'In the Shadow of the Banyan': Light amid the dark in saga of Cambodia

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How do you write a novel about a time of terror -- a story crowded with worst nightmares come to life -- and make it something readers wants to keep coming back to and not set down in despair? How do you fill that story with love and light in a world that, on its face, looks like unbroken darkness?

Vaddey Ratner has done exactly that with her stunning debut novel, "In the Shadow of the Banyan," a beautiful, heartbreaking work that closely parallels her own experience as a child growing up in Cambodia when the Communist Khmer Rouge party came to power in 1975.

By Vaddey Ratner
Simon & Schuster ($25).

The author was 5 years old when the "Revolutionary soldiers" swept through the streets and emptied the cities, strong-arming city-dwellers out of their homes, breaking families apart, murdering some, and forcing the rest to adopt new lives in the countryside in an attempt to bring about a utopian, agrarian age of equality and self-sufficiency. In the years that followed, until the collapse of the Khmer Rouge government in 1979, it's estimated that between 1 and 2 million people perished, up to a third of the total population.

Ms. Ratner's protagonist, the 7-year-old Raami, delivers us into that place and time with a story that is at once devastating and uplifting -- devastating for the simple fact that it reflects the terrible truth of what happened to so many, but also uplifting because of Raami's ability, despite everything, to see the tenderness and beauty coexisting beside the devastation. This isn't simply a portrait of a country reduced to what we've come to think of as the "killing fields." Rather, it transcends that label, resisting any narrow definition.

First, though, and fundamentally, "In the Shadow of the Banyan" is an eminently readable and deeply engaging story. Like the author herself, the narrator, Raami, is descended from Cambodian royalty, living the rarefied life of a young princess, albeit at a time when monarchal rule had come to an end following a coup in 1970. Still, Raami and her family manage to lead privileged lives in a large compound with a multitude of servants--It is a scene of lush abundance, of butterflies, lotus blossoms, jasmine. One can almost smell the garden, so evocative is Ms. Ratner's prose, like a broad stretch of canvas on which she has taken great care to capture what was lost.

So, too, one is made to feel the deep and abiding love that resides within this family compound, between Raami's father and mother, her younger sister, Radana, her father's half sister, Tata, her father's mother, "Grandmother Queen," and even the servants. In fact, my only criticism, and it is a trifle, is that, in the beginning, certain interactions feel almost too starry-eyed, like something long remembered and burnished over time to a dewy sheen.

I don't remember the exact point at which it stopped feeling that way, only that it stopped, and that, at some point early on, Raami came to feel like the perfect narrator, old enough to understand what was happening in the most simple and straightforward terms, but young and innocent enough to relate it without cynicism.

Straight and unfiltered, she shows us the good and the bad -- the simple poetry, say, of life in the rice paddies juxtaposed matter-of-factly against the terror wrought by the "Kamaphibal," the designated, local leadership of "The Organization," as the ruling party called itself.

Raami even manages to reveal the human face of the soldiers, who could have easily been reduced to monsters after having dismantled her entire life piece by piece.

In one instance, she relates how, when the low, gray sky was "a giant belly about to erupt," lightning and thunder "like a mountain ripping in half," the Revolutionary soldier at the reins of the oxcart she was on sensed her fear and shocked her first by talking to her at all, and second, by telling her a story: " 'So there were these two deity children, right?' he suddenly said, as if picking up a conversation we'd begun earlier."

And in that moment, we glimpse the older brother he might very well have been before the madness, as he tells her a children's tale of how thunder and lightning came to be, making her feel a little less afraid and alone beneath that roiling sky.

No lines spoke louder to me, though, than these, in which Raami explains the force within herself that made her want to keep living while everything around her pointed toward death: "With each life taken away, a part of it passed on to me. I didn't know its name. All I could grasp was the call to remember. Remember. I lived by this word."

And in this act of remembering and eloquently giving voice to those who would have otherwise been silenced, Raami, and, through her, Ms. Ratner, honor their memories and honor us, as well, in allowing us to see not just how they died but the way in which they lived.


The following interview was recorded over Skype on Aug. 15, 2012. Parts have been edited for clarity.

Judy Wertheimer: Tell me how to say your name correctly.

Vaddey Ratner: Vah-DAY.

JW: Vah-DAY. OK. Well, first, you've been very upfront about the fact that your narrator's experience, 7-year-old Raami, that her experience closely mirrors what happened to you and your family when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia when you were 5 years old, and that makes this so exquisitely personal. And I can't help wondering if it's excruciating for you to have to keep talking in interviews about this time in your life. I'm wondering how you manage that.

VR: Well, to answer your question simply, yes, it is hard, difficult, excruciating, as you say, to talk about it, and yet I look at it in the same way that I approached the book, that I have to rise above my own personal, individual pain because I feel that there is a bigger story to tell and that there is the suffering of others aside from my own. And so I feel a duty to speak of it, even if I have to do so repeatedly in order that the world remembers what happened, that the atrocity committed, that the lives lost, would not be forgotten.

