Tag Archives: Refugees in fiction

Silence is My Mother Tongue by Sulaiman Addonia: The quiet power of the novella

Cov er imageIf 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.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Listen up, Mr President

Cover imageIt was impossible for me to read this collection without thinking of breach, Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ short stories about refugees living in Calais’ now disbanded Jungle. Whereas breach is based on Popoola and Holmes’ research carried out in and around Calais, The Refugees was written by an author who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, it explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. A particularly timely read given the current state of affairs in America

Nguyen considers themes of memory, love, family, identity and belonging – or not belonging – from a variety of points of view. In ‘Black-eyed Women’ a young woman who resolutely refuses to believe in the ghosts her mother insists she sees, is forced to reconsider when the brother who died protecting her suddenly reappears. A young man is disconcerted to discover that he’s living with a gay couple, one of whom is his sponsor, in ‘The Other Man’ then finds himself behaving in ways he doesn’t recognise. ‘War Years’ sees a man remembering his mother challenging a fellow Vietnamese asking for money to combat a Communist resurgence then thinking better of it, faced with her own relative good fortune, while in ‘The Americans’ a Vietnam vet is invited to visit his daughter, now living in the country he last saw from a B-52, and bitterly resents what he sees as her accusations. These are carefully crafted, contemplative stories which often end with a sentence that makes you consider – or reconsider – all that came before.

Whereas the stories in breach are very immediate – its subjects still in flight from recent conflicts – Nguyen’s collection combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience which lends it a quiet power. His writing is beautifully polished, both eloquent and elegant: ‘In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories’, thinks the young ghostwriter in ‘Black-eyed Women’; ‘Marcus had the posture of someone expecting an inheritance, while Liem’s sense of debt caused him to walk with eyes downcast as if searching for pennies’ in ‘The Other Man’. Nguyen shows not tells, subtly alerting his readers to the ordeals his characters have endured: a character’s water phobia, another’s compulsion to own more than he could ever need having left so much behind. A son’s casual assumption of American peace and prosperity since infancy contrast with his father’s quiet acceptance of a job far beneath his capabilities signalling the gulf that can open up between generations. It’s a compelling collection, heartrending yet optimistic. Every refugee – from Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or any of the many conflicts that afflict our world – has their story which will continue to reverberate for many decades. We need to hear them.