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Beyond Words: Towards an Aesthetic of Silence and Sexuality in Sulaiman Addonia’s Silence is My Mother Tongue


Beyond Words: Towards an Aesthetic of Silence and Sexuality in Sulaiman Addonia’s Silence is My Mother Tongue


Dr. Ravinder Kumar

Assistant Professor

Department of English

Govt. Degree College

Ghandalwin (Bilaspur)

Himachal Pradesh, India




Silence is the new language of literature. Silence performs on equal terms with words in the process of decoding signified out of signifier in a text. Poetics of silence enlarges the boundaries of narration in which elusive expression is considered more explanatory than the denotative power of words. Sulaiman Addonia’s Silence is My Mother Tongue (2020) not only deals with displacement but also narrates the sexuality of the people in a refugee camp which is comparatively and conventionally less discussed phenomenon. Epic richness of details beyond textual narration capacitates this literary marvel to be read for its silent expressions. Unlike traditional descriptions of a refugee camp, Addonia records the silent responses to helplessness, agony and hope embedded in sexuality. This paper locates the silence in and of the story constructed as literary device demanding readers to read beyond the words to understand the experiences of sexuality, up rootedness, and war in a refugee camp.


Keywords: Connotation, Denotation, Displacement, Narration, Sexuality, Silence




Words are like razors on your tongue. The sentences you speak are so wounded that they will fall apart when they leave your mouth. (Addonia 167)


Refugee camp is believed to be a vociferous place. In umpteen literary creations displacement has been delineated as chaotic, violent and desperate. However, this plentitude of emotions has developed a new expression in the form of silence, “which is contiguous with language” (Gould 3) and as Hassan puts in that, “the literature of silence manages to deny the time-honoured functions of literature in yet another way: it aspires to an impossible concreteness” (The Literature of Silence 10). Is there another expression except words to show agony, pain, resistance and hopelessness of a refugee camp? Can the commotion of a refugee camp be realized in silence? And, is it morally correct to narrate the sexuality of the characters that are barely fighting for their existence? Or, is it possible to attach meaningful silence to the poignant narration reporting the voices in a refugee camp? This improbable abstractness where a typical refugee camp reverberating with sounds of displacement and sexuality finds a new expression of silence which is appended with speech in Sulaiman Addonia’s Silence is My Mother Tongue because, “for all its silent status, writing thus continues to conjure up voices, not only for their orality and musicality, but also for their function as sources of dialogism and epistemological, ethical and political metaphors” (Guignery 6).


Saba, along with her mother and mute brother Hagos reaches to a Sudanese refugee camp fleeing the massacre of Dregs in Eritrea. She confronts a cruel world here offering no hope for her dream of resuming the abandoned schooling. Her struggle to survive in this camp intensifies as she has to fight with gender-stereotyping exerted by her mother and a midwife fiercely resolute on getting her married. She acquaints with fellow refugees in the camp. She befriends Zahra, a girl of her own age, “her mother had stayed back in the trenches, fighting the independence war” (Addonia 43). She meets Samhiya, a cheerful girl attracted towards her brother Hagos. A wealthy businessman Eyob who with his business plans in the camp sustains Saba’s hope of becoming financially independent to resume her schooling. Tedros, Eyob’s son who is an absolute misogynist eventually with his voluptuous advances towards Saba makes her more determinant and ambitious to live her dreams. Nasnet is a prostitute in the camp who also attributes to Saba’s femininity. Khwaja teaches Saba English language and is suspected to have seduced Saba. Haji Ali is a nomad, who associates with Eyob to set-up a diary and meat shop in the camp.


Clearly, Addonia in the backdrop of a refugee camp works on the imaginative and psychological state of the protagonist Saba. She, throughout, evokes her emotional, analytical and imaginative experiences with these fellow refugees. The bleak and barren surroundings of the camp metamorphosed into a deep psychological analysis of human crisis which is manifested not in explanations but in observances. “How do we reach beyond the stories into the silences they hide; how can we assume that speech, the breaking of silence, is in itself a good thing” are the critical inquiries in this text (Butalia, 12). The depiction of intimate relation between Saba and her brother Hagos which also becomes the reason of her trial in the camp is the departure point taken by Addonia from the traditional narrative of refugee camp which has been silent on sexual aspect of the people torn by displacement. Saba’s journey in the camp redefines the idea of displacement and the outrage associated with female sexuality finds more eloquent expressions in silence rather than in metanarrative about dislocation and female body. Addonia registers this outrage and landscape as if, “it is not temporal but spatial, not historical but ontological” (Hassan 5). Silence is My Mother Tongue is thus a work on how to articulate the inner conflict silently and as in Addonia’s words, “Circumstances might lead you to the world of silence, but once you are there—and discover its beauty and the richness of its vocabulary—you embrace it. Silence became my mother tongue. Silence itself seems to be a character in the book, in the way it lives in the main characters and swims alongside the language and the words on the pages.”(Addonia, Silence Became my Mother Tongue. Web)


Silences in and of the Story:


Writing is not doomed to be shadow of speech. (Coetzee 142)


