The Disappeared : By Kim Echlin

Interview


Did you spend time in Cambodia before or during the writing of this book? How long did the research take? The book's epigraph by Vann Nath, one of the only survivors of Tuol Sleng prison, is "Tell others." Why did you use that?

I travelled in Cambodia for a short time with a medical research group working on inoculation programs for children. During my visit I was moved by the various memorials to those lost during the Khmer Rouge time, almost thirty years before. From large museums, such as Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, to small, hand-written signs nailed to trees out in the countryside, people expressed a powerful will to "not forget." I met a woman in a market who told me the story of losing her entire family, and when I responded, "Can I help? What can I do?," she answered, "Nothing. I just want you to know." Vann Nath said "Tell others," and my experience in Cambodia was that many people wanted the truth to be told.

It seems to me that an individual's hope for freedom and justice exists almost independently of any particular political regime. Under a repressive regime, people will resist covertly if they can. In less repressive regimes, people will speak up. The current trials in Cambodia are the result of international pressure as well as the openly expressed desire for these trials by Cambodians like the artist Vann Nath, or Youk Chaang, who continues to gather information for DC-Cam (Documentation Centre of Cambodia). Of course, The Disappeared is a work of fiction; every country has stories of injustice and "disappeared," including Canada, where we're currently witnessing the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The work to protect freedom is ongoing.

Delving into the stories behind the Khmer Rouge must have been difficult. Did you find it was at times too painful to think about or too all consuming?

So many people I talk to about The Disappeared have told me personal stories of their own or their family's struggles with oppressive regimes. The question of when and how to remember comes up over and over again. There's an old Grimm's fairy tale called "The Singing Bone," in which the bone of a murdered man is dug up many years later, and, when blown on, sings its own story. In our oldest stories we see the need to believe that the truth does come out. Even when it is painful.

But to your question. After World War II, the philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno famously wrote, "To still write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric." Many years later he softened this, saying that "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream."

Writers began to respond to the events of World War II very soon after the war's end, including Paul Celan in his poem "Death Fugue," but in many cases it took years for this writing to be published and translated. In no way do I think that bearing witness to atrocity through art gives undue notice to perpetrators. But I can see that sometimes it takes years for people to be able to hear the stories.

There are some beautifully written and devastating memoirs of the Khmer Rouge years from Cambodia, as well as wonderful theatre, dance, and music. We have stories from Mao's China that the Chinese call "scar literature" and memoirs and literature from Argentina and Chile called testimonio. In Canada we have had several commissions that collect the stories of groups who have suffered here, particularly during periods of war.

Each group's story is particular. But a common thread that connects all of them is the belief that people affirm themselves through storytelling. Stories teach and delight. They allow both speaker and listener to become more conscious, to know history, to reflect on moral and ethical questions. Yes, reflecting on these stories is painful.

Language is always paramount in your novels. Did you study Khmer to better understand your characters and the setting of the book?

The challenge in this book was to find a language that could tell the stories from the genocide and accurately reflect Khmer culture. I wrote many, many drafts, and had very good linguistic and cultural consultants in Cambodia.

During the writing, I experienced a loss of language until a wonderful translator and mentor, Linda Gaboriau, said to me, "Take me into the centre of the darkness, show me what it is." After that, I reread the testimony of those who have suffered in war or genocide, and I noticed that the style of telling is very pared down. People say, "I was tortured," "I was raped," "I was thrown in a mass grave and managed to get out." There is little embellishment, no metaphor, little description beyond the plain recounting of the event. I wanted my style to reflect this kind of language: spare, essential. This is the place language begins, in very direct communication between two people.

And then I noticed that some of the greatest love poetry also has this spare, essential quality. The oldest written love poems in the world, Inanna's songs of love from Sumeria ("My love, your eyes are beautiful, your face is sweet") or those from the Bible's Song of Solomon ("O, that you would kiss me"), as well as love lyrics in contemporary music (The Beatles' "She Loves You"), use direct, unadorned language. It seems that our deepest, most intense experiences belong to a place that language can hardly reach. When this is so, I think the rhythms that hold the individual words together become very important.

The first half of the book reads almost as a love letter to Serey. Most people can only dream of the kind of love shared between Anne and Serey. Do you really believe in such heightened romantic love, or that there is a single person we are meant to be with?

