The Disappeared, the latest novel by U of T professor, Kim Echlin, is a brief, intense work conveyed in clipped, second-person prose. Two lovers are drawn to each other in the chill of a Montreal winter in 1979, despite a racial divide. He is a refugee of the ongoing genocide in Cambodia as well as a musician, tender in his craft. She is a motherless 16-year old, sneaking away from a distant and disapproving father into the steamy St-Laurent jazz clubs. As per the title, she delivers the narrative to his absence, a lifelong void only briefly filled. When he leaves Montreal to find his family after the genocide has tapered, he is lost in the political upheaval that continues to seize the country. She follows and bears witness to the torment and dread that still hangs thickly in the Cambodian air.
The pared prose and broad scope of The Disappeared cleared Echlin a spot on the Giller Prize shortlist. She discussed her work with the newspaper.
the newspaper: Your book conveys an intimacy that is most apparent in the 2nd-person voice. Yet, the scope of the book is a complex historical event that affected the lives of millions of people. What are the challenges to smoothing out this difference between the intimacy and the distance?
Kim Echlin: What I was interested in, in using the second person voice, was to create a really strong narrative voice. The narrator, Anne, is addressing her lover, Serey, but she is addressing him 30 years after he’s died. And what that did for me was to underline how, for people who have suffered various types of trauma, it sometimes takes a lot of time before they’re able to speak. And then, of course, it allows Anne’s passion for him, even after his death, to resonate for the reader. But there’s a second layer for using the second-person voice and that is to draw the reader in. There’s an unconscious resonance that the reader is also being addressed.
tn: In fact, when I first started to read it, it made me feel uncomfortable having the whole story directed at me. There’s intensity to it.
KE: Yes, that’s true. One of the things I did to prepare for writing this book and also to find the voice for this book was to read a lot of Truth Commissions from around the world. I read all of the witness literature that has come out of Cambodia in English but I also read South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Nunca Más, the Never Again Truth Commission from Argentina, as well as a number of others. A thing that struck me through all of this reading is that people who have been victims of trauma and are able to testify speak in a very unadorned prose. They speak very simply. They simply recount their experience without a lot of embellishment: “I was raped,” “I was left in a mass grave,” “I was stolen and tortured,” and the power of their story is such that their language doesn’t need to be very ornate. The power of the story simply comes through the most direct recounting of the experience. The other experience I had reading all of this testimony, which I found really interesting and moving, was that there’s a lot of repetition. A repressive state does the same thing over and over and over again to its citizens. Even though many of the testimonials were very similar, I really had the impression that I was hearing individual voices. I think that that comes from the huge integrity that it takes to tell these stories.
tn:How well do you have to know a culture to write about it? Some say that it's better to be inside and some say it's better to be foreign. Would you like to weigh in on that debate?
KE: This is a question about cultural appropriation, of course. I think a writer has to be respectful of anything they’re writing about, whether it’s their own culture or a different culture. But I think that the power of the imagination is what allows us to transcend our own specificity. Otherwise, we’d be really restricted to only writing our own experience. It is the power of the human imagination that lets us transcend our own personal experience, to have empathy with others and to really encounter the bigger world.