Vaddey Ratner didn't expect much when she first took on the project of writing a novel about a young Cambodian girl and her family who are forced into the countryside by the Khmer Rouge as part of the communist group's program of genocide that began in 1975. It was just something that she needed to do. "I sat down to write as an act of mourning the ghosts and spirits, honoring those lost lives," she explains.
"In the Shadow of the Banyan," Ratner's first novel, is based on her experiences as a child. Her great-great-grandfather was King Sisowath, who ruled Cambodia from 1904 to 1927. When Ratner was 5, her own family became part of the tragedy that became known as the Killing Fields.
Ratner, a graduate of Cornell University who lives in Potomac, will speak about her novel, which has become a national best-seller, at The Baltimore Sun Book Club on Oct. 21.
The novel's protagonist is 7-year-old Raami, a thoughtful and spiritual girl who at the start of the story lives a comfortable life with her parents, younger sister and grandmother in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Raami's father has royal connections and is a poet. When the Khmer Rouge arrive at their doorstep and order them into the countryside, a four-year journey begins, one filled with inescapable horrors.
We asked Ratner to share her thoughts about the novel.
Did you find the process of writing this novel — which mirrored your own experiences — painful, or healing, or both?
It was extremely difficult — often torturous. I would labor and linger over a sentence or paragraph for days, or sometimes weeks, and then all of sudden the words would come together with such emotional clarity that it would both devastate and save me. So in that sense it was painful and redemptive.
How much of the book is written from memory and experience, and how much is a result of research that you did as an adult?
There's no easy division: My memories were reinforced by my research, and likewise, the research was propelled by what I remembered. So all along I knew I couldn't rely on memories alone, and what I could remember clearly was often painful. As a student at Cornell I focused on the history of Southeast Asia, particularly Cambodia, seeking an understanding of the historical, political and social situation at that time. During my studies and after, I also went traveling and lived in the region for nearly a decade.
In what ways is Raami like you, and in what ways are you different than your character?
Raami's experience closely parallels mine. There's not an ordeal she faces that I myself didn't confront in one way or another. The loss of family members, starvation, forced labor, repeated uprooting and separation, the overwhelming sense that she's basically alone but also the tenacious belief that there's a spirit watching over her — all this I experienced and felt. Raami had polio as a baby. I had polio also when I was still an infant.
Where Raami's experience and mine diverge is in the minor details — the size of our family, the number of towns and villages we were sent to, the names of those places, the dates of various incidents. There are countless other small variations like these. Raami is two years older, but she's also a lot wiser than I was. She certainly regards the world with greater equanimity than I probably could at the time, than most of us can even as mature adults.
Despite everything she experiences, Raami has great faith in people. Is she a symbol of the spirit of the people of Cambodia in this way?
Raami echoes the spirit of Cambodia and its people. The destruction was not complete. Parts of us survived, will always endure despite the efforts to destroy us. In this way, she reflects an indelible resilience, the human drive for life.
Why did you decide to tell this story in a work of fiction and not a memoir?
I wrote this story as a novel instead of a memoir because I wanted to honor those whose lives were cut short, whose desire for my survival, even as they faced their own deaths, carried me through inhumanity, whose hopes and dreams have borne me to this moment. I wanted to memorialize the people I loved, and I wanted to do so by endeavoring to transform their suffering into a work of art.
How did your own family escape and end up in America?
Like in the book, my mother and I escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand. But our journey out of Cambodia was much more impeded and tortuous than the one Raami and her mother endure in the book. In 1979, as the Khmer Rouge regime was collapsing and its forces losing the country to the invading Vietnamese troops, they planted mines and explosives everywhere. This meant every step we took could bring us closer to freedom — or death. After arriving at the camps, we were eventually sponsored and brought to the U.S. by a Catholic organization.
Your book is a New York Times best-seller, a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist and was named by many media sources as a best book of the year. Did you anticipate this kind of success?
It is a dream of every writer to be published and read, to be rewarded and recognized, and I'm so grateful for the warm reception from both readers and critics alike. But, just as I'm about to lose myself in writer's bliss, I pick up the book and, even from the first sentence, I am reminded for whom I wrote this story — those I loved and lost, those who made the heartbreaking choices and sacrifices to save me, to keep me alive, so that now, decades later, I have this life where I can write and reflect in peace about war and revolution. And once again, I am humbled.
If you go
Vaddey Ratner will speak, followed by a Q&A session and book signing, at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 21, at The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $25. For details, go to baltimoresun.com/bookclub.
About the book
"In the Shadow of the Banyan," by Vaddey Ratner
Simon & Schuster
$16, paperback; 352 pages