Interview with Vaddey Ratner, Author of In the Shadow of the Banyan
Jaime Boler: Thank you, Vaddey, for letting me interview you. Did you always want to be a writer?
Vaddey Ratner: Thank you, Jaime. It’s a pleasure to speak with you. I think even without the experience of the Khmer Rouge, if I had a choice, I would have chosen writing as my expression. I grew up in a culture rich in the tradition of stories and storytelling. Even as a child, I saw the world through stories. As an adult, I feel that writing helps me to understand the world better, more fully, more tenderly. “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection,” said Anais Nin, and thus I write.
JB: When were you first compelled to write In the Shadow of the Banyan?
VR: The story has always been with me. I knew I would write about the experience one day. But the novel as I have written it came to me most clearly after I went back to live in Cambodia, in 2005. There, witnessing the present and the past collide on a daily basis, I felt that I had all I needed to write this book. It was time for me to delve much deeper into the emotional truth of that experience. Seeing the suffering and the struggle that Cambodia continues to face, and how similar this is to suffering in other parts of the world, I realized that a story of tragedy, loss, and perseverance is a human story, not confined to Cambodia alone.
JB: In your address at the PEN/Faulkner Gala in September 2012, you said: “We live and die because of our words. They can both hide and expose us.” How did words save you?
VR: In that speech, I refer to a person who helped me greatly in my survival. He taught me how you can choose silence in order to protect yourself and still maintain a very rich internal connection with the spirits of those you loved and lost. Words are very powerful. You have to know when to use them, and when to keep quiet.
JB: Raami’s story is loosely based on your own childhood under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. What are the similarities? What are the main differences?
VR: All the ordeals I detailed in the novel, from beginning to end, parallel my own family’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge. I changed the order of events, I collapsed characters, I created more complete conversations from the fragments I remembered as a child. What I found astounding after finishing the book was that, even after these changes, the emotional truth of that experience was so much closer to the reality of what we endured than it would have been had I stuck just to the chronology of events. I was nervous about making the father character a poet, but after my mother read it, she said I captured his spirit so well.
JB: Your father looms large in this story. I felt as if I suffered his loss with you. How do you keep his memory alive today?
VR: He was never truly gone. Every breath I take, I know it is only possible because he forfeited his life to give me mine. I carry him in my heart always.
JB: You have said that In the Shadow of the Banyan is your mother’s book, too. Would you say that your story is also the story of every Cambodian under the Khmer Rouge?
VR: I hesitate to say that my story is representative of every Cambodian. In fact, I make a conscious effort not to claim this. There are many ways to tell a story, and the more perspectives we have that provide a window into this experience, the better. During the writing, I was always conscious that however much I’d suffered as a child, others had suffered just as much, if not more. There were those who lost both of their parents. That put my anguish in perspective and gave me courage to keep writing, even though often it was so painful to confront those ordeals again. Ultimately, I feel lucky to be alive, to have the chance to transform this suffering into something beautiful, something that perhaps will resonate with others. The story of loss and hope is one that belongs to all of us. It is a timeless, universal tale.
JB: History and memory are important in your story. Were there times in your writing process when your memory was at odds with what actually happened or how something truly was?
VR: At that age, I didn’t comprehend many things. But I remembered them, especially when something was confusing. Because of the complexity or ambiguity of the situation, my memory clung to it more stubbornly. I remember that growing up I tried to understand whether my father was politically inclined one way or another. After years of talking to my mother and other surviving relatives, I came to see that his feelings, the way he questioned the foundations of his own privilege, preceded all his views of politics. I’ve come to believe he was an ordinary man burdened with the question of his own existence, his limitations. So writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, I tried to paint Raami’s father in a way that I remember and feel my own father was, a man who had great empathy for others but was limited by his capacity to help. I’m sure we each have felt that way at times.
JB: Do you think your story would be different had you been a little older or a little younger in 1975? Would words and stories have been able to save you in the same way they were able to? If you were 4 or 10, would you have been able to transport your spirit away from there and disappear into stories like you were able to do?
VR: My survival is so arbitrary, I can’t really answer what difference age would have made. I don’t really know why I survived, why others died. I can only be thankful that the courage of my family and the kindness of others I encountered may have augmented my will to live. The tragedy is that so many others didn’t survive, even given the same opportunity. In the end, this book is a tribute, a memorial, to those lost, and a celebration of the lives that endure.
JB: How difficult was it for you to write this novel? Did you ever have to stop, put your work aside, and return to it later?
