On a recent school run in Brussels, the author Sulaiman Addonia’s nine-year-old son asked a question. “Dad, did you have a bike when you were young?” he asked, as he pedalled his own. No, Addonia said, he had a donkey.
“And he got angry with me,” Addonia laughs. “He was so upset. He kept saying: ‘I don’t like your silly jokes.’ I wasn’t joking.” His face turns sombre. “It will take my son a long time to understand that his childhood was very different to mine.”
While Addonia’s son does not know all of his remarkable story, it has fed into his writing. His debut novel, 2008’s The Consequences of Love, was inspired by his observations of life in Saudi Arabia, nominated for the Commonwealth Writer’s prize and translated into more than 20 languages. It tells of a romance between an Eritrean migrant worker and a woman he can initially only identify by the shoes peeking out from under her burqa. Now, a decade later, Addonia’s childhood in Sudanese refugee camps has shaped his new novel, Silence Is My Mother Tongue, about two siblings attempting to find stability within the chaos of a camp.
Addonia’s story begins in a tiny Eritrean village, Om Hajer, although he does not know exactly when he was born. In 1975, amid the Eritrean war of independence, Ethiopian government forces summoned the whole village to a nearby field, saying an important official was visiting. Then just a baby, Addonia was strapped to his mother’s back when the soldiers started spraying the crowd with bullets. An estimated 250-400 people died that day in one of many massacres that occurred during the 30-year conflict. Addonia does not remember it at all; his brother, then four, was discovered alive in a pile of bodies. “He remembers it,” Addonia says. “It must have been horrendous. But I was so young, I have no memory.”
Months later, his father was beaten to death by a group of strangers – the family never found out why. But his mother whisked her three children and parents away to a refugee camp in Sudan. Addonia still has a scar on his nose from where he fell off the camel. “I find it ironic that the thing taking me to safety found a way to hurt me,” he says, tracing it with a finger.
Over the next eight years, Addonia moved from camp to city to camp. In Silence Is My Tongue, refugee camps are stifling, frightening, stinking environments devoid of privacy; residents bicker and judge each other in kangaroo courts. But it is women who bear the brunt of male rage, enduring female genital mutilation, rapes and beatings. With so much sexual violence, it could feel as if the author is lingering or even leering, but here the undercurrent is Addonia’s obvious, pained empathy for women. Considering her new life in a Sudanese camp, the protagonist Saba recalls one of her mother’s sayings: “Women were the colanders through which the suffering of their nation is purged.”
Addonia himself grew up surrounded by women, so much so that he says: “When you are young, you don’t see gender and you think you are a woman too – then you grow up and you see how unfair society is to them.” His life changed for ever when a neighbour, who was married to a known adulterer, said another man’s name in her sleep. Her husband decided she was possessed. Addonia hid and watched as a group of men beat her in the name of exorcism. “I will never forget what they did to her. She wasn’t possessed. Maybe by love. But, because she was married, she could not act on it. You can’t ignore that unfairness.”
Addonia worshipped his mother, aware from a very young age of what she had sacrificed for their safety. In an extreme act of solidarity he even decided that he would abstain from sex, because his mother refused to remarry. “When she saw certain men, I could see desire in her eyes, the subtle movement of her hand, a new shyness, the way she moved her body,” he says, smiling at the memory. “But the older I became, it became a burden. Why should I enjoy sex when my mother didn’t? I loved her and I knew she was giving everything up for me.” His decision, he admits, was brief but the misogyny in the camp led him to redefine his attitudes to sex, he says.
After two years in Sudan, his mother moved to Saudi Arabia to work as a live-in servant in a palace and Addonia, now four, and his siblings were raised by their grandparents. Illiterate, she would send back cassette tapes in lieu of letters. In them, she would describe her days, tell stories and sing songs to her children. The tapes would go on for hours. “Listening to them, I would cry because I missed her so much. But then I would walk around the camp thinking of the world she had described and I could completely rebuild it in my head,” Addonia says. “Between the lines, you could see she was suffering. I am entirely grateful for the tapes, because without them I would have forgotten her. But she would never tell you the bad things.”
