Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson joins Kojo to discuss her new memoir and explore how her experiences growing up in Chicago frame her perspectives about race and opportunity in the United States.
When Vaddey Ratner was five years old, her entire world was shattered. Members of Cambodia’s royalty, she and her family were targeted by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. They, along with millions of other Cambodians, were sent to labor camps, where many died. She and her mother survived, eventually immigrating to the U.S. We talk with her about making peace with the past and moving forward with purpose.
- Vaddey Ratner author, "In the Shadow of the Banyan"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen she was just five years old, Vaddey Ratner's whole world changed as the Khmer Rouge came to power in her native Cambodia. Members of her family, which is of royal descent, were among those forced from their homes and into labor camps. Millions, including her father and sister, did not survive, but Ratner aims to honor their memory and capture the beauty of her home country, evident even in its darkest hour.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn a new novel based on her experience, here to tell us about life in the shadow of the banyan and beyond is Vaddey Ratner. She is author of the aforementioned novel. It is her debut novel. She lives with her family in Potomac, Md. Vaddey Ratner, thank you for joining us.
MS. VADDEY RATNERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIYou have said that writing this book was excruciating at times because it brought back such painful memories. Did you ever waiver in your determination to write this novel?
RATNEROf course, many times, but I always have to go back to the reason for writing it. I had to tell myself that my purpose for writing it was to honor the memories of those who perished, those who are not here to speak of their hopes and dreams. It's -- for me, it's a project that required me to step out of my own individual pain, my own anguish and try to reach out for something bigger which was to articulate the sufferings of those who did not survive.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. In a way, was this -- writing this in a way therapy for you in order to deal with that pain and that grief?
RATNERIt was a reach for redemption. And it brought a deeper understanding. For me, sometimes, that is more important than peace. To be able to understand my past better gives me something to hang on to, some hope that out of that chaos I achieved something that is much more valuable.
NNAMDIPeople will likely want to know where your story and the story of Raami, the main character in the novel, overlap and where the stories differ.
RATNERYes. Well many, many things overlap. Her journey from beginning to end parallels my journey from a forced exodus from home to the countryside, the continuous separations and losses of the -- my experience with the labor camp, with starvation, the death of my sister, the disappearance of my father, the demise of many loved ones, the small details I felt that I could change in terms of collapsing some characters because the novel is a contained universe.
RATNERAnd the characters are there for a purpose. And some of those deaths, the manners in which they were perpetrated are so repetitive that I cannot possibly tell the same thing again and again. And so I -- when I create a composite character that's based on several family members, I try to reach for one particular unique experience.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Our guest is Vaddey Ratner. She is author of "In the Shadow of the Banyan." It's her debut novel. She lives in the Washington area in Potomac, Md. But if you or your family have ties to Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge, you'd like to call to share your experience, it's 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIDo you think it's important for stories of atrocities, like the reign of Khmer Rouge and, for that matter, the Holocaust, to be told through fiction? 800-433-8850. You are obviously very close to this story, Vaddey Ratner, but you also bring a writer's sensibility to this tale. How hard was it for you to find the right voice to tell the story?
RATNERWell, it took me almost 20 years. I mean, when...
NNAMDIThat's how long you've been conceived of...
RATNERYes, yes. Yes. The idea of turning it into a work of fiction -- the story, of course, has always been with me. It's the kind of story that I feel, as a writer, something that I had to tell. But I had to find a voice that I feel was much larger than my own individual voice. I wanted to tell this experience and reach a universality in terms of the experience of loss, the experience of tragedy, of confronting tragedy, of confronting violence.
RATNERI had to not only learn the English language, but I had to learn the language of a writer. And I struggle with both types of language to this day. I'm not completely comfortable in the language that I feel I acquired when I was -- when I had already been deeply rooted in the language of my native tongue.
NNAMDIYet you think and write in English today, don't you?
RATNERI think and write in English today, but I feel...
