Lesleyanne Ryan is in a blog tour, supporting her novel Braco, published by Breakwater Books in the autumn of 2012. I interviewed Ryan about writing the novel, and Ryan also provided a short except.
Q: I had the privilege to read Braco in manuscript, and two things impressed me right away: the concern for history, and the narrative strategy. Paul Butler asked you about multiple narrative perspective, and he points us to both your skill and your reasoning. I want to ask you about the history. You know about Srebrenica, and not from news magazines or hurried photos that flitted by a shamefully numbed West. Could you comment on how and why you were in the area?
A: In 1993, I was an administrative clerk working for the armoured regiment in Valcartier, Quebec, and our unit was chosen to run the Canadian camp in Visoko, Bosnia, a small Muslim town about thirty kilometres west of Sarajevo. Srebrenica is located about two hours to the east, and I actually never got a chance to see it. But I still have a strong connection. During our tour, we had one hundred and fifty peacekeepers in Srebrenica to enforce the UN mandate to protect the town. We had to supply our guys there, and one of the drivers, a friend named Jacques, used to deliver the supplies. He came to me one day and said he’d met a boy there and learned that they were still struggling to feed themselves, despite the UN aid (which we later learned was being hoarded by the town officials). Jacques asked if I could help him find food for the boy and his family, and for the next three months I gave him anything I could find. Then in February 1994, the Dutch took over control of Srebrenica, and we lost contact with the boy, and we still don’t know what became of him when the Bosnian Serb army invaded the town sixteen months later.
Q: What you saw, and what you experienced, informed Braco but also exacted a cost from you. Do you think your own suffering became part of Braco?
Yes. I returned from Bosnia and was diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. I spent the next ten years working to create a new life around the symptoms, and, while I have no doubt some of that suffering is in Braco, I believe Braco also helped alleviate some of my own suffering. For example, one of the most debilitating symptoms of PTSD is intrusive thinking – the constant rehashing of the traumatic events to the point that they overwhelm normal thinking and concentration. Writing Braco helped fight this by giving my mind something else to focus on, and when I could focus on writing the next sentence, the next paragraph, and the next chapter, I would spend less time focusing on the traumas. And understanding how PTSD affected me, I was able to translate that into my characters. Many of them have spent years living under extreme stress from the constant threat of shells, snipers and starvation. While my own experiences were likely only a fraction of what they endured, I could understand how their thinking would change, how their emotions would change, and how they’d react to certain situations. I like to think this helped make Braco a stronger story.
Q: In her 1960 essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” American story writer and novelist Flannery O’Connor notes: “It’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult for him to be anti-anything.” I am not suggesting you are anti-anything, or that you should be. I also think of Samuel Beckett’s “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness” — yet Beckett never shut up. So: silence, nothingness, and compassion. You needed compassion to write that novel, both for its harrowing subject matter and for your narrative strategy. Do you think that writing this story is also an act of staining the silence, and that doing do is taking a stand, a moral stand?
A: What a great question! I could probably write an essay in response, but, in reality, I kept finding myself drawn to the words “staining the silence.” An interesting concept, and in a way, it illustrates what I wanted to do with the book. I was back in Canada when Srebrenica fell, and for the few weeks after, we saw the odd headline that spoke of a massacre, but for the most part, the average Canadian ignored it. Two years later, the silence was deafening and disturbing. If I mentioned the word Srebrenica, no one knew what it meant, and as a lover of history and a former peacekeeper, I was appalled. How could Canadians be silent about the massacre of eight thousand human beings in the heart of Europe, a mere fifty years after we all said “never again?” So, I wanted to break that silence. Stain it? Yes, absolutely. Whether that stain is my stand that we not forget this or the blood of the eight thousand, it doesn’t matter to me, as long as it’s enough to get people’s attention and remind them that “never again” did not have a fifty year time limit.
Braco, (c) 2012 LesleyAnne Ryan, Breakwater.
“What’s going on here?”
The Serb dropped the boy’s foot, straightened up and turned around. He glared at Jac.
“None of your business, Blue Helmet.”
Jac bent down to look. Atif remained under the bus, his arm wrapped around the rusted driveshaft and his face drained of blood.
“I know this boy,” Jac said. “He’s fourteen. He’s not a war criminal or a soldier. He helped me translate sometimes. Nothing more.”
The Serb stepped closer to Jac. His breath stank of cigarettes.
“Listen, Blue Helmet. This isn’t your problem anymore. Never was. You come here then you go home. We live here. This is our problem.”
“That boy isn’t a problem.”
“Perhaps not now,” the Serb replied, “but in a year or two. We have to keep their numbers down. They breed like rabbits you know. They’re here now. In a few years, they’ll be in your country. Then you will see. We learned at Kosovo, and now we have a solution to this problem.”
“The boy isn’t a problem.”
The Serb glanced at Maarten and then smiled at Jac, exposing rotten teeth.
“Fine. He’s your problem. One boy will not make a difference. We will still get our revenge for Kosovo.” The Serb pulled an armour piercing rifle round from his pouch and held it up. He tapped Jac’s flak jacket with it. “That will not protect you, Blue Helmet.”
Jac stared at the Serb, his lips tight. The soldier slid the round into one of Jac’s chest pockets.
“Keep it. As a souvenir.”
He walked away, laughing. Jac resumed breathing.
Braco is available in bookstores.