VR: I relived all the losses and tragedies. There were times when I felt I might not be able to emerge from the despair. Some critics have said that I did not give enough detail of the violence, which I find astounding. As a writer, I feel you don’t need the graphic details to make a powerful story, or a powerful statement against atrocities. But more fundamentally, from a personal perspective, I don’t think it’s possible for a survivor, a sufferer of that atrocity, to go back and visit every memory at its most horrifying—that was never my purpose. If anything, I sought to make less audible the voice of violence and augment the voice of humanity.
JB: You and your mother arrived in the U.S. in 1981 as refugees. How did you keep your culture alive yet, at the same time, embrace American culture?
VR: It helps that I continue to speak my language, to read and write in Khmer. I feel I am a stronger person because I draw the richness from both cultures. I never relinquish one in order to embrace another.
JB: Have you given copies of the book to your Cambodian relatives? What do they think of your novel?
VR: One cousin from the royal family who also lost her father wrote to me to say that in 37 years she has still not found the courage to speak of that loss. So, in some way, I think everyone is finding a piece of themselves, a piece of their own history in this book.
JB: My father, a Vietnam veteran, often recalls the beauty of Vietnam. Your story made me fall in love with the Cambodian landscape. You bring its splendor to life, even in the midst of ugliness. I know you have been back to Cambodia with your family. How have the country and its people changed since you and your mother left?
VR: I often feel that Cambodia can make a poet out of you, in that you witness so much beauty and so much tragedy in the same moment. A beggar child in rags can offer you the most generous smile. Next to a dilapidated hut, there are stunning rice fields extending to the horizon, so much greenness, the possibility of plenitude. On the surface, much has changed in recent years. But on a deeper, more spiritual level, the will to survive despite adversity endures stubbornly, quietly. It is a country I feel is at once ancient yet constantly searching for a way to renew itself.
JB: People really connect to your story. There is a transcendent quality to storytelling, and your novel perfectly illustrates that. Has the reader reaction surprised you at all? Did you know while writing the story that you had such a wonderful book?
VR: Thank you so much! That’s very kind of you. It’s extraordinarily gratifying when a reader sees what I’m trying to achieve with the book. I set out to write this novel wanting to transcend that personal experience, to find something more universal. But I didn’t know whether I would succeed. I’m just so grateful for careful readers, because in their attention and attentiveness they not only show me what I’m able to achieve as a writer but they enlarge my understanding of the story by seeing beyond what I intended. That to me is a gift.
JB: Do you still love stories? If so, have you passed on your love of stories to your child?
VR: Oh yes! I love stories so much that if I could somehow live on them alone without the need for food or water, I would easily do that. There are some days when I’m so absorbed in writing or reading that I actually forget to eat. Stories can sustain me for a very long time. My daughter is an avid reader. She will often tell me to add a few more interesting details when she listens to me recount my writing day—I woke up, I wrote, I had cup of coffee, I wrote some more. Already she knows the importance of a rich description.
JB: When you are writing, what is a typical day like for you?
VR: I wake, I write, I drink endless coffee… I’m joking. I start early in the morning. Sometimes I move forward with the story. Sometimes I move backward, and I find myself pressing delete, delete… I try to work on whatever is most difficult in the first hours of the morning, when my mind is fresh. But really there’s no magic formula, no perfect routine. At least, I don’t think so. When I get it right, I feel brilliant. When I’m stuck, I think I’m cursed.
JB: What are you currently reading?
VR: A bit of many books. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Carry the One by Carol Anshaw. The Mute’s Soliloquy by Promoedya Ananta Toer. Love Letters from a Fat Man by Naomi Benaron.
JB: Who are your favorite authors and/or what are your favorite books?
VR: There are so many authors I adore. Gabriel García Marquez, Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Anaïs Nin, Amitav Ghosh, Romesh Gunesekera, Mario Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz, V.S. Naipaul, Isabel Allende, Chang-rae Lee, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, and of course Michael Ondaatje… I could go on for quite a long time!
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading In the Shadow of the Banyan?
VR: As a child living through a time of atrocity, it was the small glimpses of beauty that sustained me. I want my readers to see beauty where I saw it—in poetry and music, in the geography of a vanishing world, in the humanity of the people that inhabit it. In the Shadow of the Banyan is a reflection on family and love and language, the things that connects us as human beings.
JB: Are you working on anything new?
VR: Yes, when I find the time, I’m working on the thread of a second novel. I’m enamored with Cambodian folk music, particularly smoat, a kind of poetry sung in verse, often during funerals. I’m compelled by the idea that the dead need music as much as the living. So it will be a story of parallel lives and parallel loves.
JB: Sounds like another great book! Thanks, Vaddey, for a wonderful interview.