How a language barrier can both limit and liberate.
By guest author Sulaiman Addonia from the New York Times. Sulaiman Addonia is a British-Eritrean-Ethiopian writer and the founder of the Creative Writing Academy for Refugees & Asylum Seekers and the Asmara-Addis Literary Festival (in Exile).
April 5, 2023
My mother, who can’t read and write, is one of my literary influences. I was 3 or 4 when she left our Sudanese refugee camp for Saudi Arabia, leaving me in the care of my maternal grandmother. The void she left became a space for my creativity, where I imagined a different world with her and my whole family together.
She stimulated my imagination further when she sent tape recordings instead of asking for one of the male transcriptionists who wrote letters for analphabetic people. Playful, expressive and containing songs she improvised on the spot, the tapes were full of news and stories in which she described her life in detail. Years later, when I moved to Britain as a refugee without speaking a word of English, the memory of these tapes inspired me to write my own stories.
Yet my writing has wedged further distance between us.
“Why did you write this now?” she asks me. It’s early 2019, a few months after I published my second novel, “Silence Is My Mother Tongue.” I’m in a Pakistani-owned electronics shop with booths for cheap international calls in Matongé, a Congolese quarter of Brussels where I live. My mother and I catch up on the phone, since for political reasons I’m not allowed to visit her in Eritrea, where I was born and where she has lived since she was deported from Saudi Arabia by her employer in the 1990s. For most of my life, more than a decade passes before each time we meet in person.
This is not the first conversation we’ve had about my writing. Snippets of work and passages from my books continue to arrive to her via relatives living in Europe. The pattern is familiar. I publish something, share it on social media and then they call and translate it for her. The intention of these relatives is clear: to use my mother as a censoring voice, to rein me in.
With my first book, about forbidden love and freedom in Saudi Arabia, the treatment of religion brought concern to my family members scattered across the globe. Like other Eritreans, they had fled the violence of our country’s 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia. But it’s the raw, often unrestrained eroticism in my second book that has scandalized them now. My pen has turned into a double-edged sword. It gives meaning to my life without my family but also threatens their traditions, the remaining signposts of a home that is fading into ambiguity in exile.
I understand their anger. When I began the novel, I couldn’t write some characters who defied gender roles and sexual taboos. I was conditioned by the traditions and beliefs of all the societies I had lived in, including those of Europe. For a while, I put my pen aside and isolated myself with books by Tayeb Salih, Anne Desclos, Zora Neale Hurston, George Bataille, Nawal el Saadawi and Pier Paolo Pasolini, as well as other challenging works by filmmakers, erotic photographers, feminist thinkers and artists. These works were the axes I used to break my mind free. I wrote “Silence Is My Mother Tongue,” but it also rewrote me.
On the phone, after some hesitation, my mother mentions naked people in my books. I sweat. After years of separation, even a mundane conversation is laced with difficulties, let alone a discussion of the sex scenes in my books. Under the din of fellow Africans bellowing from the surrounding booths, I concoct a lie: “I can’t hear you,” I say. Shortly after, I hang up and go for a walk.
I want to explain to her why intimacy is central to my work, why my sole purpose as a writer is to surrender to my imagination and go wherever it takes me. But I don’t have the right vocabulary to say all this in the languages we speak to each other. Alternating between my broken Arabic and Tigrinya often leads to disjointed, frustrating exchanges. Now, though, our language barrier is a blessing. In the face of her embarrassment over my writing, losing my mother tongue has become a shield against potential fallout and has kept my mother close to me.
There was a time when I sought to block family members on social media. But I never actually did. No matter how much I resent them for trying to provoke my mother, to enrage her so that she’ll restrain me, part of me finds them essential. Without their translating and sharing my work with my mother, something I never did myself, she would have remained oblivious to it. I’m caught between the fear that my “scandalous” words will eventually lead her to stop talking to me and the joy I feel when she asks me about my writing. As uncomfortable or tenuous these exchanges may be, they make me feel seen and acknowledged by her.
For me, “Who is your reader?” — that staple of writing classes and advice books — is a triggering question.
Writing in English, a language inaccessible to my family in Eritrea, has enabled me to tackle sensitive themes and write freely. But by using the language of my adopted country, instead of the languages of home, I am now at the mercy of Western readers. I feel my imagination shackled to the desires of these readers — and to the gross simplifications of their literary tastes by Anglophone publishers.
I think about the complexities of writing in exile as I pack for a trip to Khartoum, Sudan, early this year. My mother, whom I haven’t seen in 12 years, is meeting me there. In my luggage are gifts for her: clothes, shampoo, pain relievers and lotion for her skin. After encouragement from my partner, I slip in a copy of my second novel, too, in case I dare to show her.
It’s just after midnight on the first of January, 2023. My anxiety surges as our plane descends, its wings swaying above the Nile. A cool breeze meets us at Khartoum International Airport. It feels symbolic somehow. My writing and the dilemmas around it immediately take a back seat. I bask in the reunion instead. The sadness that has built up in the north, like an iceberg on my chest, thaws in the warmth of my family’s love.
My aunt prepares a morning coffee ceremony, roasting beans while popcorn pops under a lid in the kitchen. The sound of my family’s laughter, a sound I have missed, tightens my throat. Then my mother asks about my writing. This time, I don’t have the perks of a long-distance telephone line or a noisy booth to hide in. My mum and I are sitting opposite each other. My European relatives are not there to translate whenever our words fall short. It is just her and me, the son she sent to the West as a teenager to be safe and to study science, but who has returned as a writer.
I open my luggage, overwhelmed by contradictory thoughts. Scented smoke from the incense burner beside my aunt coils in the air. My asthma flares up; I take a moment. As soon as I grab my novel, guilt floods me. I can’t hand her a book that contains so many things she disapproves of. A book packed with characters who became more alive when I killed her in my imagination and when I walked away from those who urged me to write for Western readers.
But when she holds my novel, written in a style inspired by the stories in her tapes, I let go of my worries. I feel a sense of achievement I have never felt before, as if her sacrifices — years working as a domestic servant in a Saudi palace to save me from a refugee camp and send me to London — have finally paid off.
“Ket’sebeg,” my mother says in Tigrinya, referring to the beauty of the cover. Her voice, which hasn’t changed since my childhood, reminds me of the tapes. An idea comes to me: I could pay for my novel to be translated into Tigrinya and then record an audiobook solely for my mother.
Her illiteracy and my foreign language would no longer be barriers between my mother and my work. She would have the chance to hear my story, as I heard hers in those tapes. I would replace the translator relatives who have delivered passages from my writing to her with mixed aims. After the initial excitement, though, comes the panic. Some family members have stopped talking to me after reading my books, and I worry that my mother, too, might abandon me when she hears the stories in my novel about love, intimacy and sexual fluidity.
It’s this possibility that makes me ask myself, before I embark on the audiobook project: What matters more to me, my mother’s presence in my life or my unfiltered stories in hers?