JW: Did the act of writing this novel help you see things in a way that perhaps you haven't seen them before? Was it illuminating in any way?

VR: It was. It helped broaden my understanding of what happened. It illuminated my family's history, and it was also a very cathartic experience in the sense that, if I can put it in concrete terms, in my culture we were always taught, in a sense, to honor those who have given us life, in particular our parents or grandparents. And we have a whole ritual of bowing to them and, in my family, that ritual was even more expressed ... There is a scene in the book where, when we greeted my grandmother, we all four had to touch her feet. And so this idea of bowing to the life that gave us our life was something that was, I think, impressed upon me since I was very young.

And when I wrote this book, the feeling after I finished it was the sense that I felt redeemed by having written this book in the sense of, I gave birth to my father-I gave birth to this life that I felt I was helpless, as a child, to protect. And that was a deeply profound, deeply moving experience for me, to have that opportunity to bring back a life that I thought was lost.

JW: Can you explain how you're descended from Cambodian royalty?

VR: My great grandfather, King Sisowath, was the king of Cambodia and he ruled in the 1900s. My father was... His son... I'm trying to avoid the names because they are so long. [laughter] Let's just put it this way: my great-great-grandfather was the king of Cambodia. That's the simplest. King Sisowath.

JW: Got that, and...

VR: [laughter] He had many children. The king.

JW: Okay.

VR: So my father was [from] a long line, one of the many descendants of King Sisowath. My father was considered a minor prince.

JW: A minor prince?

VR: Yes. Meaning he's not in any way close to-in line to the throne.

JW: And when the monarchy in Cambodia was overthrown in 1970, your father supported the dissolution of the monarchical government? Do I have that right?

VR: I think, I'm not sure if he... to put it so concrete in those terms. I think he was very conflicted by his own background, by his privilege. I think what I can say clearly in the way I have understood it from the way my mother explained it to me is that I think he was... I think that what he supported was a society that would... or a government, or society, that would better address the injustice and the inequality that was so rampant in Cambodia at that time. So I'm not sure if, to say that he supported the dissolution of the monarchy...

JW: Right... I wanted to get that right... Raami's journey is a terrible journey, yet so often we see her being able to locate the beauty and the good both in the natural world and in the people around her, and that's part of what makes the book so readable-that she continues to see the light through the darkness. She even manages to see the human face of the Revolutionary soldiers. She doesn't just see them all as monsters. And I'm wondering if it was important to you to have your readers see the Revolutionary soldiers as ordinary people.

VR: Yes, that was one of the main reasons I decided to write it from the perspective of a child, but maintain the language of an adult. When the book opens, we know right away, "Okay, this is told in the first person." So, we know the Khmer Rouge is responsible for the deaths of nearly two million people and yet the story is told in the first person, so we know without thinking too much, subconsciously, that the narrator survived in some way. And yet, I decided that I wanted the story to be told in the perspective of a child, which is very different from the language of a child. This is, like I said, the language of an adult, but the perspective is of a child because I feel that it is important for the readers, given what they might have already known about the Khmer Rouge, to put aside their preconceptions of what they thought this revolution was all about, what the soldiers were all about.

I think it's really important when you read a story and you want some fresh understanding, especially when the setting is familiar in some way, the setting being this is a genocide that we have all come to hear about, if not know deeply. Often when one mentions Cambodia, it is synonymous with 'the killing field.' And you know, that very phrase is so loaded. We all have our preconceived idea of what that was. And I wanted to take all that away and I wanted my readers' experience to mirror my own experience as a child. As a child, I didn't have an understanding of the overall political context. Each encounter that I had as a child had the potential both for kindness and for destruction, for loss, for violence. And yet, I feel that I have been so blessed as a child to always, even in the midst of all this destruction and atrocity, to encounter acts of kindness-people who had that courage to act in a way that was against all that was going on, whether that translated into characters like the old couple or the young soldier who helped Raami to conquer her fear of rain and thunder.

JW: Yes, I was so struck by that [scene]...

VR: And I think this is important... to provide a glimpse into a world that is without any judgment and let the readers themselves come to the conclusion based on their own experience... I feel that, in order to understand anything deeper, even if it's, especially, maybe, of something that we have some knowledge of, I think we need to look at it with a certain freshness, without any preconceived opinions or judgment. I think that's really important, to arrive at a deeper understanding.

JW: There's a place in your book where Raami explains the force within her that made her want to keep living in spite of everything she witnessed and endured. She says, "With each life taken away, a part of it passed on to me, I didn't know its name. All I could grasp was the call to remember. Remember. I lived by this word." I have to say I was really struck by these lines and I'm wondering if you could speak to that sentiment.