Silences of the story are the narrative exigencies where narrator seems deliberately inviting the readers to construct the meaning at their own without relying on narratology. The textual spaces in the novel Silence is My Mother Tongue predominantly comprise of words like imagine, speculate, wonder, dream, silence to peep into the psychological realms of its characters experiencing the spatial reality of the camp. Silences in the story are the narrative exclusivity of frequent interrupted dialogues, unanswered questions. The cinema screen which Jamal, “ironed and tied to two wooden poles embedded in the ground, with a big square cut out in the middle” works as an ersatz cinema in which characters are made of cardboards (Addonia 7). This suggests that Addonia deliberately creates a sense of silence while narrating the varied scenes in a refugee camp. This device of screen serves as a shared sense of silence of the people who are otherwise visible and can create dialogue but intrinsically living “in isolation. Like a mural, an artifice of a bygone era” (Addonia 7). This reminds one about the long stretches of silence of Jhumpa Lahiri’s narrator in Whereabouts (2021).


In the camp, there remains more to understand beyond the descriptive words showing Saba’s turmoil because, “the silence made the place feel more remote and deserted than she’d imagined” (Addonia 28). Her memories fathom the brutality of displacement and the reverberating images of her home flashing in her mind, “the rhythm of dough slapping against mogogo stoves … car engines sputtering. Bicycles clicking in the hills … students reading aloud from their textbooks,” yield to the silence in the camp as, “this was a silent morning,” (Addonia 38). Her acute sense of agony and pain of leaving home is louder in her silence than in her resounding memories of lively home like kazuo Ishiguro’s aging butler Stevens in The Remains Of the Day (1989).


Further, in the camp, when like other refugees she receives the stale sardines to eat, her silent thoughts speak loudly highlighting her helplessness. “As the mother scooped another spoon of mashed sardine, Saba spotted the date printed on the side of the tin. This tin is out of date; she mumbled to herself … Taking a small piece of wood from the floor, she scratched the expiry date. The black letters dissolved. Time no longer matters, she thought” (Addonia 49). She silently reveals the uncertainty and despair of a refugee camp.  In yet another instance Saba without uttering a single word, narrates in her silent impressions the predicament of displacement:


The more she looked into other people’s huts, the more Saba noticed differences in mindset. Some fled with mattresses and pillows, others with coffee machines or cooking utensils or clothes. And Saba suspected it might not have been the lack of money to pay the smuggler for extra possessions that prevented her mother from fleeing with more, but rather that their mother had left valuable belongings so that they would always think of returning home. (Addonia 66)


Addonia presents a variety of styles and perspectives on violence and loneliness in the refugee camp. Saba seems to be very close to the writer, given the fact that the writer was himself a refugee in Sudanese camp once. Moreover when Addonia arrived in UK, he didn’t know the English language and Saba contemplates on this loss of language incurred due to ugly and inhuman conditions in a camp:


Three silences. Hers. Her brother’s. Her mother’s. They were empty of things to say to each other. And Saba wondered how the camp took one’s language too as if was flesh attached to bones. She could visualize the hemorrhaging of her words, everyone’s words. No one without a language is alive. (Addonia 99) 


The answer to this crisis of language comes in the form of silence which is in fact the authorial expression registered in a story delineating displacement, violence, helplessness and ambitions reminding Adania Shibli’s female character in Minor Detail (2017) and the amplified silence which narrates the violence inflicted on her.


Sexuality as a Site of Silence and Revolt:


Addonia undeniably extends the limits of the narrative of displacement when he exclusively talks about the sexualities of different characters in the refugee camp. In Hassan’s words,


It is easy to understand that in a culture given to sexual repression, protest may take the form, echo the ring, the obscenity. The literature that exposes this motive is thus a literature of revolt. Obscenity, however, is cruelly reductive; its terms, counters, and clichés are sharply limited. (Hassan 10)


Gender conventions and sexual tropes find a new expression embedded in silence. From Saba’s intimate relationship with her brother Hagos for that she is put under trail for showing perversity to Eyob’s and Haji Ali’s unexplained liking for Hagos and from Saba’s romance with prostitute Nasnet to Jamal’s voyeurism in watching Saba naked are the new symbols of reversed analogy of displacement in the form of loneliness attached to sexuality. The instances like “At times, his silent presence in her life made Saba think he was a figment of her imagination … soaked by her sweat, Hagos took off his shirt and lay back on the blanket , his head on his  palms. Stripes of light fell on his chest. Saba stretched next to him. His bare skin smelt of jasmine fragrance” (Addonia 82) and when she visits Nasnet, “her shadow on the wall of Nasnet’s hut rising with her, the reflection of her nipples shifting with the flickering of the oil lamp. And when she was about to leave … smelling of coconut cream, Nasnet hugged her. With their cheeks still touching, Saba whispered a thank you” (Addonia 133) sensually resonate with the revolt in form of narrating anguish and loneliness in the form of sexuality. This answers the question that, “how do migrant and refugee women discursively construct their sexual embodiment’ (Ussher 1904).


