Vaddey Ratner | "A memoir seems to somehow put too much focus on my own life and that’s not what I want to do with this book"

Vaddey Ratner | "A memoir seems to somehow put too much focus on my own life and that’s not what I want to do with this book"

Simon & Schuster describes In the Shadow of the 
Banyan as being based on a true story.

Author Vaddey Ratner (pronounced Va-day) was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975. In the novel, seven-year-old Raami’s privileged life in Phnom Penh is brought to an abrupt end when a Revolutionary soldier forcibly evicts her extended family from their home. Along with thousands of others they are sent to the countryside to work the land.

“Raami’s story parallels mine” says Ratner, over the phone from her home in Maryland (she arrived in the US as a refugee in 1981). “The ordeals that she endures, I endured as a child in Cambodia. From forced expulsion from home to the violence and destruction that she witnesses, to the separation from loved ones, the deaths of family members, starvation, the labour camps.”

An autobiographical novel then, but why a novel rather than a memoir? “A novel allows me to tell the story that I want to tell, a memoir I feel that I have to adhere to the idea of chronicling facts.”

She explains: “For me, a memoir seems to somehow put too much focus on my own life and that’s not what I want to do with this book. I feel that the fact that I survived this experience was rewarding enough. What I want to do is to give voice to those [who are] silent.” Indeed, Ratner’s motivation for writing In the Shadow of the Banyan was remembering her family: “My first and foremost goal was to honour the lives of those who perished. That was the guiding principle for me when writing this book.”

In the Shadow of the Banyan unfolds against the calamitous backdrop of revolution, war and genocide, but Ratner also describes it as “a story about love and hope and our desire for continuity in the stories we tell . . . a story about the power of storytelling”. Raami is sustained throughout her bitter struggle to survive by the myths, legends and poems she remembers hearing from her beloved father.

These ancient tales lace the novel with lyricism, and provide a counterpoint to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge—who forced millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms, an attempt to create a pre-industrial society which culminated in genocide.

Ratner and her mother eventually escaped and reached the US when she was 11 years old. As a young teenager she read Elie Wiesel’s Night, his account of surviving the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, which resonated deeply: “The voice of a survivor, I think I got it first from Elie Wiesel . . . it gave me the realisation that there is room in this world for this kind of story.”

But her desire to tell her own story began much earlier: “I think even as early as the experience—in the midst of it—I knew that one day I would have to tell the story.” Heart-breakingly, she says: “As a child I was so burdened by the fact that I survived, especially as I witnessed one family member after another being taken away.”

Ratner “found a way to tell the story” in 2008 when she went back to live in Cambodia with her husband and young daughter. Friends had long encouraged her to write but: “the idea of it being my story was something that didn’t sit well with me. It’s not my story I want to tell, it’s my family’s story, it’s our shared story.”

She found the process of writing “heartbreaking . . . I not only had to invoke the past, and a country’s violent history but I had to delve into my family’s personal ordeal. So every loss I experienced as a child, I experienced again and again. Every time I sat down to write I mourned every person, every ghost.”

It took her two years to write, drawing on her own memories which she discussed with her mother and also her knowledge of Cambodia’s political background gained from a degree in Asian Studies at Cornell.

When it came to finding an agent Ratner sent out 30 or so letters, and received a positive response within a fortnight. The novel was the subject of a heated six-way auction in the US with Simon & Schuster (US) eventually winning.

Ratner will not be visiting the UK on publication but S&S (UK) is confident of coverage in the nationals and is comparing it to A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Other Hand. Auction notwithstanding, finding the right editor was of paramount importance to Ratner. It was, she says, her greatest fear that the book would be taken on just as a “compelling life story”.

“I’ve worked so hard to be the writer that I am today and I wanted my writing to be able to stand on its own. It’s not about my own pride but that I want to honour those who are not here to speak for themselves. I want to honour the monumental sacrifices that were made to save me, with art. That is very, very important to me.”

Book data
Publication 13th September
Formats: £14.99 hb/£14.99 e-book
ISBNs: 9781849837583/613
Rights sold Five territories to date including the US (Simon & Schuster)
Editor Clare Hey, S&S UK
Agent Emma Sweeney, ESA, New York

Personal file
1970 Born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
1981 Arrived in the US as a refugee
1993–95 BA in Southeast Asian History and Comparative Literature, Cornell University
1996 Consultant translator for the World Bank, Washington DC
1996–97 Administration and programme assistant for the Asia Society, Washington DC