Kim Echlin (photo: Michelle Quance)

In my research for Canadian Writers Abroad, I’ve identified three loose categories for writers who leave: to study abroad, to teach English abroad, or because of a relationship. For Kim Echlin, author of Elephant Winter (Viking 1997) and Under the Visible Life (Penguin 2016), I can check off all three.

She studied French literature at the Sorbonne while doing her PhD at York University (Paris 1979-1981); she taught English in Dalian, China, through WUSC (1984-85); as well, she joined her husband on his work-related research trips in Cambodia and Africa.
And she made the most of her travels. After her PhD, she went to the Marshall Islands, travelling around them by cargo ship and listening to stories. As Margaret Laurence did in Somalia, so too Echlin gathered and translated myths while in China: Mountain and Sea published by the Beijing Foreign Languages press. Echlin has long been interested in myths, story-telling and translation, having done her PhD dissertation on the translation of Anishnabe (The Translation of Ojibway: the Nanabush Myths, York University 1982), then going on, with some mentorship from W.S. Merwin, to translate Sumerian myths, publishing the free verse, Inanna: A New English Version (2015). This fall she will bring 20 years of teaching experience to her new course on the woman’s quest myth and Inanna.*
While myths are fundamental to her second novel, Dagmar’s Daughter (Viking 2001), her most recent novel, Speak, Silence, draws on the testimonies of Bosnian women. Her Cambodia novel, The Disappeared (Penguin Canada 2009) was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for Fiction. Echlin credits the courage of her publisher and editor, Nicole Winstanley, who was instrumental in releasing the difficult stories that Echlin chooses to tell. -DM

Review of Kim Echlin’s Speak, Silence (Hamish Hamilton Canada 2021), 196 pages.

Reviewed by Tim Martin.

Kim Echlin’s novel, Speak Silence, analyses systematic rape as a weapon for ethnic cleansing and domination, particularly the horrors of the war visited on the Muslim women of the town of Foča. They were victims of organized rape by Serb militias and then they were witnesses for the precedent setting prosecution of the atrocity at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Echlin based her novel on factual events, having studied the testimonies of these women.

The novel is narrated by Gota Dobson, an aspiring, young and impecunious Canadian writer who travels to Sarajevo to cover a film festival. This crucial event connects her to the emotional odyssey of the Foča women who go to the Hague as witnesses for the prosecution. Gota’s background and relationships to the characters are also traced through chapters set in Toronto and Paris, such as her love affair with Kosmos, the Bosnian father of her daughter. She meets him eleven years before her Sarajevo trip, when they are both struggling writers in Paris trying to find their way. This is how she later describes their situation, “We were tattered things, and foolish and lost. And there was also a child” (p. 13). In Paris, they are fascinated by each other, and Kosmos tells her about the vicious history of a bridge in Sarajevo that he wants to write a play about.

“Kosmos said, Why do I tell you such terrible stories when I want to kiss you? I come from a place of endless torment and war.
 I thought, Do not fall in love with him” (Speak, Silence p.33).

Then he spends the night at her apartment. There is a hint of Henry Moore and Anaïs Nin in their erotic and intellectual romance, but without the daring explicitness. Kosmos never meets his daughter, Biddy.

Through Kosmos, Gota encounters Edina, a lawyer, victim, and his former lover. “She had once been pretty. Her shifting grey-blue eyes were more alive than her flesh, her energy an erect snake waiting to strike” (p. 6). Gota’s work as an aspiring journalist leads her to write the story of Edina’s quest to recruit women to make their statements so perpetrators can be prosecuted. At the centre of the plot is the heroism of women who overcome fear, shame, and real danger to offer their searing testimonies to the ICTY. High tension lines of emotional drama connect the relationships as the story moves towards its denouement in the Hague. “But I loved Kosmos. And he loved Edina.
Each of us loved the wrong person” (p. 75).

This book makes demands of readers. It requires ethical alertness and historical awareness of the conflicts attendant to the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. The reader must observe up close and reflect upon horrific acts of violence in the knowledge that they are historically accurate representations of real atrocities inflicted on real women and girls.