Violence and trauma in this camp find new channel of expression and pleasure in human body as these silent sensual encounters reject the cruelty of the displacement. According to Addonia, Saba “is someone in touch with her body. In a refugee camp, refugees are supposed to mourn, to grieve for what they have lost, but the first time she comes to the refugee camp she masturbates. That is not a victim” (Addonia, When I was Silent. Web). The people who are living in close proximities in unfavorable conditions of a refugee camp defy the war and perceive nudity as liberation. Addonia’s sympathetic exploration of human sexuality in most inhuman conditions propounds that, “the literature of silence is not without a voice; it whisper of a new life … it proposes new strategies of language and reveals a changed attitude towards literature” (Hassan 201).


Further Eyob’s uncanny liking for Hagos, “when he kissed Hagos the night before, he had swallowed all the silence on her brother’s tongue” (Addonia 186) and an inexplicable instance at the end of the story when it is revealed that, “Saba hadn’t seen that nomad’s hunger for Hagos coming. His desire for her brother was as invisible as Hagos was to the people in the camp” highlights the suppressed (Addonia 199) highlight the challenge to cultural conventions on sexuality. Moreover Hagos seems to be seduced by Haji Ali as a price for Saba’s freedom from the camp, “Dung. Dung everywhere. Around me. And on me. That smell of that first time we entered the camp wafted to me from my chest that Haji Ali has squeezed with his hands, from the barn where I lay. It was as if I was a hut, a camp built with animals remains to last in this wilderness” (Addonia 204). Similarly Jamal’s voyeurism, “I saw her cooking, reading, ironing, working … a random selection of images of her replays in my mind. There was that evening she spent masturbating behind the latrine” (Addonia 7) consolidates the authorial vision of delineating the sexualities as silent manifestations of hitherto neglected dimensions of human desire and body in the narratives where morality, righteousness are the only source of fighting displacement and exile.


Silence remains as the prime mode of expressions in these experiences of hopelessness, struggle and somatic desire. Saba with her brother develops a parallel language of silence which talks about love and ambitions contrary to the vociferous speech of violence and displacement. The silences between Saba and Hagos work as the dialogues talking about the reality of camps. A silent interlocutor like Hagos gives multiperspectivity to the thematic concerns of the story introducing the binaries of love vs. violence and silence vs. speech. Their struggle to adjust in this Sudanese camp brings forth the possible reversal of gender role. It is in their mute conversations that Saba develops the perspective of freedom and she easily narrates her fears, hopes and loneliness.


Saba had given all her femininity to her brother … Hagos allowed the woman in him to direct his life, the way he felt, the way he moved through life. Saba saw it in his freedom … he made his presence felt not by shouting himself to the front, but by holding himself together despite all his wounds, to shine even in the dark. (Addonia 79)


It is in the end that silent Hagos becomes the voice of her freedom when with the help of Haji Ali she is able to leave the camp. He chooses to be at the camp, a price he pays for Saba’s freedom by challenging the gender role in a traditional society, “I moved my lips. I love you too, Saba said, taking a final look at me, as I became visible in the glow of the man I loved, as I loved her” (Addonia 205).




Thrust on connotative or silent meanings of a literary text has considerably framed the theoretical and critical aspects of world literature. This story of siblings Saba and Hagos depicts the multitudes of a refugee camps with the help of silences juxtaposed with the words and sexuality articulated and explored in the novel. Displacement has always remained the curse on human society and Addonia has offered a fresh perspective on how to narrate this existential crisis particularly related with one’s body in a refugee camp which is inherently devoid of expressions. Loneliness, ugliness and resistance find the best expressions in silences and sexuality of the narrative woven around an ambitious girl with her mute brother.


Works Cited


Addonia, Sulaiman. Silence is My Mother Tongue. Graywolf, 2020.


---.“Silence Became my Mother Tongue: A Conversation with Sulaiman Addonia.”, Interview by Anderson Tepper. World Literature Today, 18 May 2021, http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org>blogs>interviews.

---.“When I was Silent: Interview with Sulaiman Addonia.” Interview by Sander Pleij. The European Review of Books, 13 June 2022, https://europeanreviewofbooks.com/when-i-was-silent/en


Butalia, Urvashi. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Penguin Books, 1998.


Coetzee, J.M. Foe. Viking Press, 1986.


Gould, Thomas. Silence in Modern Literature and Philosophy: Beckett, Barthes, Nancy, Stevens. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.


Guignery, Vanessa. Voices and Silence in Contemporary Novel in English. Cambridge Scholar Publishing, 2009.


Hassan, Ihab. The Literature of Silence: Henery Miller and Samuel Beckett. Alfred. A. Knopf, 1968.


Ishiguro,Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. Knopf  Canada, 2014.


Lahiri, Jhumpa. Whereabouts:A novel. Knopf  Canada, 2021.


Sahibi, Adania. Minor Detail. Text Publishing , 2020.


Ussher, Jane M et al. “Negotiating Discourses of Shame, Secrecy, and Silence: Migrant and Refugee Women’s Experiences of Sexual Embodiment.” Archives of sexual behavior vol. 46, 7 (2017): 1901-1921. doi: 10.1007/s10508-016—0898-9