Vaddey Ratner: ‘I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything, your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world suffering.’‘I am telling you this now, this story, for it is a story, so that you will live. When I lie buried beneath this earth you will fly, for me, Raami, for your papa, you will soar.’”
Jo Reed: That is Vaddey Ratner reading from her novel In the Shadow of the Banyan—which is a 2016 Big Read selection and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Raami is only seven when the Khmer Rouge comes to power in Cambodia. Descended from Cambodian royalty, and living a life of privilege, Raami and her family are sent to the countryside along with hundreds of thousands of Cambodians for reeducation and farm labor. Any hint of Western education was suspect and intellectuals were routinely murdered. By the time the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge came to an end, Raami’s family—except herself and her mother were all dead. It’s a grim story—yet it’s also filled with moments of beauty, descriptions of landscape so vivid, you can almost smell the blossoms. And the narrative itself is peppered with stories and poems—a legacy of Raami’s father, which becomes a source of strength and hope for the little girl.
In the Shadow of the Banyan is a novel—but it closely mirrors Vaddey Ratner’s life and experiences as a child in Cambodia. While the trend recently seems to be fiction masquerading as memoir, Vaddey had no interest in chronicling her own life. Although the novel is deeply autobiographical, Vaddey Ratner wanted to portray more than one girl’s struggle to survive under the Khmer Rouge.
Vaddey Ratner: I didn’t want to write it as a memoir because right away I felt that if someone picking it up it could be mistaken for the story of my life. And the last thing I wanted was to have the focus on me. And yet, the experience was so intensely, so profoundly personal that I couldn’t write it any other voice except in the first person. I think my first and foremost goal was to honor the lives lost, those who made the profound, monumental sacrifices to save me as a child. And I want the focus to be on them, on the experience, on the country that I loved. And I didn’t want the book to be lost in the discussion, well, how much of it is true? Can a narrator this young remember these things? Which is often part of the discourse when you talk about a memoir. And I had a story that I wanted to tell and the story was not so much about what happened to one country, what happened to one family. What I wanted to tell was a story that it was much more universal. A story about our desire for life even in the face of death. And I really wanted to honor that desire along with the people because I saw firsthand in my family how much they wanted to live and how much they fought to live. And you don’t know why you survive and why others die. Even now I can’t really answer that question. So, when I wrote this book I wanted to honor the humanity, the love, the beauty that endure.
Jo Reed: I read, “In the Shadow of the Banyan” it’s a painful book to read. And it had to have been a painful book to write. Can you tell me what went into the decision to write “In the Shadow of the Banyan”?
Vaddey Ratner: Well, I think it began very early when I was a young child after so many of my family members were taken away or gone missing. I would rehearse this imagined conversation that I would have with neighbors or people we had known before the Khmer Rouge came in to try to explain what happened to the rest of my family while I-- the one with a physical handicap and seemingly less resilient should still be alive, should still be around. And so for me the story existed in that form first trying to find expression to justify my survival while most of my family was gone.
Jo Reed: Right. It’s explaining the inexplicable.
Vaddey Ratner: Exactly. And writing it wasn’t just remembering the experience for me, it was reliving it all over again. There were days in which I had to crawl into bed and be completely silent and shut the windows and doors and just live in the dark both as a way to console myself and also to imagine the silence to access the silence that I felt was synonymous with death. I wanted to be closer to those who were gone. And that’s what happened when I started writing this book was that I was establishing, again, a conscious connection with the dead. I was exhuming them. I was invoking them. I think of writing it in the English language was a consolation. It gave me a little bit of distance. And because English is not my native tongue I put so much energy into crafting the story, and so a lot of my effort was in the beginning focused on that.
Jo Reed: Raami and her parents as we said are modeled on you and your family, your father was a prince.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes, he was.
Jo Reed: Was he also a poet the way Raami’s father was?
Vaddey Ratner: No, he was not, I guess, an official poet in the sense he was not a published writer or poet. But I think he had the spirit of a poet. He was in actuality a pilot, a former pilot, but when I was born and was struck with polio he gave up that life. He became literally grounded to take care of me. I think my mother was a lot younger than he was and it was really hard to have her first born be struck with this illness. And so my father took up the responsibility of taking care of this sick child. And he would tell me stories. He would recite poetry to me. And when he couldn’t explain things to me he would quote passages from these epic poems like “The Ramayana”. As if that would just explain what he couldn’t explain. So I think had he been born into a family, into a culture, where he was more free to choose what he wanted to do, I think he would have been a poet instead of a pilot.