Echlin’s description of place is vivid. Here is a bar in Sarajevo: “The smoke-filled room was full of young students whose educations had been interrupted, laughing through their war trauma, trying to invent a retro-present in a city besieged for three years, ten months, three weeks and three days” (p. 6).

The seriousness of the ICTY is countered by the picture we are given of it: “The building was a many-doored purple martin house where people from eighty countries worked together, lawyers and case managers and legal assistants and language assistants and witness assistants and librarians and forensics experts and security people flying in and out” (p. 100).

Arresting turns of phrase, often poetic, reward the reader with vivid images and depth of scene, such as “His charming soup of language” (p. 7) and “Three men were still drinking, heads and necks jutting forward like gargoyle downspouts” (p. 20).

Writing a novel about rape as a weapon of war is an ethical and literary minefield for authors (full disclosure – I also wrote one). You could diminish the gravity of the crime through fictional treatment. You could do disservice to victims by inaccuracies, or exaggeration. You could be reductive and simplify the good vs. evil angle. You could fail to convey the multi-dimensional humanity of victims and perpetrators. Echlin’s novel navigates these risks with clarity and assurance by giving the women of Foča agency and dignity. Speak, Silence will be appreciated by those who care about human rights and be deeply interesting to those of us who were emotionally engaged and morally outraged by the Balkan wars.

Having served as a diplomat in conflict zones, I thought Echlin’s description of the social precursors to civil war represented her best insight. “WAR CREEPS UP. Loudspeakers. Broadcasts. Hate your neighbour. On the radio, hate mixed in with local reports. Weather. Hate. Community news. Hate. Music. Hate. People shrugged. Propaganda, they said. As if words no longer mattered, said Edina. At first, no one believed what was happening” (p. 76).

Gota’s interior thoughts connect the case of the women of Foča to universal truths on our shared human condition. “Nothing is more human than trade, worship and war” (p.10). “We are each born of particular violence on this blue and green planet in a dark and lifeless universe, and rather than be together in awe, we war with each other” (p. 33). “Our only wisdom is our humility, I thought” (p. 60). Where the book presents us with the particular and personal it has razor sharp emotional penetration. The book is less engaging where Gota proposes cosmic generalities. Her life trajectory hasn’t earned her the depth of wisdom to get away with it. Gota’s loose philosophical pronouncements pale compared to the bracing clarity of Hannah Arendt’s analytical observations in Eichmann in Jerusalem.

By writing about these women and their trauma, Echlin seeks to counter our culture’s enduring celebration of combat as a contest in bravery among men that suppresses the reality of directed sexual violence against women as an integral part of war. “But always we say never again. To this day women are systematically raped as part of terror and war” (p.ix). Through its title and narrative, Speak, Silence gives voice to the women victims of rape in war. As counterpoint to this dark message Echlin offers the faint hope that our new international justice system, as represented by the ICTY (and now the International Criminal Court) can provide remedy.

Like all important books, Speak, Silence leaves the reader with new questions. For example, does the International Criminal Court represent an advance in real justice, or an expensive Western gesture without real capacity to deter crimes against humanity?

Kim Echlin & her guide Salem (photo: Iain Reid)


Tim Martin

Former ambassador Tim Martin is the author of Moral Hazards, the first of his international thrillers that draw from his 30-year experience in international peace and security. His high-level diplomatic service includes leading Canada’s civilian work in southern Afghanistan, the Kimberley Process to ban conflict diamonds and Middle East Peace negotiations. Moral Hazards is about a Canadian human rights lawyer fighting to protect victims of sexual violence in the largest refugee camp in the world.

(photo: D. Martens)

Further Reading

You might be interested in the novel, The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna, set in Croatia. If you’d like to suggest other fiction set during or after the Bosnian War, or other fiction about women victims of war, please do so in the Comments/Reply section.
-D. Martens

The feature or header photo is of the Srebrenica Memorial (photo credit: Kim Echlin).

Posted by Debra Martens

author, editor