For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. Over the next four years, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father—and fights for her improbable survival. Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a brilliantly wrought tale of hope and transcendence.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.50(w) x 9.50(h) x 2.00(d)|
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In the Shadow of the Banyan
War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his. I heard the door open and shut with a soft click. I slid off my bed, careful not to wake Radana in her crib, and snuck out of my room. I pressed my ear to the door and listened.
“Are you all right?” Mama sounded concerned.
Each day before dawn, Papa would go out for a solitary stroll, and returning an hour or so later, he would bring back with him the sights and sounds of the city, from which would emerge the poems he read aloud to me. This morning, though, it seemed he came back as soon as he’d stepped out, for dawn had just arrived and the feel of night had yet to dissipate. Silence trailed his every step like the remnant of a dream long after waking. I imagined him lying next to Mama now, his eyes closed as he listened to her voice, the comfort it gave him amidst the clamor of his own thoughts.
“Nothing, darling,” Papa said.
“What is it?” she persisted.
A deep, long sigh, then finally he said, “The streets are filled with people, Aana. Homeless, hungry, desperate . . .” He paused, the bed creaked, and I imagined him turning to face her, their cheeks on the same long pillow, as I’d often seen. “The miseries—”
“No matter what awfulness is out there,” Mama cut in gently, “I know you will take care of us.”
A breathless silence. I imagined her lips pressed against his. I blushed.
“There!” she exclaimed, the insouciant ring and chime of her voice returning. Then came the sound of slatted shutters being opened, like wooden birds released, suddenly taking flight. “The sun is brilliant!” she enthused, and with these easy words chased away the morning’s gravity, threw “Nothing” back out the gates like a stray cat that had clawed its way onto Papa’s shoulder.
A shaft of light fell on the front of the house and spilled into the open hallway from the balcony. I imagined it a celestial carpet thrown from the heavens by a careless tevoda—an angel. I ran toward it, my steps unencumbered by the metal brace and shoes I normally wore to correct the limp in my right leg.
Outside, the sun rose through the luxuriant green foliage of the courtyard. It yawned and stretched, like an infant deity poking its long multiple arms through the leaves and branches. It was April, the tail end of the dry season, and it was only a matter of time before the monsoon arrived, bringing with it rains and relief from the heat and humidity. Meanwhile the whole house was hot and stuffy, like the inside of a balloon. I was slick with sweat. Still, New Year was coming, and after all the waiting and wondering, we’d finally have a celebration!
“Up, up, up!” came a cry from the cooking pavilion. It was Om Bao, her voice as voluminous as her ample figure, which resembled an overstuffed burlap rice sack.
“Pick up your lazy heads!” she clucked urgently. “Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
I ran around the balcony to the side of the house and saw her roll back and forth between the women’s lower house and the cooking pavilion, her sandals smacking the dirt with impatience. “Wash your faces, brush your teeth!” she ordered, clapping as she chased a row of sleepy servant girls to the clay vats lining the wall outside the cooking pavilion. “Oey, oey, oey, the sun has risen and so should your behinds!” She whacked one of the girls on the bottom. “You’ll miss the Tiger’s last roar and the Rabbit’s first hop!”
The Tiger and the Rabbit were lunar years, one ending and the other beginning. Khmer New Year is always celebrated in April, and this year—1975—it was to fall on the seventeenth, just a few days away. In our house, preparations would customarily begin long in advance for all the Buddhist ceremonies and garden parties thrown during the celebration. This year, because of the fighting, Papa didn’t want us to celebrate. New Year was a time of cleansing, he reminded us, a time of renewal. And as long as there was fighting in the countryside, driving refugees into our city streets, it would be wrong for us to be celebrating anything. Fortunately, Mama disagreed. If there was a time to celebrate, she argued, it was now. A New Year’s party would chase away all that was bad and usher in all that was good.
