Told by Raami, a little girl who comes to maturity in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, In the Shadow of the Banyan is an unforgettable celebration of innocence and the transcendent power of narrative and the imagination. Vaddey Ratner’s stunning debut novel is a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.
In the Shadow of the Banyan is a novel, but it is based closely on your family’s experience during the Khmer Rouge regime. Why did you decide to write a novel rather than a memoir?
I did initially try to write it as a memoir. But sorting through my own memories and what my mother was able to share with me, as well as the historical record, I kept asking myself, ‘What is the story I want to tell? What is my purpose for telling it?’ It isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy. What I wanted to articulate is something more universal, more indicative, I believe, of the human experience – our struggle to hang onto life, our desire to live, even in the most awful circumstances.
The book shies away from detailing the more gruesome side of the Khmer Rouge regime. Why was this?
From the very beginning when I decided to write this book, I wanted it to be about the indissoluble love and bonds of family, about survival and hope, about beauty and magic – not the fantastical kind but beauty and magic in the everyday things we see. I was always clear that this would never be one of those war stories where brutality overwhelmed all else and manifested itself in its most awful, graphic details. I wanted this story to honour and give voice to the victims, the lives and spirits of those I loved, not enlarge the presence of atrocity and those who perpetrated it. Mine is a conscious decision to speak against inhumanity by dispossessing it of its power to silence other voices. In this story, just as it has been in life, humanity reveals itself at every turn, and, I believe, ultimately humanity will triumph.
Is it in Raami’s nature to see beauty where there is violence?
As for Raami’s nature, yes, she has an innate ability to see beauty even when it looks as if there is none. But this is not to say that she denies the grim reality. On the contrary, Raami, like myself as a child, sees beauty because she knows beauty exists, even when it is shielded from her by savagery and darkness. She knows, or more accurately, senses with her being, that it takes more than one’s nature or inclination but it takes determination, a consciously cultivated will, to find beauty and hang on to it.
Do you still find comfort in stories and storytelling?
I never lost my belief in the power of stories and storytelling to transcend. As a young child in Cambodia, like Raami, even when I chose silence, when muteness was preferable to speaking because I could not bear to express what I witnessed – all the horror and death around me – I would turn to the stories in my head for escape, for freedom. I would tell myself, in that silent language of the mute, the tales I had read and overheard. As an adult, a writer, I still turn to stories for escape and freedom, for redemption.
Raami’s father wanted to let Raami know that “life, with all its cruelty and horror, was still worth living”. While you have moved forward and made life successful, have you found rest in the shadow of the banyan?
Our past, our history can haunt us, but it is also what roots us and gives a sense of connection when we feel alone. I have often sought its shelter.