Skip to main content

Interview: August 9, 2012

The atrocities committed in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime will go down in history as some of the vilest abuses of human rights. Emerging from the stranglehold placed by Pol Pot is author Vaddey Ratner, whose debut novel, IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN, is poised to take the literary scene by storm.

In this interview, conducted by's Alexis Burling, Ratner discusses her own experiences in Cambodia and her escape to the United States, why she decided to write a work of fiction as opposed to a memoir, and the significant role of fables and myths in Cambodian society. As you write in your Author’s Note, IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN is closely based on your own experiences, enduring four years of punishment and terror in the hands of the Khmer Rouge. You mention that you toyed with writing a memoir, but decided on fiction instead. Why?

Vaddey Ratner: My first and foremost goal was always to honor my family. I found that fiction allowed me to step out of my solipsistic concerns and limited recollections and imagine the pains and fears of another more fully --- the courage it took for my father to do what he did or the strength my mother had to summon in order to endure one loss after another. I felt I could only truly honor my family if I understood the magnitude of their suffering, sacrifices and love.

BRC: To me, it seemed as though the book literally poured out of you in a rush with such immense feeling and power. But knowing how close you are to the material, I imagine it was incredibly difficult to sit down and put memories to paper. What was that experience like after all these years?

VR: 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 a sudden the words would come together in such emotional clarity that it would both devastate and save me.

BRC: Along those same lines, what prompted you to start writing the book? Was it something specific, or did you always know you wanted to write your story someday?

VR: It was the one story I had to write before I could do anything else.  But when I realized it didn’t have to be a memoir, or a chronicle of facts and events, I felt liberated, and that gave me the courage to make the story bigger, more universal.

BRC: How long did it take you to write the first draft of the book?

VR: This version took about two-and-a-half years. But, as I said, the story lived inside me for a long time. There was hardly a day I wasn’t thinking about it in some way. So it felt like I was working on it forever!

BRC: Were there parts of the book that were more difficult to write than others?

VR: Every part was difficult. The loss of my father is still devastating every time I think about it, especially in my solitude and silence. A part of me still wonders if I hadn’t revealed who he was, would he still be with us? 

BRC: In 2005, you traveled back to Cambodia and Southeast Asia to live, and to do research for the book. In 2009, you also were reintroduced to the royal family, as your father’s only surviving child. Was that the first time you had been back home since your childhood? What was that like?

VR: No, the first time I went back was much earlier, in 1992, when a large part of the country was still controlled by the Khmer Rouge rebels. Though their regime had long collapsed, they still terrorized the population with wanton kidnapping and murders. Needless to say, my mother was upset and terrified that I’d chosen to go back. Even as we felt there was no way my father could have survived, I had to return, I had to be sure.

BRC: One of my favorite characters is Raami’s mother. She is so delicate yet, like Atlas, carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. In fact, she might be one of the strongest female characters I’ve come across in recent years. What was your mother’s reaction to your book? Did you consult her while writing?

VR: Yes, of course, I talked with her about it over the years. Without her recollections and insights, this book wouldn’t have been written. When she finished reading my novel, one of the things she said to me was, if she could write a book about our family, this is the story she would’ve written. Now she tells me she wants me to understand more about her side of the family, so she’s going to write everything down in Khmer, starting from when she was five!

BRC: Fables, myths and dreams play a large role in the book. Milk Mother describes them as “footpaths of the gods. They lead us back and forth across time and space and connect us to the entire universe, to people and beings we never see but who we feel exist.” Are stories a large part of Cambodian culture and her people’s shared history?

VR: Oh, yes! Whether we can read or not, we all know the same myths and folktales. Stories are not only our shared history; they are our voice, our collective consciousness.

BRC: Papa’s poetry is sprinkled throughout the novel. Was your father a poet, and were those actual poems he wrote?

VR: No, my father was actually a pilot, but he was always reading poetry. Had he been born into a family and culture where he had more freedom to choose his own path, I believe he would’ve chosen poetry as his means of flight. The poems are mine. I wrote a lot of poetry when I went back to live in Cambodia again with my husband and daughter. I think it’s a place that can make a poet out of you, because you are privy to so much tragedy and so much beauty in a single day.

BRC: In the book, Raami and her mother escape to Thailand and the ending is left open-ended --- presumably implying that they made it to freedom after being rescued by the United Nations. Is that what happened in reality?