NNAMDIBut you feel…
RATNERYes, exactly. I feel in Khmer. I dream in Khmer. The language of the novel, a lot of people have commented on the lyricism and the poetry of this particular language. I wanted to achieve several things with the narrative voice of "In the Shadow of the Banyan." One was to capture the lyricism of my own language. Another thing was to juxtapose the poetry of a people's tongue against the rhetoric -- the ideological rhetoric of the...
NNAMDIOf the Khmer Rouge.
RATNER...yes, of a revolution of the Khmer Rouge. And, you know, as I was growing up in my adolescent years in America, one of the saddest things for me to witness, to hear, was the way my mother struggled with the English language. And I've always felt that no one saw what I saw, and my mother, the beauty of -- with which she speaks in her own native tongue.
RATNERAnd yet when she steps outside -- stepped outside of our home, she has this broken identity, spoke in this broken tongue. And this -- she came from this broken past and this broken history. And so I wanted to really capture the world -- my childhood world before it was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
NNAMDISome of the critics have said -- and you look at this in -- on the one hand through the eyes of a seven-year-old, but, on the other hand, through the eyes of an adult who may be used to be a seven-year-old at one point. And for those of us who have seen "The Killing Fields" and for those of us who have known of the carnage that occurred in Cambodia during that time, it's hard to imagine the effect it would have on a child. Can you talk a little bit about that?
RATNERYeah. It forces -- an experience like that forces you to grow up very quickly. And it forces you to gather something that I feel is central to survival, the ability to recognize right away the important things in life, the important people in life. You know, as a child, I gravitated, I felt that, you know, whatever innate intuition I had about people, I felt like that was honed in the circumstances of survival where I needed to depend on that intuition. The...
NNAMDIWhen you go from a life of relative privilege to a life where you are stripped bare of all of the -- everything except the necessities -- and in some cases almost of the necessities of life itself, and then after that, you escape and you have to deal with another culture, all of this can be found in the novel, "In the Shadow of the Banyan." We're talking with the author Vaddey Ratner.
NNAMDIThis is her debut novel, and we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. As I was saying, some reviews of the book seem to indicate that, on the one hand, it's seen through the eyes and the voice of a seven-year-old. But on the other, it's too adult, if you will, for a seven-year-old. How do you explain that?
RATNERWell, yes, yes. Well, as a writer, I do distinguish between perspective and voice. The novel is told through the perspective of a child, but it is in the voice of an adult. It is told -- the narrative voice is a voice that is in the past tense. This is told in the past tense, so -- and it's told in the first person, so we assume, when we open the novel, without realizing it, that this person has survived.
RATNERAnd now she is reflecting upon that experience again. But, you know, I didn't want the presence of this educated -- this mature adult to interfere with the innocence, the much more powerful, the nonjudgmental perspective of a child. And so I would ask readers when they read to distinguish that. As a writer, I do distinguish it very clearly that voice and perspective are completely two different things.
NNAMDIVaddey, in recent years, you have both visited and lived in Cambodia. What were your early visits like, and how did the experience of living there again help to shape this book?
RATNERThe very first time I went back to Cambodia after I had immigrated to the U.S., was actually in 1992. And that was very traumatic again returning to a land that I felt I had abandoned, and to some extent betrayed, because I left it for another. My mother cried and cried when she took me to the airport.
RATNERShe was very, very concerned for my safety because at that time the Khmer Rouge rebels still controlled some part of the country. While their regime had collapsed, they would not relinquish their hold on Cambodia. And there were random killings and kidnappings and so forth. But I was driven to find my father just in case he survived, just in case. And when I went back in 2005 to...
NNAMDIYou went back to live for a while.
RATNER...to live, my husband was offered a position in his organization. This is an organization that deals with rural development and poverty reduction. And he was asked to head the regional office in Cambodia. I didn't want to go back. To go back there to live is one thing. To go there to visit was a lot easier. But to go back to live, meaning you are putting yourself in not only close -- in proximity to the past, but you have to confront it and sometimes collide with it every single day of your time there.
NNAMDINevertheless, you found the experience rewarding.
