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May 7, 2021

Speak, Silence, by Kim Echlin

It’s a difficult sell, Kim Echlin’s novel Speak, Silence, about the International Criminal Court Trials after the Yugoslavian wars that for the first time prosecuted rape during wartime as a crime against humanity. I will admit that I might not have picked it up were I not given the opportunity to interview Echlin for a live book event this week, but am I ever glad I did. The rare kind of novel that has been engaged the way of nonfiction, pausing in my reading to leap down internet rabbit holes and learn about parts of history of which I’d had absolutely no idea (the history of how Bosnians became predominantly Muslim—it’s fascinating!) and I kept turning to my husband and asking myself, “Did you know….?”

Unfortunately the question usually ended with a detail like, “that women were kept imprisoned, raped and tortured, and intentionally made pregnant with genocide as the desired outcome?” Most of that is not explicitly in the book, but instead what I came to understand as I perused internet articles on what happened in Foca, and Bosnia, and all these things that were going on in the backdrop to my life in the 1990s, subjects of television reports. The kind of thing that happens “over there.” How did I never know about this? And Echlin’s novel is both an echo and an answer to that question.

Speak, Silence is a fascinating companion read to Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, a book about violence against women in which the violence is not gratuitous and indeed far from the point, which instead is agency and storytelling, and the power of listening and also being heard. There is a strange tension through Echlin’s text that is suggested by its title, a sense of both-ness. An irreconcilability. That nothing can change or fix what was done to these women and the pain and suffering they live with, and that a criminal trial is still an inadequate way to address their experiences, and yet it’s also everything. That testifying can reopen a woman to pain of her experience, but also permits her a kind of power. That these women who are brave enough to tell their stories, overcoming shame and stigma in order to do so, are finally permitted the power of shape the narrative of women and war, one that has centered on men since the time of The Iliad. Echlin writes about the granite memorials to war dead in the former Yugoslavia, and really everywhere. But nowhere do we find memorials to what happened to these women, and so many women before them.

But the trial itself is a memorial, and Speak, Silence builds upon the trial to further bring these women’s experiences and stories into the consciousness of readers. Echlin choosing to fictionalize the stories, she told me on Tuesday, because it’s through fiction that readers truly get to inhabit another’s experience. And yet there are limits to this too, of course—more of the both-ness I mentioned. The novel is a testament both to empathy and also to its limits. Echlin’s protagonist says, “I did not want to use the word trauma because we all think we know what trauma means but I do not think we do.”

That protagonist, Gota, is a Canadian journalist who has spend the 1990s in Toronto with her small child, the result of a love affair she’d had in Paris with a man from Sarajevo. Uncomfortable with being a mere onlooker via the TV news, Gota travels to Sarajevo to reconnect with him, and meets Edina, the woman he’s always been in love with who is in love with a different man. Edina, a lawyer, has been collecting the stories of women who’d suffered during the war, understanding how these stories could come together to make a case against the perpetrators. And Gota and Edina become connected, Gota wanting to understand what these women had experienced, taking their stories and holding them. She attends the court trials in the Hague, and Echlin outlines the administrative demands of such a thing, the translation and interpretation required for these women to be understood. Gota is determined to learn these women’s stories and write about them, memorialize them, and her character’s intentions are analogous to Echlin’s as she created the novel.

Gota’s daughter stays with Gota’s mother in Toronto, and the reader learns about Gota’s mother’s own past, one touched by war and tragedy, and this story line is a pairing with that of Edina, her daughter, and her own mother, three generations of women, and inter-generational trauma, and resilience, and the heavy price of silence, even when speaking comes with a cost of its own. It’s a curious shape for a novel, just as the love triangle at its centre is also strange, but this is a novel whose shape is more of a web (a net?) than something more linear. There is no such thing as a peripheral character; there is no such thing as periphery at all. Instead, there is connection after connection, bridges being a central symbol in the story (both literal and figurative). The language in the story is so fascinating, subtle and understated, and yet the words themselves are like traps, double edged and tricky.

It’s not a tough book to read—it’s not even long. It’s brutal in a sense, but just as beautiful, Echlin embodying both-ness again by making death-and-violence and undying love both absolutely true at once. Narratively speaking, it’s really curious but fascinatingly so, layer upon layer of meaning, and it’s impossible not to thoroughly engage with, the reader taking the story within and being changed by it, which is just what its author intended.

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