Jo Reed: But instead he was a storyteller.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes.
Jo Reed: Well, storytelling itself seems so central to this book in this story and the ability of stories to explain life, to transcend moments of horrible suffering, to look up and see the moon.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes.
Jo Reed: And that’s something Raami learns from her father and I’m assuming you learned from yours as well.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes. Exactly. When I was growing up books, whatever little we had in Cambodia -- books were part of my milieu and stories and storytelling was so central to my existence. Stories felt as real as alive to me as life itself. We didn’t speak of fiction or nonfiction stories. Stories are just a reiteration of life, really. And I really wanted Raami to embody that kind of upbringing in her, where her relationship to not only to people but to the natural world to her entire surroundings are very story based.
Jo Reed: They sustain her.
Vaddey Ratner: They sustain her. Yes, they sustained her and they sustained me as a child with-- in an experience where you are sent off to work often time alone, into the forests. And you have nothing except your own voice, the conversations that you have with yourself with the spirit world. And as a child,both in Raami and in myself, the stories kept us from being scared, from being frightened, from feeling that we were alone in this world.
Jo Reed:It felt to me that it also gave her a sense of a bigger place than the place that she was in that that moment.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes.
Jo Reed: You know, whatever circumstance she was in those stories gave her a sense of a universe that was so much bigger that she could access.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes. Definitely. Definitely. It’s not only a big universe, the one that you can see, but a world that you couldn’t see.
Jo Reed: Like the world behind the world.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes. The world behind the world. And this was very important for her survival because when most family members are gone she has to believe that they’ve gone somewhere, somewhere where they are safer, they are not starving, that they are not being harmed. In another sense, it gives her an escape, a momentary escape, a secret world where she feels that harm can’t reach her.
Jo Reed: Your father gave you stories and that sustained you. Your mother made sure that you survived.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes.
Jo Reed: And it felt to me that the book was such a celebration of both of them, such different people.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes.
Jo Reed: Can you describe your mother, please?
Vaddey Ratner: Well, you know, it’s hard because she’s still alive. And I have my memories of her and I have the real person now in front of me. And the real person has been so changed by the suffering, the ordeals that she had gone through and the struggle she continues to face as an immigrant in this country. But my mother, as I remember her when I was that little child at home, was this beautiful fragile thing. She was, as I describe Raami’s mom in the book, like a butterfly. Like this beautiful being half-spirit, half-human. Then after my father was gone, I saw how she was transformed. And I didn’t know where her strength came from, but there it was in its full manifestation. And I clung to that strength, even though at the time it felt a little bit hard edged to me. But I knew that she loved me very much and that more than anything else she shared my father’s fierce desire for me to live. Even though she didn’t have always the gentlest words to express her love. And that’s what I try to capture in Raami’s mother as a well. In the beginning of the book, I tried to bring out more kind of the fragility, the beauty of who she was. But when the opportunity for me to showcase her strength it was just as easy because her strength was so visible to me, so palpable.
Jo Reed: When you think about circumstances like Cambodia and it’s like the Holocaust, I mean now we have the hindsight of history and we know, all right, it’s four years and if I could get through these four years, if I could get through these four years. But when you’re living through it you have no idea how long this is going to go on for.
Vaddey Ratner: No.
Jo Reed: Which makes it, so much more difficult because you just don’t know what the endpoint is going to be.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes. That’s right. You know, it’s interesting, I had a similar conversation with my mother recently and in the Cambodian language there’s no past tense and present tense, you know. Everything is one experience. Time is circular and so forth. But she said that she knew or she knows, it’s hard to tell in the Cambodian language, that it would come to an end. She said that she had to remind herself that nothing like this, this horrible suffering can’t last forever. That if such terribleness, such horror has the power to be permanent then we wouldn’t have what we call the human community, the very fact that we exist, we as human beings exist as a community speaks to the endurance of humanity. And it’s curious for me to hear her say that. The English speaking side of me wanted to really press her, did you feel that way in that moment? But, you know, when you live through something like that you don’t have such a forward way of looking at things. You’re just trying to survive from one moment to the next. When you’re enduring this level of suffering, if you can focus on what it takes for another breath, what it takes to move to the next minute, I think that is the very definition of strength. That is the very definition of your faith in life that instead of just giving up you’re fighting. You’re fighting with every breath just to take another step.
