Kim Echlin appears at York for Canadian Writers in Person

On Tuesday, Oct. 26, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Kim Echlin reading from her book The Disappeared (Penguin, 2009), which was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.

Bones work their way to the surface. Thirty years have passed since that day in the market in Phnom Penh. I still hear your voice. I first met you in old Montreal at L’air du temps, where I went to hear Buddy Guy sing “I Can’t Quit the Blues”.

from The Disappeared
by Kim Echlin

Kim Echlin began her reading by recounting the story The Singing Bone, an old Grimm’s fairy tale about a jealous sibling who murders his younger brother and buries his body beneath a bridge. Some years later, a shepherd finds the younger brother’s bone and it sings the tale of his demise, revealing the truth, unmasking the killer and obtaining justice for the innocent. For Echlin, this story is about how writers find their voices. It bears witness, she says, to “how we find bones that sing” to reveal lost histories. It also echoes her journey as she explored the stories of Cambodia’s killing fields, culminating in her Giller-nominated novel The Disappeared.

Right: Kim Echlin

Recalling an incident during a visit to Cambodia, Echlin remembers sitting alone on a bench in Phnom Penh when a Cambodian woman approached her and said, “I lost my whole family during the Pol Pot time.” When Echlin asked if there was anything she could do, the woman said “Nothing. I just wanted you to know.” This chance encounter provided the initial inspiration for the novel and in the words of Vann Nath, to “tell others.”

The hardest part of crafting The Disappeared over seven years was finding a voice. After reading truth commissions about the Cambodian genocide, Echlin realized that the witness accounts were powerful because they were direct and unadorned. Because this was also true of old love poetry, she shaped her work into a simple but compelling story that feels much like an extended love letter between two people and two cultures.

Art and music were important in the development of the novel, because each acts as a universal language and are often the first to be destroyed in oppressive regimes, as the author points out. Through the “transformative power” of Vann Nath’s artwork, Echlin found an entry into his experience as one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng prison. She also described how a man in California discovered a box of cassette tapes that turned out to be recordings of Cambodian music from that time – traditional songs blended with the influence of American blues. He shared the music with Echlin and the world, each cassette like a singing bone of a murdered people.

Echlin found the strongest response to her novel was from younger generations of Cambodians, many of them now living in North America. She discovered that though grief and loss often became the silent burden of the first generation, it carries forward through their children and grand-children. “Grief changes shape, but it does not end,” she said.

Setting the novel partly in Montreal at the time of the FLQ crisis also served as a way in for Canadian readers. Echlin wanted to show how atrocities can happen here as easily as anywhere. It was also an appropriate starting place because “Canada tells the stories of the world,” said Echlin.  As technology makes it easier to share these stories, she believes we have an increased responsibility to act on injustice: “Literature teaches us not to look away.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. On Nov. 23, in Room 206 of the Accolade West Building, Nicole Brossard will read from her novella Fences in Breathing. 

Chris Cornish, a former teaching assistant with the course, has since graduated but continues to attend the readings.