VR: You know, I think, as a child, even as I couldn't articulate it, I felt that I was meant to live for some reason. I think even if it's only to remember... Excuse me if my voice is breaking... Even if only to remember those in my family who didn't make it, I felt that. And if, as a child, I didn't understand how all these other people, stronger and healthier than me, one by one fell victim to this atrocity and here I was with polio, [she emerged with a limp from having had polio as a baby, one leg slightly longer than the other] and you know, as a child, you get certain looks from people. And so many times, I've witnessed the look in people's eyes is just like, "There's no way you're going to make it out of here." And yet, time and time again, by whatever reason or lack of reason, even if it was arbitrariness, or luck or whatever, I can't help but believe that if I lived, if my sole purpose is to remember them, that that's my purpose. That's my duty. That is the obligation that I feel is attached to this gift of life.

JW: You have said that reading Elie Wiesel, who wrote of his own experiences during the Holocaust, that he inspired you to write your story. Can you explain?

VR: Yes. You know, when I was growing up in America, during my adolescent years in America, I always felt to myself very old because of what I had lived through and yet, you know, I didn't have many friends who were my age. I didn't identify with the struggles that my peers were going through. I felt like it wasn't the struggle that I was facing, weren't the struggles that I was facing myself. And so a lot of the time, my friends were my teachers and they introduced me to different books and I came to love, to be introduced into literature in the English language because of my various teachers.

But at the same time, I felt like even my teachers, these older, more mature souls, didn't quite understand the world that I had just left behind. And so I was constantly reading to try to find a voice that would resonate with whatever it was that I was... that lived inside of me.

So I came upon Elie Wiesel's Night, and I felt, my goodness, this was my story, and I felt that piece of writing gave a glimpse to a possibility of a voice that I was in search of, to articulate the tragedy that happened to my family and that happened in my country. And so it was a profoundly moving piece of writing in the sense that it gave me this encouragement that the stories I needed to tell need not be invented, that it could be based on real life experiences and however awful those experiences are, it could be a beautiful story about hope, and about resilience, about the courage to stand up and speak against atrocity. Does that make sense?

JW: That makes a lot of sense. Yes, yes, that makes perfect sense. Are you working on another book?

VR: I am. I am. I'm playing around with this idea of music... There's a type of poetry in the Cambodian language that is sung often during a funeral. And the idea that the dead need music as much as we, the living, do is rather compelling to me.

JW: Well, I'll look forward to reading it. Okay. This is sort of out of left field, but just out of curiosity, I'm wondering if you can tell me what you're thinking as you listen to the ongoing debate about immigration in this country. You don't have to answer [laughs] if you don't want to. I know that's kind of-

VR: I mean, that's such a broad question.

JW: It is, yes.

VR: ...I know that my own life has benefited a lot from coming to a country like America and into a society where we value not only diversity but the commonality that we can make something out of ourselves from nothing. When I came to this country, what I felt was the most valuable advice that my mother gave me was, again, this idea that, "Remember who you are, who your family was, and nobody can take away your sense of self worth. But you are here as a refugee, as an immigrant, and you have the chance just to begin life new."

And that statement was further explained to me as she tried, my mother, to enforce this idea that everything that I want, I must work for-as a mother, she would not tolerate a sense of privilege at all. She saw what that sense of privilege can create in her own country. It can create centuries of injustice and then war and then revolution and then genocide.

So, I think what I feel, I don't know... I can comment so much on the different aspects of immigration, but in terms of my own experience, I feel very grateful to be given a chance at a life in this country that values not only diversity, but also the commonality that we all should have a second chance of life. Does that make sense?

JW: Yes, and I appreciate your sharing your thoughts about that. I have one last question. Your book made me want to learn more about so many things. It made me want to see a cashew tree for one thing. I didn't know cashews come from trees. [laughs] But apart from that, I'm wondering if there's a book that you would recommend for people like me who want to learn more about Cambodia, whether that would be fiction or non-fiction... Are there any books that come to mind?

VR: Well, non-fiction, I would definitely recommend Francois Bizot, "The Gate." It's translated from French. And a wonderful, historical piece is Philip Short's "Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare."


VR: And then, fiction. Earlier in the year, after I finished my own book, I thought, "OK. Maybe I can read a book about another fiction about Cambodia." I thought, Kim Echlin, "The Disappeared," was just wonderfully written. She's a Canadian writer. And yesterday, actually, I just came upon... Here, let me look this up really quickly. I think it's by a Malaysian writer about Cambodia... Here it is. It's Madeleine Thien, and it's a novel called "Dogs at the Perimeter".... I've heard a lot of good things about this book, I have not read it. But I feel like I should encourage people to read anything that's written about Cambodia. [laughs] There's just so few.

JW: Well, your book really made me so curious in a way that I have never been curious about it before, honestly, it's just not something I've thought a lot about. But your book has made me think a lot about it. So I thank you for that, and I thank you so much for your time. Like I said, it's really an honor to talk with you and I'm really glad for the opportunity to write a book review about it and hopefully I can point people towards your book and they'll run to the store and buy it.


Judy Wertheimer is a writer living in Squirrel Hill (wertheimer.jb@gmail.com). First Published September 2, 2012 4:00 AM


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