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(TheNewArab) Silence is My Mother Tongue: Exile, survival and breaking the shackles of traditionalism

Posted by: Semere Asmelash

Date: Wednesday, 06 February 2019

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Silence is My Mother Tongue: Exile, survival and breaking the shackles of traditionalism

Ilham Essalih

Silence is My Mother Tongue: Exile, survival and breaking the shackles of traditionalism
The novel gives an insider's view of life textures in a refugee camp [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 February, 2019


Book Club: A beautiful and articulate novel, Silence is My Mother Tongue fuses themes of feminism, war and postcolonialism, portraying the story of refugees far from today's one-dimensional depiction.

Silence is My Mother Tongue is Eritrean writer Sulaiman Addonia's latest powerful piece of fiction. The novel, published in October 2018, is the story of two siblings, Saba and Hagos, who flee the war in Eritrea and end up in a refugee camp in Sudan with their mother.

Addonia too fled Eritrea as a child with his mother and siblings following the Om Hajar massacre in 1976. Like the characters in the book, he spent his early life in a refugee camp in Sudan, and later lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

He later arrived in London as an unaccompanied minor who did not know a word of English and now holds a BSc in Economics from University College London and an MA in Development Studies from SOAS, University of London. The Consequences of Love, his very first novel, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and translated into more than twenty languages.

Silence is My Mother Tongue is all about transgression, especially when it comes to gender and the roles traditionally assigned to men and women. Neither Saba nor Hagos fit into traditional perceptions of what women and men are expected to be like. 

Saba is deemed too masculine in her strength, outspokenness, stubbornness, and protectiveness of her brother, but "she was proud of the trait they kept accusing her of as if it was an insult: being manly." Hagos is the opposite of his sister and therefore considered too feminine; he is caring, delicate, kind, docile and occasionally likes to wear women's clothes. He is described as "the girl his mother had always wanted".

Gender is very fluid in this book, Saba and Hagos both actively resist the roles that society assigns them, and this swapping of roles comes unexpected in the context of a conservative society.

Gender is very fluid in this book, Saba and Hagos both actively resist the roles that society assigns them, and this swapping of roles comes unexpected in the context of a conservative society

The question whether the characters can ultimately break the shackles of traditionalism can only be answered – or at least interpreted – by reading the book. In any case, nothing in the story is very definite or clear, the narrator leaves many things unsaid, creating a surreal atmosphere of uncertainty, where your imagination and mind must do a lot of the work. This is perhaps Addonia's way of letting the reader know that what it means to be a man, or a woman is an inherently very blurry and perhaps also futile thing.

Far from providing a one-dimensional portrayal of refugees, this book gives them humanity as well as depth and complexity, when we're more likely used to reading very dehumanising depictions of displaced people. Since it is written by someone who experienced displacement himself, Silence is My Mother Tongue gives an insider's view of the textures of life in a refugee camp.

There is a story behind each refugee. Saba, for instance, is a young woman whose purpose in life is to go to university and become a medical doctor, but the war derailed her plans. She wants to believe that this situation is only temporary, while she dreams of the day she'll be reunited with her books, which she was forced to part with when they fled.

These books she had to leave behind because the smugglers who helped them flee asked for money for each bag they took, and they could only afford to take necessities. When Saba understood she couldn't take her books with her, she "stayed up days and nights before their departure, memorising her favourite passages from the books she would leave behind."

The title of the book is a very striking one. In the acknowledgments of the book, Addonia writes, "to my grandmother – Mebrat: thank you for bringing me up, for teaching me how to make zigni stew and for allowing me to be quiet when I didn't want to talk as a child. You saw that silence was my mother tongue."

An important theme in the book is Hagos' inability to speak, which reflects the recurrent trope of muteness in postcolonial literature. This use of the lack of speech is central in postcolonial theory because it raises the question whether oppressed, (ex)colonised subjects are able to have a voice and whether their speech can effectively be heard.

Since it is written by someone who experienced displacement himself, Silence is My Mother Tongue gives an insider's view of the textures of life in a refugee camp

Throughout the story, Hagos is introduced as a voiceless subaltern who is unable to be understood, but there is hope for him to recover his voice. To find out whether or not he does, you'd have to read the very last, beautiful pages of the book, where the answer is given.

While the book might be short, it is a heavy and dense read. Every single word matters and is meticulously chosen. The writing doesn't just blurt everything out to the reader, it makes you work for it, and the powerful and exquisite imagery make for a very poetic ambiance.

The best part is that this aesthetic quality does not make the book uneventful or slow-paced, it is in fact quite plot-driven and exciting to read, despite being a laborious read.

I highly recommend you pick up this book if you enjoy beautiful, articulate writing mixed with themes of feminism, war and postcolonialism.

Order your copy of Silence is My Mother Tongue here.


Ilham Essalih is a Belgian-Arab book reviewer and PhD student in Postcolonial Literature. Her research focuses on gendered dimensions of postcolonial trauma in literature of Africa and the Arab world. 

Follow her on Twitter: @ilhamreads

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