VR: Yes, my mother and I escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, except we didn’t have the luxury of a rescue by the United Nations. Our actual journey, entirely over land, was much more impeded and tortuous than the one I charted for Raami and her mother. In 1979, as the Khmer Rouge regime was collapsing and its forces were losing the country to the invading Vietnamese troops, one of the things they did was plant mines and explosives everywhere. They did this as much to thwart the Vietnamese military advance as to deter ordinary citizens like us from making a run for the borders. This meant every step we took could bring us closer to freedom --- or death. 

Once we reached the refugee camp, my mother was recruited by the UNHCR to assist with the humanitarian effort there. An educated person like her was sought after, because the Khmer Rouge had eliminated some 90 percent of the country’s intellectuals.

BRC: Toward the beginning of the book, when Raami and her family reach Rolork Meas and enter the classroom they’ll call home for the foreseeable future, a sentence is partially written on the blackboard: “Knowing comes from…” Later, Raami’s father completes it, to read: “Knowing comes from learning, finding from seeking.” What does this proverb mean to you?

VR: What you strive for, you will achieve --- be it knowledge or understanding.

BRC: One of the many things that touched me in the novel was the presence of living angels --- people who gave all they had to Raami and her family, in spite of what was taking place around them. Mae and Pok. The old sweeper. At one point, Raami’s father says to her, “We are all echoes of one another.” Do you believe this to be true, even in the case of genocide?

VR: I have to believe it is true, especially in the case of genocide. I cannot allow myself to believe that atrocity has the capacity to silence us permanently. IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN is a voice against acts of violence. I hope it is a voice that will echo far and wide.

BRC: Will IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN be translated into Khmer?

VR: I would love to see the novel translated into Khmer. It would be a challenging task, because the translator has to be well versed in Khmer and English, as well as in the language of writing --- meaning the translator would also have to be a writer. In my own experience, it is not enough to know how to speak and write in a language. To me, it is not important that the translation be done soon but that it be done well, true to the meaning, intent and spirit of the story I wrote. 

BRC: In 1981, you arrived in the United States, not knowing a lick of English. Yet you were the valedictorian of your high school class and graduated summa cum laude from Cornell University. Now you’ve just published a masterpiece of a book. After experiencing such horrors and knowing such loss, how did you rise above it all to accomplish such feats?

VR: Wow --- “a masterpiece of a book.” I should do more interviews with you! Thank you so much for your generous endorsement. I feel the strength and understanding I gained from having survived the Khmer Rouge has helped me to overcome many obstacles. But every success, big or small, is a collective effort. I couldn’t have achieved all this without my mother’s fierce strength and love, and without the kindness and encouragement of countless tevodas --- angels --- who manifest themselves as my fellow human beings.

BRC: Are there other books and/or films you might recommend to your readers if, after finishing IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN, they want to learn more about Cambodia’s history --- either about the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror from 1975-1979 or, perhaps, some popular Cambodian legends or parables?

VR: I love films as much as books. Besides The Killing Fields, another film that made a huge impression on me is Les gens de la rizière --- Rice People --- by Rithy Panh, an acclaimed Cambodian-French director. The film poignantly captures the continuing struggle of today’s Cambodian rice-farming peasants. A haunting short film about the legacy of the Khmer Rouge is Samsara: Survival and Recovery in Cambodia. It’s worth seeking out.

There are many memoirs, both in Khmer and English, published by other survivors of the Khmer Rouge. One I’ve read is STAY ALIVE, MY SON by Pin Yathay. THE DEATH AND LIFE OF DITH PRAN by Sydney Schanberg, on which The Killing Fields is based, is a must-read.  Another perceptive memoir dealing with the Khmer Rouge is THE GATE by François Bizot. For a historical perspective, I highly recommend Philip Short’s POL POT, an excellent study of the leaders and the society that formed them. Another outstanding piece of scholarship is David Chandler’s THE TRAGEDY OF CAMBODIAN HISTORY.

BRC: On a personal note, Cambodia is at the top of my “Countries to Visit” list. Might you have a few recommendations of things to do and places to see that might not be listed in popular guidebooks?

VR: Whether visiting one of the ancient Angkorian temples or taking a boat ride on the Mekong, try to do it before sunrise!

BRC: What’s next for you?

VR: I love Cambodian folk music, particularly smoat, a kind of poetry sung in verse, often during funerals. The idea that the dead need music as much as the living is very compelling to me. I’m exploring the thread of a second novel with this in mind.