Tag Archives: The Indigo Press

An Act of Defiance by Irene Sabatini: The power of hope

Cover imageBack in 2018 I read a book from a small publisher which blew my socks off. Sulaiman Addonia’s story of a young Eritrean refugee who sacrifices everything for love was one of my books of that year. Hopes were high, then for An Act of Defiance which is also published by The Indigo Press. Like Silence is My Mother Tongue, Irene Sabatini’s novel humanises a story which many of us will have seen played out on our TV screens, in this case the descent of Zimbabwe into ruination and madness under Robert Mugabe, beginning in 2000.

The daughter of a well-connected Mugabe supporter from who she keeps her distance, Gabrielle is a young lawyer, an activist, appalled at what she sees happening around her. She’s involved in the private prosecution of a member of the government accused of raping fourteen-year-old Danika. Her former partner, Gio, has been posted to Colombia, sending an air ticket in the hope that she’ll join him but she’s determined to stay and do what she can for the country she loves, now patrolled by drunken bands of Party Youth intimidating anyone openly opposing the government. Then she meets a smart, young American diplomat. Open and full of curiosity, Ben is keen to show Gabrielle the cultural riches she’s been too busy to appreciate. One day, on the way to a picnic, Ben’s beautiful red Chevrolet is car-jacked: he’s badly beaten and Gabrielle is taken to a torture camp. When she’s released it is Gio who takes her in, nursing her back to physical health, protecting her with a solicitousness that she tries not to find irksome. Over the next eight years, Zimbabwe will be strangled by the iron grip of a man once deemed his country’s saviour now apparently intent on destroying it. Traumatised by her ordeal, Gabrielle withdraws into a numb safety until she finally wakes up to what’s needed of her.

Her laugh bores into him; it sneers at him, at his stick, at his manhood, at his revolution. Again and again he hits her

Spanning seventeen years, Sabatini’s novel is a poignant love story as well as a vivid account of Zimbabwe’s devastation and the beginnings of liberation. Gabrielle’s trauma is sensitively handled, the torture visited upon her detailed in brief snapshots, graphic but necessarily so, and the ruin of Danika wrenchingly portrayed. It’s a powerful story, made all the more so by the awareness of its veracity.  I remember being appalled by the spectacle of black Zimbabweans starving in a country rich enough for all to live in comfortably, beaten and turned out of their houses at the hands of the man once acclaimed as their hero. Sabatini ends her novel in 2017 on a note of hope, both for Gabrielle and for the country she so dearly loves.

A small request: if you decide you’d like a copy of either An Act of Defiance or Silence is My Mother Tongue, please consider ordering it direct from The Indigo Press or an independent bookshop. They’ll need all the support we can give in the current crisis.

The Indigo Press: London 2020 9781911648048 330 pages Paperback

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.