In the shadow of terror

In her debut novel, Vaddey Ratner looks to her personal memories about fleeing the Khmer Rouge and to creative spirit as an artist to honor the lives of the fallen.
By Jack Smith | Published: May 6, 2013


Ratner author photo credit Kristina Sherk

In 1975, when Vaddey Ratner was 5 years old, the Khmer Rouge took over in Cambodia. This was the communist regime that killed between one and two million Cambodians in ongoing purges. For the next four years, Ratner lived through extreme hardship and terror. Her debut novel In the Shadow of the Banyanis told from the point of view of Raami, a child facing the absolute tyranny of revolutionary fervor. First comes a massive evacuation of the city of Phnom Penh, its inhabitants relocated to the countryside to emphasize the primacy of the worker class over privilege and culture. Relocation soon becomes a means of breaking down bonds to place and establishing only one acceptable bond: absolute commitment to the revolutionary cause, the so-called “Organization.”

As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the expression of familial love and affection is not permitted. Though no one is secure from suspicion, Raami’s family is especially vulnerable. As a prince, her father represents the old order, the feudal system, with its privilege, culture and education. Ironically, he, too, is disturbed by inequities in the feudal system and supported the revolutionary cause. As an act of valor, to save his family, he acknowledges his identity and soon disappears.

The extended family is broken up, and members are routinely executed. To escape further persecution, Raami’s mother claims to be a former nanny. After losing her husband, she realizes they can no longer keep their former identities if they hope to survive. Starvation, lack of medical attention and forced labor from sunup to sundown are standard. Only when Vietnam invades in 1979 are Raami and her mother able to escape to Thailand. The journey is arduous and dangerous. Ratner’s haunting novel is a poignant story of suffering and loss and the triumph of the human spirit.

As for Ratner, she did not know English when she entered the U.S. in 1981. And yet she graduated valedictorian of her high school class and summa cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in Southeast Asian history and literature. In writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, she drew from personal experience as well as considerable formal research.

Your novel is based not only on your personal experience but also on your research on Cambodia. How did you conduct your research? Can you describe your process?

All along, I knew my memory was incomplete. 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. I wanted an accurate context for the story, but I didn’t do research for the novel in the sense of reading and taking copious notes and then going off to write my fiction. I wanted my knowledge to settle and mature over time, knowing that specific facts and dates can always be quickly looked up.

Fiction writers often find it hard to interweave materials of research into their works and still keep up the dramatic movement of the novel. How did you manage this? What obstacles, if any, did you need to overcome?

In writing, I wanted the first-person narrative and my own understanding of the history and politics to blend seamlessly. It was the personal that drove me to understand the political. The personal losses and tragedies remained core. To this day when I think of my own survival, it is indivisibly linked to my father’s disappearance, to the dissolution of my family and home.

My first full draft of the novel was almost 700 pages. Much of what I cut was the historical context, which I felt was not essential for most readers. While this material may have made certain details clearer, I felt it would have diluted the child’s perspective and voice. It is Raami who carries the story forward. If I weakened her voice, her innocence and intuition, the dramatic effect would be severely reduced.

You’re really strong on setting. What are the most important steps to take to assure that setting is believable and integrated into the story?

I could not have painted the setting as I did without going back to live in Cambodia for more than four years. It was important not only to capture in words but also to witness again how people relate to the landscape, to experience it alongside them. In fact, having In the Shadow of the Banyan described as a “historical novel” has taken some getting used to, because so much of the Cambodia then is still so apparent in the Cambodia now, in both its beauty and tragedy. When describing a setting that feels so immediate, so extant, I feel it’s essential to be embraced by the landscape again, to immerse myself in that geography where there’s no clear separation between past and present, where history is contiguous with today.

Besides backdrop, what are some uses of setting in your novel? Mood seems to be definitely one.

I feel I don’t have the distance to deconstruct my own story in quite that way. What I was conscious of was not so much the technique but the goal – trying foremost to recreate the Cambodia that I remembered before the country became the “Killing Fields.” To make it personal, to take it beyond the place I loved as a child and make it also a place my reader would love and care about, I needed to articulate it in the minutiae of a child’s daily connection to the place, a connection cultivated with little preconceived notion or judgment of the surroundings.