Jo Reed: Raami’s mother urges her to remember who she is, until she doesn’t. Raami’s mother shifted from you’re your father’s daughter,you come from the royal family, I and then she said, “No, I’m wrong. You are the daughter of a servant.” You are exactly who you are now. That seems like such a pivotal moment in that book.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes.
Jo Reed: Talk about what was happening then, what was going on?
Vaddey Ratner: I think in the beginning Raami’s mother wants her to remember her core, who she is. And she believes that it is this core, knowing your worth will be your strength. But then they arrive at a point in their experience where the talk of inner strength, the talk of this emotional life, is no longer relevant. People are dying left and right and they are being taken away at night, murdered. This is a completely foreign world. It’s more than that. It’s like an alternate existence in which Raami’s mother doesn’t understand how to be a mother anymore in the sense of protecting her child. And so her main concern now becomes I want you to do whatever it takes to live even if you have to lie, even if you have to forget who you are, even if you have to steal, even if you have to forget me, forget yourself, just live. I think that’s the transformation.
Jo Reed: In the book there are many losses, I'd like to talk about two. Raami’s father,in order to save his family; admits that he is of royal stock which means that he’s taken away by the Khmer Rouge. And then there's Raami's sister, whose death we see. We know that she's dead. But with her father, we can infer that he's dead, but we don't know what's happened. And that becomes it's own kind of hell, even more crazy-making, I would think.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes. You know, as sad as that death of the sister was and I can still access the sorrow, the grief. I can also access that feeling of consolation when I told myself and that experience was transferred to Raami that at least she’s no longer suffering, the sister, the child is no longer suffering. And that she’s going to a place where no one can harm her. And there is somehow an end, a definitive end to their suffering. With Raami’s father and my own father, it’s hard-- throughout the novel Raami continues to feel her father’s presence everywhere. She sees him in everything. And to this day it is the same for me. I go back to Cambodia and I see my father everywhere. I see him in everything that lives.
Jo Reed: It’s hard and I appreciate you talking about it because I know how difficult this has to be.
Vaddey Ratner: Well, and as difficult as the questions are I feel that is a-- it is a continuing duty for me to speak about this story to give voice to it every chance that I have. I know that a book that asks so much of a reader I will have to give a lot of myself as well. It was I who made the decision to write and to put it out there. And I’m all right.
Jo Reed: Raami stops talking. Why?
Vaddey Ratner: It was an act of not defeat but retreat. Earlier we talked about being able to access this world of the dead. And to go to the secret world to be safe. But what happens with Raami is this, she realizes that she has to live. She doesn’t want to die. And she wants to fight for every chance, but she has to find a way to hide. And the only safe place was one within herself and it began with her voice. So it was an act of disappearing in order to retain the essential wholeness of who she is. If I don’t talk to them they can’t belittle me. They can’t reduce me. If I become mute they themselves become deaf. They will not hear the things I dream about. So this is how Raami, a child this young, probably would explain herself that act.
Jo Reed: How do Raami and her mother leave Cambodia?
Vaddey Ratner: Raami and her mother head for the refugee camp.
Jo Reed: In Thailand.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes.
Jo Reed: Did you go to Thailand?
Vaddey Ratner: Yes. We heard about the humanitarian workers there. It was more or less rumors, but we thought we might as well.
Jo Reed: The Vietnamese had come. The war was over.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes. So beginning in late 1978 it was obvious that there was a war between Vietnam and Cambodia.But also the bits and pieces of new filter through us to ordinary people. There was no newspaper, no television, nothing. This time the sound of gunfire gave us hope. And then the Vietnamese won and they came into the country and the Khmer Rouge retreated into the jungle. And the villages took the opportunities in that chaos when no one is really paying attention. If you’re not from that particular village then you head back to your hometown, wherever that is or if you’re from the city you try to go back. But the way my mother described that experience to me was from her side of it. She said, “I saw one red flag come down and another went up. And I knew this was not a place for us.”
Jo Reed: How long were you in the camps in Thailand?
Vaddey Ratner: I think it was a year. And then we went to the Philippines for preparation to come to the U.S.
Jo Reed: And did you go to Massachusetts?
