Novelist Kim Echlin ventures into dark territory in Speak, Silence, a Bosnia-set novel about rape as a war crime

Author Kim Echlin
“You’re not transgressing particularities of a story, although you’re telling the story from a particularity,” says Kim Echlin (Photo: Michelle Quance)

Kim Echlin credits a shed in her family’s back yard with saving her as a writer.

“I had always worked in little corners of a house,” Echlin says of her prior experience, which involved setting up various makeshift offices wherever space lent itself. In her previous home, the Toronto author worked on an uninsulated back porch in the dead of winter. “I used to sit back there with mittens on. It was so horrible.”

When the family moved to their current location, Echlin decided she would try something different and converted a shed in the back garden into a study, weatherproofing it and boosting the WiFi so that she could teach courses online. The arrangement has been especially beneficial since the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns. Echlin’s daughter, a teacher, moved home, and her husband was consigned to working from home because of the virus, so quiet space had suddenly become scarce.

“When you’re writing, you just don’t want any buzz around you,” Echlin says, adding ruefully that the psychic energy from the house reached her even in the shed. Despite that, the refuge her back yard office provided proved to be a blessing. “It honestly saved me. If I had to work in the house, I don’t know what I’d have done.”

What she did, as it turns out, is compose her fifth novel, Speak, Silence, a harrowing narrative that focuses on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a body established in 1993 as a means of adjudicating war crimes arising from the conflicts in Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1999. The protagonist is Gota, a Canadian journalist who travels to Sarajevo to cover a film festival. There, she reunites with her former lover, Kosmos, whose partner, Edina, is a lawyer involved in a criminal trial in the Hague dealing with the use of rape as a weapon of war.

The Foča trial, an actual, historical event that took place in 2000 (and named for a town in the east of Bosnia and Herzegovina), ended with a declaration of rape not just as a crime against an individual woman, but a crime against humanity. “When I began to understand the implications of this change in jurisprudence – and to be surprised that I didn’t know more about it, hadn’t read more about it – I thought, ‘I want to put this in a form that people can read about it,’ ” Echlin says.

Speak, Silence, which “started in the garden shed and ended in the garden shed,” took more than ten years to develop; it was published this March by Hamish Hamilton Canada.

“I feel like we’ve always been talking about it,” says Nicole Winstanley, publisher of Penguin Canada and Echlin’s editor. “I feel like even as we were putting [Echlin’s 2009 novel] The Disappeared to bed, this novel was inside of her just waiting to come out.”

Echlin began thinking about the story while watching news footage of the Bosnian war on television in the 1990s. She subsequently met a number of Canadians who worked on trials in the Hague and made her way through thousands of transcript pages, some of which are incorporated into her novel. She also travelled to Sarajevo, where she toured various war sites in the company of Ian, a researcher she had met in the Hague, and Salem, a driver and an ex-soldier in the Bosnian war. “Ian was in the back seat with his devices full of all the data on the crimes,” Echlin says. “We were driving through the region and he’d say, ‘Five thousand buried there, 3,000 slaughtered there.’ He had all this very precise information. And then Salem was telling the actual stories of what it felt like on the ground.”

Speak, Silence by Kim Echlin
The decision recognizing rape as a crime against humanity had profound repercussions for how war crimes involving women are adjudicated

Immersing herself in the region was important to Echlin, who wanted to understand as much as she could about the conflict and its repercussions. Doing this was an act of humility on Echlin’s part, giving herself over to the voices and perspectives of those directly involved in the war and foregrounding their stories. “This is in part why it took so long,” she says. “I wanted to listen to enough and I wanted to listen deeply enough.”

This allowed Echlin to create a novel that treats fraught material in a sensitive and understanding manner, says Winstanley. “All of these conversations have happened about appropriation, and then we have this remarkable, fully accomplished author who comes along and says, ‘I’m not going to give you my words here; I’m going to give the space for their words.’ ”

The idea of appropriation is one Echlin is sensitive to; her approach to the survivors’ stories in Speak, Silence is based in a devotion to their individual perspectives and experiences. “You’re not transgressing particularities of a story, although you’re telling the story from a particularity,” she says of her relation to the stories and subject matter in the novel. “I have to write from a place of utter curiosity and an openness to hearing the layers of stories that are in any one story,” Echlin says. “It’s not just one story.”