RATNERIt was rewarding because it allowed me an opportunity to trust the country again, to trust this land, despite my years away, to reconnect with the landscape, with the people, with what I felt the elements -- all these aspect -- all these manifestations of the country, of the people, these things that saved me as a child.
NNAMDIOn now to Mae in Silver Spring, Md. Mae, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAEHi. I also wanted to thank the author for writing this book. My family escaped from the Khmer Rouge in '79, and I was the first to be born in the U.S. So it's through books like these that I get to learn a little bit more about what they went through 'cause it's a very tough time. And growing up, you know, they didn't talk about it, and if they did, they just broke down in tears all the time.
MAEAnd the first time I went back to Cambodia in 2002 was actually to look for twin girls that my -- we had lost touch with that my mom -- was separated from us, and I was struck, you know, in that search, in speaking with people, I was struck by the humbleness of the Cambodian people, by their great appreciation of life. And I just remember riding in a truck with a bunch of people as we were going to look for my sisters, and they're exchanging how they survived, like they're all war veterans.
MAEAnd one guy is saying, well, I walked from this town to this town. And, you know, people are commenting, oh, well, I walked this much further, and my mom, you know, joins in, and is like, well, I walked from here to here. And they're like oh, that's shorter, and she was like, yes, but I was pregnant.
MAESo I just want to thank you for writing the book, and I look forward to reading it and learning more about the experience, and thanking you for, you know, trying, as you just said, to put in that aspect of how much the people really have a love for each other as survivors together.
RATNERYes. Well, thank you for your comments. And, you know, you mentioned that your parents had a hard time talking about it. My mom, who survived with me, she -- it has always been very difficult for her to talk about it. Part of the reason why it took me so long to write this book was trying to get her to talk about those missing gaps in my own memory.
RATNERAnd, you know, sometimes I often find that when we meet each other, Cambodians, you know, as you were speaking earlier, there's this -- I started to, again, to get teary eyes. It's almost to me when I -- it seems almost to me, when I meet other Cambodians, that tears are simplest expression because I feel that we are crying now for all those years that we couldn't cry, and we are mourning the loss of those lives that we couldn't mourn. Thank you. Thank you.
NNAMDIOne can understand that, and Mae, thank you very much for your call. You talk about the importance of storytelling in this book. There's a line on page 103 that strikes on the importance of storytelling and the importance of perspective. If you don't mind me reading it...
NNAMDI...it says, "We've been talking about storytelling. How could there be many versions of the same story, many ways of telling it and how each version was a kind of manifestation as if the story itself was a living, evolving entity, a god capable of many guises." And a few pages later, the father picks up. "'Words, you see,' he said, looking at me again, 'allow us to make permanent what is essentially transient, turn a world filled with injustice and hurt into a place that is beautiful and lyrical, even if only on paper.'" It seems that's what you set out to do in this novel.
RATNERYes. Well, if I look at my history, just based on bare facts alone, I lost many, many people. And my father is forever gone, so I have to turn to stories to make him live again. I have to believe that he survived in the stories and in the storytelling.
NNAMDIBut I'll tell you one thing you found.
NNAMDIYour family lost all of the tokens of your life in Cambodia for coming to the U.S., or so you thought. But it's my understanding that your mother, who you credit for your survival, surprised you with a special gift on your wedding day and another when you published your book.
RATNERYes. Yes. On my wedding day, in 1993, she gave me this brooch that belonged to my grandmother, my (word?), as I called my grandmother then. It was a brooch that was given to my mother on her wedding day. So, again, here is something very tangible, but it has a history to it. It has a story to it, and then for...
NNAMDIYou only got about 20 seconds left.
RATNERYes. For the publication of my book, there's these diamonds that she had pried off of this gold, and the gold she bartered for food.
NNAMDIWell, your daughter is only 12, it's my understanding, but you have a gift coming some time soon, my dear.
NNAMDIVaddey Ratner is the author of "In the Shadow of the Banyan." It's her debut novel. Vaddey Ratner, thank you so much for joining us. Good look to you.
RATNERThank you. Thank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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