Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Weston Words, with Eliott Behar

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Eliott Behar

Former war crimes prosecutor, Eliott Behar's Tell It To the World: International Justice and the Secret Campaign to Hide Mass Murder in Kosovo (Dundurn Press) is the intense and difficult story of a plot to cover up the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo by concealing the bodies of the dead.

His precise, incisive and compassionate portrait of an unimaginable atrocity uncovers the layers of a gruesome mystery one by one. Tell It To the World has been nominated for the 2015 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, with the jury calling it "a powerful and important book".

Today we're thrilled to speak to Eliott as part of our Weston Words series. We will be speaking to all five Weston Prize nominees before the October 6, 2015 announcement of the winner.

The prize, founded by former Lieutenant Governor the Honourable Hilary Weston, carries a $60,000 purse for the winner and honours the finest Canadian non-fiction published each year. The award succeeds the previous Writers' Trust Nonfiction Award, which was founded in 1997.

Eliott tells us about how his experience as a war crimes prosecutor in The Hague led to this book, double-checking his nomination and the role of justice in literature.

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Open Book:

How did your nominated book begin for you? What drew you to your subject matter?

Eliott Behar:

Tell It to the World came out of my direct involvement with the international criminal trial process as a war crimes prosecutor in The Hague.

The accused in our case — essentially the Chief of Police for Serbia — was charged for his role in orchestrating the mass murder, persecution, rape, and deportation of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo in 1999. To hide the most disturbing murders being committed, he oversaw a massive cover-up operation in which the bodies of murdered ethnic Albanians were being loaded into trucks and secretly transported hundreds of kilometers away. The scope of the operation, and the reality of what it involved on the ground, were hard to comprehend.

After I finished the trial and moved back to Canada, I realized that I really hadn’t had the chance to process what had taken place — not just the weight and meaning of the events themselves, but also the real purpose and value of the justice process, particularly on an international scale.

I also began to grapple with a broader question that seemed inescapable for events of such inhumanity and cruelty: how is it that the perpetrators of these events come to justify such appalling and inhuman acts? Looking back at other acts of mass violence, I started to see a disturbing common thread that I wanted to explore: the ways in which our notions of justice and injustice have been used to enable violence and hatred.

OB:

Where were you when you received news of your nomination?

EB:

I was in San Francisco, it was early in the morning, and as I woke up I rolled over in bed and looked at my phone. When I looked at my email, I literally jumped out of bed. I checked multiple online sources just to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding something. I eventually got in the shower, and at the exact moment I put the shampoo in my hair, I got the official call from the committee.

It was an emotional day for me. I was really touched that the book had moved people. And I was really excited that these stories, events and ideas would reach a larger audience — the reason I had so badly wanted to write this book in the first place.

OB:

What unique experience or benefit does non-fiction provide for readers?

EB:

I really believe that books — and non-fiction books in particular — are how we understand, learn, and empathize. They convey events and stories in a way that makes them human, relatable and real.

The stories we tell about our lives and our broader communities, and the way we tell those stories, are incredibly important. Tell It to the World grapples with the fact that the stories we tell about justice are on one hand incredibly important, and yet on the other hand can actually enable and seemingly justify the most violent and inhuman acts we could ever have imagined. This darker potential can be a hard notion to accept, given the way we tend to think and talk about justice.

The recognition of the power of the stories we tell, both individually and collectively, really underlines the incredible importance of non-fiction in all of its different forms.

OB:

Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.

EB:

It’s hard to just pick one, and there were a number of great non-fiction books that I thought about when I was writing Tell It to the World. One that comes to mind is Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. Writing well about that level of cruelty and inhumanity is a very difficult task — you have to accurately convey the events that were unfolding, while being careful not to overdramatize or sensationalize them. You also need to capture the mindset of both the perpetrators and the victims as it was when they were experiencing the events, not as we might imagine it to be later. Levi wrote with remarkable concision, and I particularly admire his ability to move so easily between describing events and then making broader and often complex observations about the human condition.

OB:

What can you tell us about your next project?

EB:

I have some new projects that I’ve started working on. I get really excited about the initial stages of a project — the stages where you get to think broadly, explore, speak to people, and then curate a list of books, movies and art around the issue you want to explore. I’m looking forward to having some new stories and ideas to share.


Eliott Behar grew up in Toronto. A long-standing interest in human rights and criminal justice led him to a career as a Crown Attorney where he prosecuted cases ranging from fraud to murder. In 2008 he became a war crimes prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. He now lives in San Francisco.

Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, founded by former Lieutenant Governor the Honourable Hilary Weston, carries a $60,000 purse for the winner and honours the finest Canadian non-fiction published each year. The award succeeds the previous Writers' Trust Nonfiction Award, which was founded in 1997.

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