Your style has been called “lyrical.” What does that mean to you? Are you a person committed to one style? If so, how do you describe that style?

Again, style is not something I consciously think of when I write. When I sit down, my sole purpose is to tell a story that resonates. If something doesn’t ring true with me, then I abandon it. I feel if I were to query my own style as I write, I simply wouldn’t be able to write.

In terms of the language, I was conscious of making it as reflective of my native tongue as possible. What’s more, Raami is the daughter of a poet, so she has a particular sensibility toward language. She sees the world through her father’s words. I wanted not only to capture the rhythm of a very poetic tongue, Khmer, but also, through the narrative language of the novel, to intimate how the poetry of a people’s everyday speech was silenced and transformed by the rhetoric of the revolution. I wanted to show that shift as the story progresses, but not in a way that would feel too conscious.

Can you offer tips for other writers on improving style?

When I start on a particular piece, I have certain challenges I want to confront, questions I want to answer, several things simultaneously to tackle and achieve. I’m conscious that I’m setting out to create. But once I’m fully in the story, I feel, I often transition from being the “creator” of the work to the vehicle for something larger than I’d intended. As the story takes on a life of its own, for example, the characters can become so real that I’m not only engaging in conversations with them but I have to listen to them. If I make a false move, they’ll resist my rendering.

What I find most valuable is to avoid mimicking anyone or any style. For example, as much as I love layered, fragmented narrative and experimental writing, it was vital for me that this particular work – In the Shadow of the Banyan – be accessible to a wide audience.

So, I think, style is only as important as the goal. What is it that you hope to achieve with this piece of work? A writer needs to ask herself that. With In the Shadow of the Banyan, my goal was to honor the lives lost, the voices silenced, so language became very important to me. I wanted to memorialize beauty and courage, love and kindness, hope and humanity, with lyricism and poetry, with an intimation of something artful, to contrast with the mindless revolutionary jargon.

Your characters seem very real. Walk us through a few steps of discovery you had with a character.

They were real. To me, they will always be more than characters. But just because they are based on family members, people I once loved and still love, I never presumed the readers would necessarily automatically love them as well.

In creating characters that appear believable on the page as well as resonate with readers, I think in terms of more fundamental definitions of our humanness, the universality of our shared traits beyond culture and traditions, language and geography, politics and religion. What are a character’s hopes and dreams, fears, regrets? What makes each stand out? Is it nobility in the face of degradation? Is it an inner fierceness in contrast to some perceived outer weakness?

Writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, I filtered all these questions through the perspective of a young girl, Raami, who’s forced to grow up in extraordinary circumstances. Raami sees her father not only as someone of royal blood but of noble character, even if she doesn’t have the language to articulate that. She finds in her mother a strength hidden behind her fragile feminine beauty. The story would be completely different if it were told from the perspective of Raami’s father.

Can you recommend some methods of characterization that might benefit beginning writers?

Whether the characters are based on real people or completely imagined, you write and rewrite and rewrite until you stop thinking of them as characters but as people who inhabit a narrative landscape. And you trust them.

Narrative point of view is especially interesting in this novel. How did you manage to filter the experiences of your child character through an adult lens? This isn’t an easy thing to do.

The ordeal so marked me that the child who endured it, whom I kept locked inside myself to protect her from the horror outside, still lives in me. I feel her. I can access her so fully, immediately, at will. What I have now is an adult language to articulate her hopes and fears, her confusion and acuity. In the novel, what Raami says in quotes, in dialogue, is true to her voice and vocabulary as a child. Outside the quotes, however, I allow the language of the child and the adult narrator to intersect, without clear delineation, so it is much more varied, layered.

Voice and perspective are very different. Raami’s perspective only seems beyond her years because the narrative voice is so grown-up. Yet, a child of her age is capable of such observations and understanding, particularly in circumstances where her survival depends on it.

What is your process for developing plot? Outline? Intuition? Discovery in the writing process itself?

