How does a person make sense of the brutalities of genocide? Can unspeakable atrocities be transformed into something redemptive?
These are the questions Vaddey Ratner struggled with while writing In the Shadow of the Banyan (Simon & Schuster), her debut novel, which tells the story of a family under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Ratner was five years old in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge came to power. As a child she witnessed horror after horror as millions of her countrymen were slaughtered in the Cambodian killing fields.
“Coming out of such an experience, I knew I wanted to tell the story one day,” Ratner says. Arriving in the U.S. when she was 11, she, her mother, and a half-sister were settled in Jefferson City, Mo. “When I first came to the U.S., I had the blessing of a lot of very good English teachers,” she says. “Despite the fact that I was just learning English, they really challenged me, from English classics to stories that came from the Jewish Holocaust experience.”
One book in particular, Elie Wiesel’s Night, was an inspiration. “I remember there was this one scene of a child being hanged, and Wiesel saw the face of his god in that child. That struck such a chord with me. I felt a part of the spirit of those who died. I know some people see only death in that experience, but as a child I saw the desire to live. I wanted to capture that. Wiesel’s Night gave me a language for a story that lived in me that I hadn’t yet learned to articulate.”
Michael Ondaatje was another inspiration, Ratner says. “I love his lyricism. I wanted to do the same thing, have the beauty of the language be something that sustained the reader even though the story itself is set in the context of revolution and war and violence.”
The novel form came to Ratner only after she had attempted to write a memoir, but, she says, memoirs are too focused on the writer’s own life. “I wanted to articulate the dreams and hopes of those whose lives were cut short. And I wanted to do it through art. I didn’t want the graphic details of the killings. I was motivated by the quiet human endeavor to survive under horrific circumstances. I wanted it to be as lyrical as possible.”
Ratner says that after her mother read the book, she kept calling to ask if her agent or editor or anyone else had cried when reading it. “I asked her why and she said, ‘I cried so much when reading it and wondered whether other people cried when reading it,’ and I told her, ‘Yes, everyone cried.’ ”
In the Shadow of the Banyan was the Simon & Schuster pick for the BEA Editors’ Buzz panel, discussed by v-p and executive editor Trish Todd.