I turned and caught a glimpse of Mama standing in the corner of the balcony just outside her bedroom, lifting her hair to cool the nape of her neck. Slowly she let the strands fall in gossamer layers down the length of her back. A butterfly preening herself. A line from one of Papa’s poems. I blinked. She vanished.
I rushed to the broom closet at the back of the house, where I’d hidden my brace and shoes the day before, pretending I’d lost track of them so I wouldn’t have to suffer them in this heat. Mama must’ve suspected, for she said, Tomorrow then. First thing in the morning you must put them on. I’m sure you’ll find them by then. I pulled them out of the closet, strapped on the brace as quickly as possible, and slipped on the shoes, the right one slightly higher than the left to make my legs equal in length.
“Raami, you crazy child!” a voice called out to me as I clomped past the half-open balcony door of my bedroom. It was Milk Mother, my nanny. “Come back inside this minute!”
I froze, expecting her to come out and yank me back into the room, but she didn’t. I resumed my journey, circling the balcony that wrapped itself around the house. Where is she? Where’s Mama? I ran past my parents’ room. The slatted balcony doors were wide open, and I saw Papa now sitting in his rattan chair by one of the windows, notebook and pen in hand, eyes lowered in concentration, impervious to his surroundings. A god waxing lyrical out of the silence . . . Another line from another of his poems, which I always thought described him perfectly. When Papa wrote, not even an earthquake could disturb him. At present, he certainly took no notice of me.
There was no sign of Mama. I looked up and down the stairway, over the balcony railings, through the open doorway of the citrus garden. She was nowhere to be seen. It was as I’d suspected all along—Mama was a ghost! A spirit that floated in and out of the house. A firefly that glowed and glimmered, here one second, gone the next. And now she’d vanished into thin air! Zrup! Just like that.
“Do you hear me, Raami?”
Sometimes I wished Milk Mother would just disappear. But, unlike Mama, she was always around, constantly watching over me, like one of those geckos that scaled the walls, chiming, Tikkaer, tikkaer! I felt her, heard her from every corner of the house. “I said come back!” she bellowed, rattling the morning peace.
I made a sharp right, ran down the long hallway through the middle of the house, and finally ended up back at the spot on the balcony in the front where I had started. Still no Mama. Hide-and-seek, I thought, huffing and puffing in the heat. Hide-and-seek with a spirit was no easy game.
Pchkhooo! An explosion sounded in the distance. My heart thumped a bit faster.
“Where are you, you crazy child?” again came Milk Mother’s voice.
I pretended not to hear her, resting my chin on the carved railing of the balcony. A tiny pale pink butterfly, with wings as delicate as bougainvillea petals, flew up from the gardens below and landed on the railing, near my face. I stilled myself. It heaved as if exhausted from its long flight, its wings opening and closing, like a pair of fans waving away the morning heat. Mama? In one of her guises? No, it was what it appeared to be—a baby butterfly. So delicate it seemed to have just emerged from a chrysalis. Maybe it was looking for its mother, I thought, just as I was for mine. “Don’t worry,” I whispered. “She’s here somewhere.” I moved my hand to pet it, to reassure it, but it flew away at my touch.
In the courtyard something stirred. I peered down and saw Old Boy come out to water the gardens. He walked like a shadow; his steps made no sound. He picked up the hose and filled the lotus pond until the water flowed over the rim. He sprayed the gardenias and orchids. He sprinkled the jasmines. He trimmed the torch gingers and gathered their red flame-like blossoms into a bouquet, which he tied with a piece of vine and then set aside, as he continued working. Butterflies of all colors hovered around him, as if he were a tree stalk and his straw hat a giant yellow blossom. Om Bao suddenly appeared among them, coquettish and coy, acting not at all like our middle-aged cook but a young girl in the full bloom of youth. Old Boy broke a stem of red frangipani blossoms, brushed it against her cheek, and handed it to her.
“Answer me!” Milk Mother thundered.
