Sulaiman Addonia: ‘I’m taking writing back to the rock’n’roll era!’

<span>Sulaiman Addonia photographed in May 2024 at home in Brussels.</span><span>Photograph: Whitley Isa/The Observer</span>
Sulaiman Addonia photographed in May 2024 at home in Brussels.Photograph: Whitley Isa/The Observer

Sulaiman Addonia was born in Eritrea and lives in Brussels. He spent his teens in Saudi Arabia (the setting for his 2008 debut, The Consequences of Love) after spending his early childhood in a refugee camp in Sudan, the backdrop to his second novel, Silence Is My Mother Tongue, which was longlisted in 2019 for the Orwell prize for fiction. His latest novel, The Seers, a single 134-page paragraph about the sexual encounters of an Eritrean refugee named Hannah, takes place in London, where Addonia and his brother claimed asylum in 1990.

Where did this novel begin?
In lockdown, on my iPhone. My partner and I have two kids and, when the schools closed, we split the day into shifts: I looked after them in the morning and then, in the afternoon, I stood in front of the ponds of Ixelles, here in Brussels, which is where Hannah popped up in my head. I just got my phone out and started, and then went back to the same spot every day to write. I’d been reading Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and I discovered that he wrote it in about two weeks because he needed the money. I thought, OK, why don’t I go in a duel with this Russian guy? I lost – I finished in closer to three weeks.

How different was the process from your previous books?
It was an experiment in writing from the subconscious. Moving from London to Brussels [with his Belgian partner in 2009] was incredibly difficult: all my childhood traumas suddenly resurfaced. The massacre [of his village in Eritrea during the war of independence]; the murder of my dad; what my mum went through [working as a servant] in Jeddah; coming to London just with my brother at the age of 15 – everything came out. I lost myself but, at the same time, it was a moment where I decided to move my practice from the conscious to the subconscious: your job isn’t to intervene when the writing process happens, but before it begins. Feed your imagination – then withdraw and give it freedom.

Is writing more enjoyable now?
In Jeddah, I looked towards the west as this amazing free space. Now I look at writers in the global south and envy them: they’re the ones facing imprisonment, but writing without fear. A lot of books coming out in London or the US have become all about subtlety and conformity. The western novel feels like it’s in a very calm space; I told my friend, I’m gonna take it back to the rock’n’roll era! I was joking, but I feel The Seers is in conversation with a time when the western novel was really bold. My first book was written consciously to sell. With my second novel, I started to change the process and I think I became happier, because it’s an amazing thrill when you’re on the edge; writing a book like The Seers, you could fall.

My brother and I were brave readers – he introduced me to banned novels in Jeddah

It was originally announced in 2021 by a different publisher…
The past two years have been the most difficult of my career. A lot of publishers – young, old, black, white, Asian – try to push you towards how marketable your book can become. After American Fiction came out, there was an article in the Evening Standard where black writers were saying they weren’t allowed to write the books they want to write. I’ve been through it with The Seers. It was constantly: “Yeah, but why is it one paragraph? Sulaiman can write really well, but why is he writing this erotic, sexual thing?” Giving space to your madness as a writer – to your playfulness, to your desire for experiment – becomes a white-man field; I really felt I had to stand up for myself. Maybe I’ve taken the concept of freedom into the wilderness [laughs], but, for me, it’s about paying homage to your imagination. I’ve lived in oppressive countries, I know what oppression is – the last thing I’d want to do is to turn my imagination into an oppressive thing.

What makes writing frankly about sex so important?
It’s as important as people’s stories of violence. I can’t tell you the fight I had over the scene in my second novel, where Saba arrives at the refugee camp and the first thing she does after waking up is to masturbate. [Editors asked] how is it possible for somebody who just fled a war in abject poverty to have time to do that? For me, it made sense, because she’s suddenly dislocated and still has that memory of being back home when she was making love to herself. But I was told: “You’re telling a story far removed from what the western reader would expect”. The thing is, in a camp, people do have sex! A lot of Eritreans who read that novel also have a problem with it: “This is too private.” But I’m just telling our stories in the freest possible way.

As a reader, what attracts you to a book?
When [Eimear McBride’s] A GirlIs a Half-Formed Thing came out, I read a review in the Guardian and thought, I need to get that. It’s absolutely one of my favourites. I read more poets because I’m drawn to books where attention is paid to every single word; recently, I’ve enjoyed Jay Bernard’s Surge and Nii Parkes’s The Geez.

Name a book that has inspired you.
Reading Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North as a young Muslim boy really blew me away; this guy talking about a Muslim man having all these sexual encounters in London taught me that you can tell stories that go wherever the characters take you. Reading Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye made me feel sick, but I continued; I felt, this is how writing should be. My brother and I were always interested in literature and we were brave readers – he introduced me to banned novels in Jeddah. When we came to London, our favourite place was the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts]; even though we didn’t have money, it was our way of coping, discovering all these amazing artists and writers.

The Seers by Sulaiman Addonia is published on 27 June by Prototype (£12). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply