Almost two years after Vaddey Ratner made her New York Times bestselling debut with In the Shadow of the Banyan – her fictionalized account of her survival, as a young child, of the Khmer Rouge genocide that took most of her family along with some two million others – her bookish peregrinations continue. I caught up with Ratner during a few days in her suburban Washington, DC, home – just back from her Norwegian book launch in Oslo and heading out to another speaking engagement in Arizona. In between the frenzy of family duties and repacking her suitcase, she graciously answered questions with acuity and alacrity … and alas, not without tears from us both.
Although you arrived in the United States at age 11 not speaking English, you graduated high school as valedictorian and then summa cum laude from Cornell. What was your career after college? In other words, what did you do before you published your first book after age 40?
I never had what you’d call a “career” before the publication of In the Shadow of the Banyan, before I became an author. I was always writing, albeit in anonymity, and in that sense, I guess I’ve always been a writer. In the years right after Cornell, probably the only job worth mentioning was a short stint at the Asia Society in Washington, DC, where I answered the phone and membership inquiries. So in short, I went from being an over-achiever to lying low, under the radar, wanting desperately to write and yet fearing what that meant – a leap back into my traumatic past, the nightmare and complicated history.
Where did that inspiration and drive to be “always writing” originate?
Language itself, that alchemy of illusion and allusion. My ineradicable fascination with storytelling, its magical power to transform and elucidate and even mystify.
I suppose it’s safe to say that I wanted to be a writer as soon as I became aware of the written language, aware of the existence of books and the universes they contain – in other words, as soon as I learned to read and write, when I was around four or five years old. This was in Khmer, my native tongue. As a small child, I lived and breathed stories, searched for meanings in new words, in the tales I was told and the ones I overheard.
How and when did you decide to write Banyan? And after decades of experience far-removed from Cambodia, was the process of recovering your memories difficult? How did you prepare yourself to relive such horrors in order to write this book?
When I was living in Cambodia from 2005 to 2009, the realization came to me that the story I wanted to tell was larger than me, than my own life. With Banyan, I wanted to pay homage to our humanity – that part of us that not only survives but triumphs. I saw this everywhere in Cambodia. I still see it every time I return. Despite living in the shadow of genocide, people there possess a lightness of spirit that’s absolutely inspiring.
There is no way to really prepare oneself to write this kind of book. The tragedy and atrocity were not imagined nightmares but real ordeals I lived through. So to write it, I had to relive it. Every loss I endured as a child, I endured again and again each time I sat down to write. It was a heartbreaking story to tell because I not only had to invoke the past – a country’s violent history – but I had to delve into my family’s personal ordeals—our private tragedies. I mourned every memory I exhumed.
From the perspective of writing as a craft, it was an excruciating first project to take on. I had no formal training as a writer and had not published a single line to be able to confidently call myself a writer by virtue of experience. Still, I knew this was the story I had to write before I could even think about another. No matter how long it would take me, I thought, I would discipline myself to this one endeavor. After all, I’d survived those horrific events, when many in my family had not, so it was the least I could do – devote my life to remembering them. [... click here for more]
Author interview: “Q&A with Vaddey Ratner,” Bloom, March 5, 2014