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In The 'Shadow' Of Death, Stories Survive

Vaddey Ratner's novel is derived from her own experiences — she spent four years of her youth working in forced labor under the Khmer Rouge.
Kristina Sherk
Simon & Schuster
Vaddey Ratner's novel is derived from her own experiences — she spent four years of her youth working in forced labor under the Khmer Rouge.

When she was just 5 years old, Vaddey Ratner's comfortable and protected life as the child of an aristocratic Cambodian family came to an abrupt end, as Khmer Rouge soldiers entered the capital, Phnom Penh. They banged on the gates of the family compound and ordered them to leave — it was the start of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, which left hundreds of thousands of Cambodians dead, including all of Ratner's family except her mother.

She tells a fictionalized version of her story in her first novel. In the Shadow of the Banyan follows Raami, a little girl from an aristocratic Cambodian family who loses everything when the Khmer Rouge take over.

Ratner says she always felt like an oddball as a child. She was self-conscious because she walked with a limp as a result of polio — an affliction shared by her fictional heroine, Raami. One day, some of the children in Ratner's extended family began to tease her, saying she was not part of the family, that she must have been found in the street. Ratner ran to her father for comfort

"He said, 'You know, they were probably right. I did find you, and I found you in a bird's nest. You wobbled when you walk, but you know, there are these things, these wings coming out of your back,' " she recalls. "I looked at him skeptically, and he said to me, 'Well, you know, that's what I dreamt.' "

Ratner says she loved the way her father could transform reality through storytelling. So when it came to writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, Ratner didn't want to merely chronicle events. She wanted to create a work of art. "I wanted to tell a larger story about hope and survival, the unbreakable bonds of family," she says. "And I actually want to tell a story about the power of storytelling to transcend suffering. Because it was the stories that saved me, the stories, the poetry that my father left behind."

I actually want to tell a story about the power of storytelling to transcend suffering. Because it was the stories that saved me.

Ratner has changed some of the details of her own experiences, like the order of events and the size of her family. Raami is a couple of years older than Ratner was, and the father in the book is a real poet, not just an avid storyteller and reciter of poetry. But the chaos and violence of her family's forced exile in rural Cambodia is based on what really happened — and the reader sees it through the eyes of a child.

"What I wanted was for the readers to feel the helplessness of a child, to not understand what was going on," Ratner says. "Actually, I want the readers' experience to mirror mine when I went through it." Her voice breaking, she says she, like Raami, feels responsible for the death of her father at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. "So I wrote this book to make him live again, and to make him live forever."

Ratner says writing this book was excruciating at times, because it brought back so many painful memories, including her last moments with her father. In the book, Raami's father tells her that he wants his stories to give her the wings she needs to rise above anything that might happen to her.

"I am telling you this now, this story, for it is a story, so that you will live," Ratner reads. "When I lie buried beneath this earth, you will fly, for me Raami, for your papa you will soar. I didn't respond ... it sounded like a goodbye."

If her father gave her the inspiration to live, Ratner says, it was her mother who ensured that she would survive. Surrounded by death, brutalized by the Khmer Rouge guards, forced into hard labor and facing starvation, Ratner says her mother did everything she could to protect her only surviving child.

"I've always thought of this book as, the first half was focused on my father, was almost a love letter to him," she says. "And the second half was a celebration of my mother's strength, the transformation that she manifested for me, from this woman who depended so much on my father, to this woman of amazing strength who charted her own way through this very harsh landscape."

When things become unbearable for Raami in the book, she clings to her father's stories and her mother's words: "You musn't think this is our life," her mother tells her. "Remember who you are."

Ultimately, Ratner and her mother escaped Cambodia and made their way to the United States. While in high school, Ratner says, she was profoundly influenced by the works of Elie Wiesel. She realized she wanted to write about her experiences under the Khmer Rouge, so that such atrocities might not happen again.

"In order to prevent it, we can only be vigilant," Ratner says. "We have to recognize that there is both the capacity for good and for atrocity in each and every one of us. When we recognize this, then I think we are more vigilant that it can happen, not just in a culture like Cambodia. It can happen anywhere."

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Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
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