For Echlin, the focus of Speak, Silence carries pressing import not just for the women who were traumatized during the Bosnian war, but for all of us in our current socio-political moment. “This is an international story. These kinds of war crimes are happening all over the world,” she says.

The decision recognizing rape as a crime against humanity had profound repercussions for how war crimes involving women are adjudicated; for Echlin, it also signalled an important change in the way literature concerning war should be considered. “For 2,000 years or more, women in literature have been represented as spoils of war,” Echlin says. “You go to The Iliad and you have Agamemnon saying, ‘Let no man sail for home until he has bedded a faithful Trojan wife.’ This was just considered to be part of war. We have all this heroic language for men’s battles, and really quite horrible descriptions – excellent descriptions of horrible events. But I have never seen that in literature describing a woman’s experience of war.”

Language was another important consideration for Echlin, who says that whether she is writing about a love story swirling around memories of the Cambodian genocide (in her Scotiabank Giller Prize nominee The Disappeared) or atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, the technical elements of the narrative are always paramount. “There are two threads: you’ve got your story that you’re telling, but you’ve also got this medium that you’re working in,” she says. “What can I do to make it more beautiful, but also how can I use language in a way that’s unique to this story?”

Where Speak, Silence is concerned, the material Echlin was treating was so fraught, so emotionally raw, that the narrative demanded a very simple, stripped-down presentation to allow the scenes and subject matter their due. As a writer, Echlin felt the pressing impulse to get out of the way and let the narrative direct itself in a very straightforward presentation. “When you’re telling stories that are as brutal as this, what you start to see in the language is that it becomes very pared down and simple,” says Echlin. “When you’re looking for language that will express atrocity, you get to a very pure, pared down language. There’s not a lot of need for embellishment. The story is so powerful in and of itself.”

The book does not contain a content warning on the title or copyright pages; this was a conscious decision on the part of the publisher, who decided that a preface and the flap copy would suffice to warn readers about the book’s content. “It’s all very upfront. It’s not one of those books that catches you out of nowhere. The subject matter is not hidden on this one,” Winstanley says.

Having said that, Winstanley is under no illusions about how unsettling much of Speak, Silence is: parts of the novel based directly on trial transcripts are particularly tough reading. “It’s not easy material to engage with for as long as she did,” Winstanley says. “To bring it to life in a way that still invites readers in [while remaining] true to the original material was a very, very difficult task.”

For Echlin, who is no stranger to imaginatively focusing on the darker aspects of our shared human history, the creative process allowed an aesthetic distancing that permitted her to pursue this story for a decade. It was only when she became involved in overseeing the audiobook that the potency of the subject matter fully revealed itself to her. “When I listened to the court section, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is really terrible,’ in a way I hadn’t heard so much when I was writing.”

But for the author, any discomfort in proximity to such difficult material was mitigated by the importance of the story – importance that Echlin locates in the courage of the women defendants whose voices in court shattered the silence around the experience of sexual assault in the context of war. That courage and those voices are not limited to a historical period or one Eastern European conflict. “The silences I was talking about were the silences many women experience in their daily lives,” Echlin says. “The silences around sexuality, motherhood, violence against women. These are not confined even to women in war. These are confined to women’s entire history.”

Now that the book is finished, Echlin hopes that it will provide an imaginative prism for readers to elevate their consciousness as to war and the physical, emotional, and legal repercussions of rape as a crime against humanity. “If our consciousness can be expanded then we won’t engage in war,” she says. “But we’re not there yet.”

NOTE: Kim Echlin will be participating in a virtual fundraiser for Beach United Church, Women, War and Love, including a reading and Q&A, on Tuesday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m.

Novelist Kim Echlin ventures into dark territory in Speak, Silence, a Bosnia-set novel about rape as a war crime
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