Addonia saw those for himself when, aged 10, he migrated to Jeddah with his brother. While his mother worked day and night for one of the kingdom’s many royals, Addonia saw widespread sexual violence against women and boys, and migrants deported back to war zones, such as Eritrea, at the whims of their employers. And the abuse he witnessed his mother undergo at the hands of her employer sparked his lifelong insomnia. “It is such a horrible place,” he says, quietly. “The only nice thing is the solidarity between the migrants, and the solidarity between women. I am so amazed how women find the strength to support each other. To witness someone who would break their own arm just to put it around you is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Yet in Saudi Arabia he also gained a love for literature. When his brother befriended a well-connected intellectual, the pair read every banned novel they could get their hands on, from Tayeb Salih’s tale of sex, murder and colonialism, Seasons of Migration to the North, to Victor Hugo and Virginia Woolf. “Books are liberating. When you live in that society, they tell you that everything is black and white. They try to teach you to hate women, Sufis, Shias, Jews, Christians – then you read books,” he says. “Literature liberated me.”
Because of his insomnia, and because he was not living with his mother, Addonia studied as others slept. The result was an academic record so good that he received a congratulatory phone call from a Saudi prince. “People say I have achieved a lot, because I came to the UK without speaking English. But my biggest achievement is that I made my mother proud,” he says. “I will never forget when I gave my school certificate to my mum. She was sitting on her bed with her friends. None of them could read it, but they knew what it meant. That was important. I gave her something back.”
When Addonia was about 15, the brothers left Jeddah for London, arriving in Kilburn in 1990 to stay with a distant relative. Neither spoke English. It was a lonely time, but Addonia loved wandering London’s streets, learning the history of his new home. The two brothers focused on learning English at the college they attended, even moving south to Croydon to escape the safety net of north London’s Eritrean community. “We had this idea that we’d mix with English people and learn the language – and then we realised that they didn’t want anything to do with us,” he laughs. Amazingly, he doesn’t sound bitter: “Well, English people were quite cold and distant, but I found warmth in the beauty of the streets.”
After years spent navigating British immigration, Addonia finally received citizenship in 2000. He studied development at Soas, then economics at University College London and met his Belgian partner in the city, before they moved to Brussels. Success came with The Consequences of Love – as did the full weight of his past. “I had a bit of money and time for the first time in my life,” he says. “It is like you’ve been carrying all these ghosts on your shoulders, but you haven’t been paying attention to them because you’ve been busy and suddenly they jump at you.”
Will he ever completely heal? “I am learning to recognise that my body has been tormented and I have known tragedy. I will need years. But the most important thing is that I have emerged from silence to talk about this. A few years ago, I would not have been able to tell you any of this. Now, I must accept that some things won’t heal. And that is life.”
These days, life means family, writing and working at his new creative writing academy for refugees. When he can’t sleep, he teaches himself to dance using YouTube – he has even turned to ballet, which he abruptly demonstrates with an en pointe.
Having grown up with little parental supervision, with his own son he veers between strictness and a fear of being too hands-on. (“He can’t call me ‘bro’,” he says. “I am not his ‘bro’. I am his dad.”) It is the line between donkeys and bicycles: “There is a tragedy to living without parents, but there is a freedom to it, too. Being a parent is a balancing act between being present and invisible. I haven’t cracked it yet.”
Addonia has not been back to Eritrea, where his mother now lives, since 2005; the country enforces indefinite and compulsory national service, regardless of British citizenship. But this distance may have benefited them both. When The Consequences of Love was published, family friends called his mother and accused him of attacking Islam; she would call him to cry and beg: “Why do you write this? Don’t you want to see me?”
This, he says, is why there has been a decade between his books. “Looking back, I could only call myself a writer when I was ready to lose myself, my family and my friends,” he says. “My mother became a source of censorship and I needed to free myself from her. I wrote this book, but I was also rewritten by it,” he smiles. “And I am completely free.”
• Silence Is My Mother Tongue is published by The Indigo Press (£12.99 rrp).