow, both the midwife who delivered Saba and her mother see an opportunity. All this is watched by Jamal who once worked at Asmara’s Cinema Impero and has set up a screen through which he watches his beloved Saba’s story play out.
The book opens from Jamal’s point-of-view with the trial of Saba for incest held at his improvised cinema. It’s a powerful opening chapter which lays bare the crimes and misdemeanours of many in the camp all too willing to condemn Saba without a hearing. Addonia switches perspective to the complex, expertly drawn Saba, telling the story of what’s led to this spectacle with compassion and humanity:
Everything is recycled in our camp, happiness as well as despair.
We policed judged and imprisoned each other.
It was a skill Saba had failed to inherit. The invisibility that a woman ought to inhabit.
A woman is too complex for a man… … That’s why we reduce her to simple matters.
Men, as you may have gathered, do not come out of this very well but women, too, are far from irreproachable: the midwife is insistent that circumcision is the only way to tame Saba, something Saba’s emancipated grandmother had expressly forbidden.
This is such an intensely immersive, moving piece of fiction throughout which so much is left unsaid, so much forbidden. The knowledge of Addonia’s history as a child refugee in a Sudanese camp in flight from Eritrea in the ‘70s makes it all the more powerful. This is his first novel since his debut, The Consequences of Love, was published a decade ago. Let’s hope it won’t be such a long wait for his third.