Vaddey Ratner: No, to Minnesota. Well, actually, to Missouri. Sorry. To Missouri first. We were sponsored by a Catholic organization to Missouri. And we stayed there from ’81 to ’84. And then my mom had a friend in Minnesota who was in the refugee camp with us but had left before and he said, “Come to Minnesota. It’s a place with great schools. Very nice people.” And, of course, we didn’t know about that much snow. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Nobody does. <laughs>
Vaddey Ratner: Yes. But now I feel Minnesota is home. <laughs>
Jo Reed: What was the transition like? I’m amusing it was a little easier for you because you were younger than for your mother. But it can’t have been easy.
Vaddey Ratner: It can’t have been easy, but after you went through something like the Khmer Rouge you’re just so grateful for everything. Everything represented life. You know, the buzz of florescent light,the baggage claim conveyor belt. All of these things were just vibrating.
Jo Reed: Supermarkets.
Vaddey Ratner: Yeah, supermarkets. Everything. There was just so much food. And I think both the culture shock for both my mother and I came much later. For me even much later. I think I only felt the culture shock when I was actually in college, when I was asked to articulate that experience of being an immigrant, having to rebuild my life from nothing and so forth because what we came from that was nothing. We knew that nothingness more profoundly in Cambodia. But during the early years we were just so grateful and so busy trying to take advantage of everything that was offered to us.
Jo Reed: And what about when you returned to Cambodia? I can’t imagine what that was like.
Vaddey Ratner: For me returning to Cambodia I had that feeling that I was turning to my family’s grave except my family’s grave was a country. And yet on the other hand I felt grateful that I was in a safe place now, safe in the sense of I can escape Cambodia any time I chose. You know, I had my American passport. So I didn’t have to stay. But because I had that luxury I stayed for a long time. The first time was about two months to commune with the dead, again. To face the losses. To discover the possibilities for moving forward. And so that first experience was very important in the sense of it connected me with the loss, the tragedy. But it also gave me a clear sense that I survived. That I was not among the dead as I had felt when I left that country as a child. But that I survived. And I can take my life forward now. And I can take those I loved with me. I don’t have to just bury them here in this land. I can carry them with me.
Jo Reed: And is that when you began to come to the decision to write the book?
Vaddey Ratner: Yeah, I think the first conscious decision that I want to write this story in a sense of a book form, a narrative that I can share with the world. I want the world to know what happened to the country, what happened to my family. But in the more intimate sense, I just want to be able to speak of it now.
Jo Reed: Well, you wrote a saga but this is-- my note is but on a very intimate scale with your family sort of representing what happened to the country as a whole. We see what happened to the country as a whole through the eyes of Raami.
Vaddey Ratner: Yes. Yes. And I had to make that decision that it’s the experience of a family, but I wanted to reflect the experience of the whole country. And yet I didn’t want the reader to be lost in the history, in the politics of that time. I wanted to tell a story in a different way. I wanted the reader to travel with me. To trust this child. And I want to show that my country, Cambodia, my homeland, didn’t start off as the killing fields. It was once a place of safety, a place filled with love. So I wanted the reader to discover that world and how it was transformed by war.
Jo Reed: Well, as we know, “In the Shadow of the Banyan” is chosen for the Big Read. And that means communities across the country are going to come together to read and talk about this book. What are your thoughts? What are your hopes for that?
Vaddey Ratner: Well, first of all, thank you so much to the Big Read program for choosing “Banyan”. It is a huge honor. And I’m just so grateful to the readers in general and the readers in institutions like the NEA that have made such effort to give voice to these kind of small voices in a sense, works that may not have such a broad appeal right off. But through the Big Read program I think more and more people are hearing about it. I guess what I’m hoping for it is that a book like “Banyan” will continue to be part of the discourse of our American experience. And it is vitally important as our world gets smaller and smaller that even though the book is set in Cambodia, set in a particular time it is part of a larger more universal-- the human experience. And I hope that every reader who comes across it will not think of it as this is a Cambodian story, but will see their story, their life, their journey, reflected somehow in this family’s experience. And I hope that this reflection of themselves that they see is about hope, about love, the unbreakable bonds of family. And that no matter how much suffering there is in the world, especially these days, that humanity will always triumph.
Jo Reed: Okay. Vaddey, thank you so much.
Vaddey Ratner: Thank you.
Jo Reed: Lovely, thank you, Vaddey. Beautiful. Thank you.
That was Vaddey Ratner—she was talking about her novel In the Shadow of the Banyan. In the Shadow of the Banyan is a 2016 Big Read title. To find out more about the Big Read, go to neabigread.org.
You’ve been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Surviving the Khmer Rouge and honoring those who didn’t.