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Brussels author launches literary festival to fill gap in representation

17:34 05/02/2020
The Asmara-Addis Literary Festival (In Exile) features pan-African writers, thinkers and artists who ‘want to talk about something else’

With the Asmara-Addis Literary Festival (In Exile), Sulaiman Addonia is honouring some of his greatest loves: Art, literature and his parents. The enduring story of his mother and father’s early romance is how he likes to remember them.

Addonia, an author who lives in Brussels, never knew his parents as a couple. “My father was murdered when I was two, and my mother left when I was three,” he says. So the story of how they met is all he has.

And it’s a story that needs no embellishment: He was from Ethiopia, she from Eritrea. It was the 1960s, and the counties were at war. They met in a border town and got married. “Their parents were not happy about their relationship,” says Addonia, “but to me it speaks a lot about love and how it transcends war and nationalism.”

Addonia was a baby, strapped to his mother’s back, when they miraculously survived a mass shooting in 1975 during the Eritrean war of independence. After the death of his father, she fled with Addonia and his brothers to a refugee camp in Sudan.

She soon got a job as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, and Addonia’s grandmother cared for him and his siblings. When Addonia turned 10, he went to live with his mother in Saudi Arabia. As a teenager, he left to join relatives in the UK. He didn’t speak a word of English.

The languages of Ixelles

That’s one of the reasons why Asmara-Addis Literary Festival (In Exile) – dedicated to performers, writers and artists with African roots – is in about 10 languages. Life in Ixelles is the other.

The Readathon on the festival’s second evening “represents all of the languages you can find in Ixelles,” he explains. “I walk around Ixelles, and I realise how many languages there are. I only understand a few of them, so I thought, the street has to be on the stage.”

Language, he says, “is one way of familiarising ourselves with our neighbourhood, with our context. Art can be understood in many ways. Art is also about what’s here in the street. The street has a language, and it has to be given a chance to be represented.”

The Readathon last year – the festival’s debut – was described by people as “revolutionary,” he remembers. “They said that even if they didn’t understand everything, they felt like ‘I was part of something’.”

Sulaiman Addonia, founder of the Asmara-Addis Literary Festival

Addonia (pictured above) settled in Brussels after falling in love himself, with a Belgian woman. He wrote his second novel, Silence is My Mother Tongue, in the capital. It is the story of a brother and sister growing up in a refugee camp, mirroring his own – often harrowing – experiences.

He will take part in a panel at the festival on love and intimacy, the focus of his first book, The Consequences of Love, a look at forbidden romance in the profoundly restrictive Saudi Arabia.

One of the reasons Addonia founded the Asmara-Addis festival – named after the two capitals of his parents’ countries – was to have the chance to talk about aspects of literature, art and performance that mattered to him.

“Every time I am invited to come to panels, I’m almost always asked to talk about war and exile,” he explains. “I understand that because I’m a child of war, I survived a massacre, I’ve seen really horrible things. But I chose to become an artist. I spent 10 years in Brussels working on one book. During those 10 years, I sacrificed a lot to do research on art, painting, music, photography, and how those different areas of arts have inspired me.”

He sees a gap in the festival scene for artists from Africa and the diaspora who also tend to get pigeonholed. “There are other things we can talk about. We have earned the right to talk about art. We have earned the right to talk about love. We have earned the right to talk about intimacy.”

New faces in the audience

The other reason was to reach out to a more diverse audience – to the communities he sees in the capital every day but doesn’t see at cultural events. “I notice when I go to festivals that the audiences are usually made up of white people, and an older generation,” he notes. “And I thought, you know, we need to reach out.”

While many festivals strive to put diversity on stage, getting it in the audience is more of a challenge. Addonia and a group of volunteers started picking up the phone.

“We reached out to the Moroccan-Belgian community, to the feminist community, to the African community. We approached them personally and individually. We went into the Matongé and hung up posters, but also talked to people. We talked to hairdressers, we knocked on the doors of different organisations.”

And it paid off. Last year, he saw a different sea of faces in the crowd. “We have managed to pull them in, and our audience last year was much more representative of what Brussels actually is.”

Free tickets for refugees

To this end, the festival is offering free tickets to asylum-seekers and other people who simply cannot afford the €10 ticket. They have split the tickets up among different communities. When word got out, many people asked to sponsor tickets for those who could not otherwise have one.

One of the festival’s events is in fact devoted to asylum-seekers. The audience will hear the impressive results of another of Addonia’s projects – a creative writing academy for refugees. The series of courses helps newcomers to Belgium to realise writing projects, often used as an outlet for their difficult circumstances.

“I don’t like the term ‘the voice for the voiceless’,” Addonia says. “Everyone has their own voice. What they need is a place to express it.”

Asmara-Addis Literary Festival (In Exile), 27-28 February, across Brussels. Those interested in sponsoring a ticket for someone else can contact the festival through Sulaiman Addonia’s Facebook page

Photo, from top: Participants in last year’s festival; founder Sulaiman Addonia
©Courtesy Asmara-Addis Literary Festival

Written by Lisa Bradshaw