Vaddey Ratner’s journey to writing In the Shadow of the Banyan (Simon & Schuster) begins with silence. When she was five years old, the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia. An estimated two million people died between 1975 and 1979 in the genocide—including all the members of Ratner’s family except her and her mother. They managed to get to a refugee camp over the Thai border when Ratner was nine. She was practicing a self-imposed silence when an immigration official forced her to tell her story or risk being sent back to Cambodia.

“It was a revelation for me. It left an impression that speaking about what had happened was not wrong if I do it in a way that is honorable and saves not only me but my mother,” says Ratner.

Ratner and her mother emigrated to the U.S., living first in Missouri and later Minnesota. Now in Maryland, Ratner carried the need to tell the story of what they had endured, but it was going to Cambodia for her husband’s job that unlocked the right approach. She wrote a novel using the perspective of seven-year-old Raami.

“It’s not the graphic details that leave in me a sense of wanting to do something,” she explains. “It’s the way an author uses language to hint at one’s faith in humanity that stirs me to action.”

Executive editor Trish Todd, who acquired the novel from Emma Sweeney of the Emma Sweeney Agency, calls it “an important debut.” She says, “Vaddey’s an amazing soul—she’s come out of this experience a survivor with forgiveness and love in her heart. And she’s a brilliant writer.”