In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (Simon & Schuster; 336 pages; $28.99).
When the world as we know it shifts beneath our feet and nothing is recognizable, many of us cope through writing. Words become a haven.
Elie Wiesel, the Romanian born, Jewish-American Nobel Laureate, was only fifteen years old when he and his family were deported by the Nazis to Buchenwald. His mother and sister died there. So did his father, who perished shortly before the Americans liberated the camp in April 1945. Wiesel and his two older sisters survived. His experience was not something he liked to talk about. It was not until 1960 that Wiesel’s memoir, Night, an international bestseller, was published. The book recounted the atrocities Wiesel, his family, and millions of others suffered at the hands of the Nazis. For Wiesel, his words and his memories were far more powerful than the Nazis’ hatred and cruelty. Wiesel chose to tell his story in a memoir.
There are other authors, though, who prefer to write novels. Fiction, for them, contains a kernel or two of truth. National Book Award Winner and native Mississippian Jesmyn Ward experienced the mighty wrath of a storm called Katrina in August 2005. When the family home flooded in De Lisle, Ward and her family fled by car to a local church. They never made it and were instead stranded in a field. Ward and her family decided to just stay put in their vehicle. Their presence soon became known to the owners of the property. Claiming overcrowding, the white property owners told the Wards, who are black, to leave. But another white family offered them shelter down the road. Ward saw what Katrina did to her hometown and to its people. Her novel Salvage the Bones is testament to the fortitude and hope in all of us, but especially in times of great struggle. In her storytelling, perhaps, Ward was able to unleash her vitriol and bitterness and find healing.
Words and stories not only have healing effects, but they also carry magical properties. This is something author Vaddey Ratner knows all too well. When Ratner was five, the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975. Like other Cambodians, she and her family were forced to flee their homes and endure years of hardship and brutality. Unlike other Cambodians, though, Ratner’s family were royalty. Therefore, they were often made examples of by the Communists.
In 1981, Ratner and her mother arrived as refugees in the United States. She knew not one word of English but went on to graduate summa cum laude from Cornell. Years later, she ached to tell her story.
“I didn’t want just to translate my family’s experience, a Cambodian experience, to a foreign audience,” she explains. “I wanted to take the readers and replant them in the fertile ground I’d sprung from, to let them take root and sprout, and to see my world as their own.” Ratner wanted readers to see the Cambodia of her childhood, “before it became synonymous with genocide, before it became the ‘killing fields.'” She remembers the country of her birth with sad longing. “It was once a place of exquisite beauty….”
In her debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, fiction eerily mirrors Ratner’s reality, as she tells the visceral and achingly heartbreaking story of 7-year-old Raami, a member of the royal family and a child who should never have had to see the things she witnessed. Raami’s story is loosely based on Ratner’s life.
Like Ratner, Raami holds on to her innocence as only a very young child can. Raami transports herself away from the ugliness and violence around her by turning inward. For a time, she does not speak. She is in a world of her own making. Ratner employs magical realism, and this literary device works well when one is telling a story from the point of view of a 7-year-old, especially one who has seen such horror.
When Raami’s father, the light of her life, disappears, she grieves for him. In Cambodian culture, absence is worse than death. In all likelihood, the Khmer Rouge did indeed kill her father, “the Tiger prince,” almost immediately. His absence sends Raami reeling.
Her only solace is in words, particularly in the stories her father used to tell her. “When the sky is dark, when all around us is black and hopeless, the moon is our only light,” he told her. “I should like to go to the moon,” he said.
Raami’s father told her stories so she could fly. “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 [she has polio], this world’s suffering,” he explains. For Raami, there is magic in words; they have healing properties that enable her to endure the suffering that the Khmer Rouge inflicted upon her and her family. Words and stories were a way to escape the bonds of this earth and float away, far above the blood-red rivers of Cambodia.
In the Shadow of the Banyan shows the ultimate triumph of the human spirit, a stunning feat in such a dark story. Despite its bleak subject matter, hope wins out in the end; humanity and the humaneness of man survive. The beauty of this novel contrasts with the brutality of the Khmer Rouge.
Ratner turns the lush, green landscape of Cambodia into a character in this story. Oh, if the country could only talk. Ratner locates “readers in the loveliness of the natural world” and immerses them “in the rhythm of a people’s thoughts and sentiments, in its literature and art.” “Only when we know what existed,” Ratner writes, “can we truly mourn what is lost.”
Words, stories, and storytelling are very powerful. They have a fundamental influence over us all. Like Raami, Ratner “saw and understood the world through stories.” Ratner remembers, “In Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouge, when I was lost in a forest or abandoned by my work unit among the vast rice fields because I moved too slowly, I would recall the legends my father or nanny had told me or those tales I’d een able to read myself.” She invoked “them like incantations, chanting aloud descriptions and dialogues” she memorized. The stories made her fear disappear. “Stories,” Ratner recounts, “were magic spells.” She used words and stories to “transform and transport” herself.”
May we always keep stories alive, for us and for every generation that follows. Stories should never die.