“There will remain only so many of us at rest in the shadow of the banyan tree.” Thus is an ancient prophecy about Cambodia artfully imparted by Vaddey Ratner in her heartbreaking and heartfelt debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, out this August from Simon & Schuster. To some, the prophecy has suggested that a time of great darkness would come, sweeping a reduced populace under the leaves of some mythic banyan, the towering tree whose shadow takes the shape of Cambodia itself.
But Ratner doesn’t see it that way. Only a child when genocide decimated her country in the late 1970s, she witnessed unimaginable horrors yet writes with her face turned resolutely toward the sun. At a breakfast interview in New York, the day after her book was introduced at BookExpo America’s Editors’ Buzz panel, she spoke radiantly of the comfort the prophecy imparts; the Cambodian embrace of karma, that assured acceptance that things are as they must be; and of her own larger interpretation of the prophecy’s riddle.
“I think it isn’t about the Khmer Rouge at all, or about Cambodia especially,” she explained, acknowledging that the Khmer Rouge took offense whenever the prophecy was invoked. “It’s about stories and storytelling. It’s not a few people huddling in the shadow but a culture being embraced. You find shelter in the shadow of your history.”
Literature makes a culture
Read just a few pages of In the Shadow of the Banyan, and you immediately sense the importance of storytelling‚ or, more broadly, literature‚ both to Ratner and to her culture. Her protagonist, Raami‚ like Ratner herself, the daughter of a Sisowath prince‚ speaks passionately of her father’s poetry and is seen reading the Reamker, the Cambodian adaptation of the Ramayana whose dark underworld kingdom prefigures what’s to come.
This passion for literature is hardly surprising, argued Ratner, as Cambodia’s very existence is bound up with the literary impulse. When explaining their origins, Cambodians resort to myth, claiming that they were created when an Indian prince fell in love with a beautiful half-serpent, half-human creature. That story was passed down orally, then recorded on palm leaves by the educated class and finally carved in stone, enshrining the sacred origins of the royal family, It has intimately shaped Cambodian culture, as all stories shape the culture that purveys them. “Literature,” asserted Ratner, is connected to the survival of a people.
It follows that taking away a people’s literature, their stories and their language, is the first step toward destroying them. In Ratner’s novel, we see the Khmer Rouge forcing Cambodians to suppress all memory and cultural connection; after Raami’s extended family is marched into the countryside and her father‚ not just royal but, damningly, a poet‚ allows himself to be taken away to save the others, Raami understands that “silence kept us alive.” Throughout the novel, that sense of suppression recurs, with people erased from the landscape, their presence no more than mist, all moments that culminate in the awfulness of a buried civilization.
Ratner does, however, make a distinction between silence imposed and silence chosen‚ the necessary stillness that allows one to guard tradition, culture, and memory so that later they can be passed on. As a writer, she also had to accept the duty of silence: “People would tell me that I had a remarkable life story and that I should tell it, but something deeper than the writer in me said, wait, wait until you are ready, until what you have to articulate is important not just to you.” Giving universal weight to her own lacerating yet ultimately triumphant story turned out to involve a lot more than merely recording memories. “It was an excruciating first project,” she noted ruefully. “I had to learn the language of a writer.”
Why write fiction when such potent personal events could be captured in memoir? “I write to honor the spirits of those who perished, who made monumental sacrifices,” Ratner declared. “This is about my family, and writing fiction allowed me to step into the characters and embody hopes and dreams instead of sticking to facts.” Ratner found it presumptuous to impose thoughts and feelings on family members now lost, but the compassionate imagining of fiction let her make their experiences meaningful.
Writing fiction took on special significance with regard to her father, whose sacrifice she could not fully appreciate until she became a parent herself: “Now I can put myself in my father’s place and feel my mortality, the desire to impart as much as I can in the time I have left. Fiction allowed me to step into his skin, his pain.”
Affectingly, Raami’s father tells her, “I write because words give me wings and later I told you stories to give you wings.” The author really does give Raami wings at novel’s end, allowing her to escape the killing fields, but the entire novel is pervaded by that lush sense of hope. Ratner lived through atrocity and aimed to describe it accurately. But she set out to write a hopeful novel‚ for, finally, hope is what she learned within the awful context of war, revolution, and genocide. “I wanted to make the reader’s experience parallel my own,” she concluded. “With all the separation, loss, and killing, I was ever more desperate for that small glimpse of beauty.”
As the novel unfolds, Ratner offers exact, lucid descriptions of fly-covered bodies and a revolutionary screeching, “to keep it is no gain, to destroy it is no loss”—certainly, passages that gives us pause. But she consciously chose not to emphasize the horrors, saving her strongest, most vibrant language for her depiction of family love and relations, the splendor of Cambodia, and the determined will to survive. If taking away the literature of a people destroys them, then surely literature can bring them back; it gives us the tools, said Ratner, to deal with moral ambiguity in a world beset by violence.
Understanding through empathy
In the end, observed Ratner, the Khmer Rouge cannot be seen as a single voice but a whirlwind of forces emerging from Cambodia’s culture and atmosphere and a long history of injustice. Looking for an explanation is in fact mistaken: “Then we would have a rationale, and that would get us back to the Khmer Rouge, who said, ‘We have the answer.'” As a survivor, Ratner instead sees her role as offering a greater understanding through empathy, precisely the values her father taught.
Through her father’s example and sacrifice and her mother’s determined love, Ratner was able to escape Cambodia and come to America in 1981, where her mother advised her to recognize that she was a refugee humbly required to rebuild her life. Since then, she’s managed to graduate summa cum laude from Cornell and become a published‚ and remarkably persuasive‚ novelist.
In 2009, when she was formally reintroduced into Cambodia’s royal family, taking her father’s place, Ratner brought along three tons of rice to donate to the poor in her father’s name. (She and her husband and daughter maintain a home in Cambodia but are now living in Maryland.) As we consider Cambodia today, which is shifting off its past and moving forward, if slowly, we might take Ratner’s advice: Adopt Raami’s attitude and look for the lotus flower. An excellent way to look not just at a country but at life.