For this book, I had the overall narrative arc, knowing that I wanted to begin the story just before the revolution and end with the fall of the regime. In terms of the events that plot my story between these two poles, I had to work intuitively to select among countless scenes I could have included, keeping a pace that would move the story forward.

How about theme? Is this something you consciously worked into your novel, or did you find that it just emerged more or less on its own?

I came out of the Khmer Rouge experience mute. It was important to me, therefore, to say something about the power of language, when to use it and when not to. I also wanted to express something about stories and continuity – not only how they aid in our survival but how, for those who do not survive, their stories may be the only part of them that lives on. I wanted to speak to and honor the stories of those who died. For me, the question of theme or message is inseparable from my own journey, my quest to understand my experience over so many years. Writing is part of that journey, and it’s ongoing.

Often writers are trying to answer a question with a novel. What is the problem you were trying to solve in this book?

When facts fail us, when reality becomes too harsh to bear, when we have lost everything, what can we hang onto that allows us to move forward, to make sense of life, to invest it with meaning and purpose?

You’ve spoken of having a second novel in mind. Has your debut novel led you toward this second one? If so, how?

With In the Shadow of the Banyan, I wanted to honor those fallen lives. My next book is about the survivors: How do we contend with the shadow of genocide? It’s a much bigger canvas in terms of time and geography, and it has the additional challenge that it does not so closely parallel my own life. Among other characters, I inhabit the mind and heart of an old man, a half-blind musician. It demands a very different approach.

Jack Smith is the author of Write and Revise for Publication. He has published stories in the literary magazines Southern Review, North American Review, Texas Review, X-Connect, In Posse Review and Night Train.


From In the Shadow of the Banyan.
The war is still going on, Om Bao, the cook, is suddenly missing, and Raami is concerned. She speaks to Grandmother Queen, wondering about the whereabouts of Om Bao:

Grandmother Queen gave me a blank look, seeming only interested in the next life. Anything to do with this one was a huge void to her. I wondered if she even knew there was a war.

“People are fighting . . .”

“Yes, I know,” she murmured. “There will remain only so many of us as rest in the shadow of a banyan tree . . .”

What?” I stared at her, thinking not only did she look like some kind of spirit but sometimes she sounded like one too, speaking in obscurity. “The explosions,” I persisted. “Don’t you hear them? A rocket must’ve dropped on Om Bao’s head –”

I stopped, remembering what Milk Mother often said – Turn your tongue seven times before you speak. This way you’ll have time to think if you ought to say the things you want to say. I turned my tongue seven times, but I wasn’t sure if it counted when I’d already said it.

“There will remain only so many of us as rest in the shadow of a banyan tree,” again Grandmother Queen murmured, and I didn’t understand why crazy people always feel the need to say the same thing twice. “The fighting will continue. The only safe place is here . . . under the banyan.”

Copyright © 2012 by Vaddey Ratner.
Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


Light side

Favorite music: My taste is eclectic, from hip-hop and pop songs that my 12-year-old daughter introduces me to and shares from her collection, to classical pieces by Mahler and Bartok, to more contemporary renderings by Yo-Yo Ma, to Khmer folk music and Cambodian rock and roll of the 1960s, now revived by this phenomenal band called Dengue Fever.

Places you go to relax or vacation: Anywhere by the water – rivers, lakes, oceans. I simultaneously fear and love water – such impenetrable mystery. I feel my own shallowness in the presence of water.

TV shows you like to watch: Probably like everyone else, I’ve been addicted to Downton Abbey. Watching it, I believe I’m English, and I imagine myself very much like the formidable, sharp-witted and sharp-tongued Dowager Countess Lady Grantham, until of course I catch my reflection in the TV screen and hear myself giggling. Lady Grantham doesn’t giggle, if you haven’t noticed.

Secret indulgence: Belgian peppered chocolate (from a chocolatier in Phnom Penh) with a glass of Barolo. Having in my possession multiple versions of the same book – an electronic copy, an audiobook and a hardcover and also a paperback if the cover is really beautiful. I love book covers. Sometimes, when I’m too exhausted to read, I pick up a book, admire its cover art and, hugging it to my chest, fall asleep dreaming I’m part of the depiction, the story.