Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan is a tale of human fortitude, endurance and will to survive in the face of horror. The novel opens with the seven-year-old Raami, the narrator and author’s alter ego, telling the reader that the “war entered my childhood.” The war is one between U.S. backed government forces and the revolutionaries faction, Khmer Rouge, who were sweeping Cambodia in 1975. A descendent of the royal family, Raami and her family are driven out of their home city in Phnom Penh and pushed into an arduous journey marked with separation, starvation, and forced labor.
What Raami and her family go through in many ways mirror the experiences and hardships that five-year-old Ratner and her family members endured during the Khmer Rouge era. In an email interview with Her Circle’s Anuja Seith, Ratner speaks about the experience of reliving the past, and creating this powerful piece of literature.
Anuja Seith: What prompted you to write the novel?
Vaddey Ratner: I wanted to honor my family; those who fell victim to the Khmer Rouge atrocity, with a work of art. I wanted to make permanent the lives that were lost.
AS: The novel is written in English, a language you began to learn only when you arrived in United States in 1981. How was the experience of narrating the story and recapturing the events that shaped your life in a language which is not your first?
VR: While English is not my first language, it has become my language as a writer. My particular challenge was to convey in English an experience that was lived in Khmer—not only to translate the emotions but to invite the reader into that world. It was daunting, excruciating. I had to learn not only the English language but also the craft of writing. I had to find my voice.
AS: The novel captures an important historic era. Other than your own childhood memories, how did you collect the material for writing this novel?
VR: Over the years, I’ve traveled many times to the region, and between 2005 and 2009 I lived again in Cambodia. Each trip back presented an opportunity to understand the past more deeply. Living in the country again for four years reinforced my childhood memories of the physical surroundings, the natural cycle of seasons, the geography. My studies at Cornell University also gave me an opportunity to delve into the history and politics of Cambodia and of the region more broadly.
AS: Does the title of the book—In the Shadow of the Banyan—hold any personal significance for you?
VR: The title is my own rendering of a phrase from a Buddhist proverb that portends a time of bloodshed and darkness in Cambodia. My own understanding of the proverb is that our history, our past, is like this great tree. It can cast a shadow over us as well as offer shade when we need sheltering.
AS: The novel gives vivid descriptions of Cambodian culture and landscape including the seasons, routes, and scenes from Raami’s journey. How did you go about creating those images for the reader? Also, was the novel written in Cambodia or in the United States?
VR: Because I lived in Cambodia again for more than four years, a time when my daughter was the same age I had been during the Khmer Rouge period, I witnessed the landscape again through her eyes. I became aware of the minute things that capture a child’s attention—the dragonflies, the beetles, the sometimes very human shapes of the trees and plants.
The stories I remembered as a child I also retold to my own daughter, and in telling these stories, I had to seek ways to fill in the gaps in my memory. Sometimes I spoke to a monk, sometimes to our gardener, asking, for example, “Do you remember this folk tale about lightning and thunder?” Often, they would remember aspects that I hadn’t recalled. Eventually, these found their place in the narrative. I did the bulk of the writing in Cambodia, and then finished after moving back to the U.S. in 2009.
AS: Did you escape from Cambodia just as Raami and her mother? How did you end up in the United States?
VR: Yes, we escaped to a refugee camp that was just being set up in Thailand, but our journey was even more impeded than what I describe in the novel. We were eventually sponsored by a Catholic organization in Missouri and resettled there initially.
AS: The book as explained in the author’s note is closely related to your childhood experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime of terror. How closely related are the plot and the characters—particularly Raami and her parents—to you and your family?
VR: It’s very close. From beginning to end, the narrative follows my own experience, from my family’s forced exodus toward the countryside to the many relocations, separations, and losses. My actual family was larger than the one portrayed in the book, but because the novel is contained and I wanted to shape the narrative around a particular theme, I needed to combine members of my family to create distinct characters.
AS: From the first few pages, Raami comes across as a girl who sees the world through the power of stories. Does storytelling hold the same significance for you as it does for Raami in the novel?
VR: Yes, of course. That’s a key theme in the book. In a setting of atrocity and destruction, limiting ourselves to the idea that survival resides only in our physical being is very tragic. So I have to believe that we survive not only in the physical sense, but that we survive through our stories.
AS: The book is a tribute to your father. What does it mean to honor the memory of your father?
VR: In my culture, and especially in my family, we have a ritual of bowing to our elders, as described in the novel’s opening chapter, when each of the family members bows to Grandmother Queen. This is more than a ritual gesture. It’s a way of showing every day that we are bowing to the lives that gave us our own. I always felt that my parents did more than give birth to me. Through their sacrifices and endeavors, I have the life that I do now. So to honor my father means to reciprocate his act of bringing me to life. While I cannot undo his death, I feel that I can give voice to his life, the dreams he once had.
AS: You have infused the novel with poetry. Are these your father’s poems?
VR: The writing is mine, but the spirit of the poetry is all my father. He was a pilot, but he colored my world with poetry, with the possibility of flight. As I wrote these poems, I always had his small photograph at my side. I could not have done it without him.
AS: How was the experience of revisiting the past and writing this novel for you?
VR: It was not just revisiting; it was reliving the past. I became one again with all the losses, with the fear and the sorrow. I felt that each time I relived the tragedy, pulling myself through it, I came to a better understanding. That understanding increased my strength, and reaffirmed my belief that however overwhelming the atrocity was, love and hope are much more enduring.
AS: What do you hope the reader takes away from this novel?
VR: That the world we live in is a world we share. That my loss is in some way yours as well. That our hope for survival is a collective hope.
Vaddey Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. After four years, having endured forced labor, starvation, and near execution, she and her mother escaped while many of her family members perished. In 1981, she arrived in the U.S. as a refugee not knowing English and, in 1990, went on to graduate as her high school class valedictorian. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Cornell University, where she specialized in Southeast Asian history and literature. In recent years she traveled and lived in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, writing and researching, which culminated in her debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan. The New York Times bestselling novel is being translated into more than a dozen languages, including Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. Vaddey lives in Potomac, Maryland.