I think we meet many people through our lives that we are "meant to be with," if we are open. In a certain way, I was meant to meet the woman in the Phnom Penh market who shared her experience with me, but that encounter could only have happened as a result of many other people in both our lives who inspired us—her to speak out, me to listen. In that brief, chance moment, one could say we were two souls meeting.

When Serey calls Anne his destiny, he is speaking in a romantic context. But his words were more prophetic than perhaps he knew in the beautiful moment of falling in love. Anne and Serey are lovers before either of them can know that their shared destiny will end with Anne being the sole person in the world who knows, and finally tells, Serey's story. Without her, he would have been murdered and forgotten. Without him, she would not have known the love that does not seek to alter. So destiny and memory transcend time and become linked.

Many of the characters—most prominently Anne, Serey, and Sokha—lose loved ones in the war (or under warlike circumstances) and are profoundly traumatized by it. How do you think an individual can overcome an inner agony as deep-seated as theirs?

This is a big question. It may be that the answer is as individual as each person. Serey joins an opposition movement; his brother Sokha rejoins the army. Anne searches for the truth of her particular situation and is forced to confront the universal questions we find in Antigone: How do we live in the conflicting, and often irreconcilable, interests of the state and the individual? Does the state have the right to deny the individual human desire to name and honour their dead?

To speak about overcoming trauma, I would defer to Jean Améry, an Auschwitz survivor and the author of At the Mind's Limits. Améry wrote, "Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world." He writes that trust cannot be regained, that the tortured stay tortured. None of the characters in my story "overcome" their traumas of loss or pain or betrayal. For this reason, the novel is about language and memory, about how our use of language is a moral choice. Do we use the language of propaganda that renders the other less than human? Do we use the language of resistance in order to keep revealing the truth? For as Camus writes in The Rebel, the language of rebellion "reveals the part of man which must always be defended." Do we use memory to name the dead, to remember their stories, to work toward justice?

Was it difficult to keep the story's focus on Anne and her perspective, and not delve too deeply into the politics of the time?

After the Pol Pot regime (19751979) and the withdrawal of the Vietnamese, the United Nations Transitional Authority was mandated to supervise the administration of Cambodia and to attempt to create conditions for a democratic election in 1993. The work was very complex. There was starvation and sickness; huge numbers of refugees were living on the borders. Most of the country's educated people—the artists, the Buddhist monks—were killed. Roads and bridges had been destroyed, farming was in disarray. The country was (and still is) heavily mined. There were many different political factions who used violence and force to achieve power. There was a generation or more of young people who had been separated from their families and indoctrinated by the Khmer Rouge, and large numbers of young men who knew nothing but war.

What I wanted to tell is the story of complex turbulence that accompanies a shift in political systems: how the defence of freedom and individual rights requires continual vigilance (and opposition when things go wrong), how secretive governments create the conditions for the breakdown of human rights. These are conditions we see all over the world, the West included. When innocent citizens of democratic nations can be extradited and tortured, as happened to Canadian Maher Arar, when the military forces representing democratic nations can practise torture in hidden prisons as we all witnessed at Abu Ghraib, then we can be sure of this: Individual human rights are everyone's responsibility, and people around the globe must find the courage to speak and to resist their own governments if freedoms are corrupted or devolve.

But The Disappeared is a novel, Anne's story. I wanted these issues to be told through her individual story and to make the particular politics implicit in that story.

This book and your previous two novels, Elephant Winter and Dagmar's Daughter, revolve around strong female characters. Do you see any similarities between them?

I like these strong female characters. When I talk with readers I feel an enormous appetite in women to explore both their strength and their emotional connectedness, which still tend not to be honoured in the dominant culture. I like telling stories of women who act on their passions.

Can you tell us what you're working on now?

I'm currently working on new fiction and a new nonfiction book that brings together my research on the "literature of testimony." I think it was Elie Wiesel, the writer and Holocaust survivor, who wrote, "If the Greeks invented tragedy, the Romans the epistle and the Renaissance the sonnet, our generation invented a new literature, that of testimony." This is a phrase that South American writers such as Chile's Ariel Dorfman have adopted. And so, in this non-fiction book, I'm looking at examples from the literature of testimony that have moved me—in truth commissions, in plays and novels—and thinking about what it means.