Kim Echlin’s fiction (The Disappeared, Under the Visible Life) often involves female characters coping with tragedies set on an international stage, and her latest is no exception. Set in Bosnia, The Hague and Toronto at the turn of the millennium, Speak, Silence (Hamish Hamilton, 208 pages) begins with a Canadian journalist named Gota taking an assignment in Sarajevo. Her plan, ostensibly, is to cover the fallout from the Bosnian war. Secretly, it’s to reconnect with Kosmos, an old flame and the father of her teenaged daughter. Once in Sarajevo, however, Gota finds herself forging an unexpected connection with Kosmos’s on-again-off-again lover, Edina, a lawyer for women who were systematically raped during the war. The relationship takes Gota to the landmark international trial in The Hague, where she witnesses the women’s harrowing testimony firsthand. Echlin spoke to the Globe from her home in Toronto.
How much did you know about the Bosnian war before writing this novel?
I watched this war on TV, on the CBC. I still remember a report Anna Maria Tremonti did from a children’s hospital in Sarajevo. The nurse was walking along a line of beds with children who were bandaged, saying “Land mine, sniper …” and so on. Then Louise Arbour, a Canadian, was appointed as chief criminal prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. When I heard about a case that was focusing on war crimes against women, I realized it was women witnesses, women prosecutors, women researchers. The head judge was a woman. This whole case, which was creating new international jurisprudence, was women.
But when you look at something for a long time, you’re also looking at the deeply personal level. I realized I was responding from inside to a generalized silencing of women and their experience in war. The importance of their sexuality, their motherhood, their nurturing. So the book is written from, yes, the surfaces of that particular war, and that particular court, but it’s also written from this emotional experience.
You went to The Hague?
Yes, I went and met the head prosecutor on that particular trial, but I also talked more generally to case managers, who organize all the trial material. These special people from the courts care about international history, about the connectedness between people and what the law can do. An international court can put people’s stories on the record. The novel does this too, but in a different way, by inviting readers to empathically enter the story. The women who stepped forward to testify are courageous. It was dangerous. For some it reactivated suffering they wanted to leave behind. Often their families rejected them. So to create two places in the world for their voices – on the court record and in storytelling, which demands our imagination – is profound.
The novel frequently alludes to the lack of monuments, of art, dedicated to women whose bodies become spoils of war. Was writing it an act of monument-building?
You’ve nailed it. That’s part of what I wanted to do. If you go back to the Iliad, you have this bit about no man hurrying home before he’s bedded a faithful Trojan wife. There was no word for rape, but everyone understood what it meant. As you move through the centuries you read all this glorification of the male body in war. The Iliad has some very graphic descriptions of boys being disemboweled, but writers have not been able to bring themselves to honour a woman’s experience of war in a similar way. And so I thought, How can we transform a woman’s body from a theatre of war to understand their courage? There’s now a groundswell of different writers starting to retell the classics from a women’s perspective, but that’s a fairly recent phenomenon in the last 2,000 years [laughs].
I’m curious about the Nabokov reference in the book’s title given that many considered his attitudes to women, as a person, problematic. And of course Lolita involves the rape of a child …
There are resonances. Lolita has no voice. This story is all about women’s voices. The reference is marginal, peripheral. It was much more focused on the women telling their stories.
So you weren’t trying to invert it?
It’s not that tightly connected, really.
Edina and Gota often interact through chess, which they even play over the phone. You wrote the novel before The Queen’s Gambit made women and chess a cultural thing, so I’d love to know how it came about.
Chess is very popular in Bosnia. The metaphors of power and strategy in chess resonate through war and through legal and court procedures, so chess was an excellent device to add into scenes in which Edina could not talk about war, competition, winning and losing, but could live it in the game. She is so much better at the game than Gota. Playing chess allows them to understand each other better. Gota can experience the competent, competitive, strong woman from before the war, before she was tortured. And Edina can tease Gota about her very different life, one in which she was spared war. Edina’s chess style is a bit cheeky, and very strong – it’s a place a reader can either see, or sense, her talents in action.
The match descriptions are pretty detailed. Do you play?
When I decided to include chess as a metaphor, I needed help to design the games because I play at a very rudimentary level, and I wanted the games to be demonstrative of Edina’s character and talents. I googled “chess teachers” near me and the first one that came up was a man with a Bosnian name! I phoned him and told him I was researching a novel and what I needed. He agreed to teach me for a while and oversee the games I was designing. The first night I met him he told me that he himself had made a daring escape from Sarajevo during the war.
I sometimes experience this kind of synchronicity when I’m researching fiction. I cannot account for it, but when it happens I know I’m in the right imaginative space.
Can you talk about the love triangle that overlays the trial story?
Each of them is loving the wrong person, but there’s a lot of love. The male character at the centre of that triangle, Kosmos, has a little bit more agency than the women. He chose to stay out of the war. He walked away from his relationship. He may suffer from these decisions, but he still has agency, whereas the women don’t. Adina loses her husband, and she’s put in this war/rape camp. And Gota chooses to have her baby, so the triangle is complicated, but it’s also characterized by love.
There’s a spare, almost a monastic quality to the prose in this novel. Is that a case of form following function?
My sense is that this came directly from the transcripts. When a story is this stark and dramatic, I wanted the prose style to somehow reflect that. It’s not necessary to have a prose style that has a lot of rhetorical flourish, it’s more a straight storytelling. You don’t want the language to get in the way of these profound human experiences. You want the language to let those experiences move through it.
You also travelled to Foca, where many of the rapes took place. What was that like?
The trip was really interesting in the sense that when we went into the town we knew some of the crime sites, and they still were there. We didn’t go into the school, but could see very clearly it was almost unchanged. We went to the Partizan Sports Hall. What was really useful and interesting was seeing how inaccessible these places were, in terms of trying to escape. The school is built on a hill, so it would be impossible to get out without being seen. And the Partizan is kitty-corner to a police station. Going to Karaman’s house, where the women were kept, was the most dramatic. It’s on a precipice on a deserted road with a mountain behind it, so there was no way of getting out. We recognized it because the gate was unchanged, but then this guy came along and was threatening to the point that our driver, a former UN soldier, said we should get out of there. It was disturbing to see this aggression toward people still coming out 20 years after the war.
The concept of home, and the inability to return home, struck me as key to this book.
That’s so perceptive. You know how the classic quest is the hero setting out from home, having adventures then returning home, intact? The Odysseus story? I think a woman’s quest is quite different. In the case of these women they can’t go home, but they create new homes all over the world. The carry their homes inside, regardless of what has happened to them.
This interview has been edited and condensed
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