Om Bao scurried away. Old Boy looked up, saw me, and blushed. But finding his bearings right away, he took off his hat and, bowing at the waist, offered me a sampeah, palms together like a lotus in front of his face, a traditional Cambodian greeting. He bowed because he was the servant and I his master, even though he was ancient and I was, as Milk Mother put it, “just a spit past seven.” I returned Old Boy’s sampeah, and, unable to help myself, bowed also. He flashed me his gappy grin, perhaps sensing his secret would be safe.
Someone was coming. Old Boy turned in the direction of the footsteps.
She made her way toward him, her steps serene, unhurried. A rainbow gliding through a field of flowers . . . Again a line fluttered through my mind. Though I was no poet, I was the daughter of one and often saw the world through my father’s words.
“Good morning, my lady,” Old Boy said, gaze lowered, hat held against his chest.
She returned his greeting and, looking at the lotuses, said, “It is so hot and now they’ve closed again.” She sighed. Lotuses were her favorite blossoms, and even though they were flowers for the gods, Mama always asked for an offering to herself every morning. “I was hoping to have at least one open bloom.”
“And you shall, my lady,” Old Boy reassured. “I cut some before dawn and placed them in iced water so that the petals stay open. I shall bring up the vase to your room when His Highness finishes composing.”
“I can always count on you.” She beamed at him. “Also, would you make a bouquet of the closed buds for me to take to the temple?”
“As you wish, my lady.”
Again, Old Boy bowed, keeping his gaze lowered until she’d floated past him. She ascended the stairs, her right hand pressed on the flap of her silk sampot to keep her steps small and modest. At the top, she stopped and smiled at me. “Oh good, you found your brace and shoes!”
“I’ve practiced walking slowly in them!”
She laughed. “Have you?”
“One day I want to walk like you!”
Mama’s face went still. She glided over to me and, bending down to my level, said, “I don’t care how you walk, darling.”
It wasn’t the pinch of the brace or the squeeze of the shoes, or even what I saw when I looked in the mirror that pained me the most. It was the sadness in Mama’s eyes when I mentioned my leg. For this reason, I rarely brought it up.
“No, I don’t . . . I’m grateful you can walk at all.”
She smiled, her radiance returning.
I stood still and held my breath, thinking if I so much as breathed, she’d disappear. She bent down again and kissed the top of my head, her hair spilling over me like monsoon rain. I took my chance and breathed in her fragrance—this mystery she wore like perfume. “It’s good to see that someone is enjoying this stifling air,” she said, laughing, as if my oddness was as much an enigma to her as her loveliness was to me. I blinked. She glided away, her entire being porous as sunlight.
Poetry is like that, Papa said. It can come to you in an intake of breath, vanish again in the blink of an eye, and first all you’ll have is
A line weaving through your mind
Like the tail of a child’s kite
Unfettered by reason or rhyme.
Then, he said, comes the rest—the kite, the story itself. A complete entity.
“Oey, oey, oey, there’s not a minute to waste!” Om Bao rattled on from below. “The floor must be mopped and waxed, the carpets dusted and sunned, the china arranged, the silver polished, the silk smoothed and perfumed. Oey, oey, oey, so much to do, so much to do!”
The branches of the banyan tree in the middle of the courtyard stirred and the leaves danced. Some of the branches were so long they reached all the way to the balcony, the shadows of their leaves covering my body like patches of silk. I twirled, arms stretched out, mumbling an incantation to myself, calling forth the tevodas, “Skinny One, Plump One . . .”
“And just what are you doing?”
I swung around. There was Milk Mother in the doorway with Radana on her hip. Radana squirmed down to the floor and immediately started stomping on the shadows with her chubby feet, the tiny, diamond-studded bells on her anklets jingling chaotically. It was normal for Cambodian children to be covered with expensive jewelry, and my much-adored toddling sister was bedecked in the most extravagant way, with a platinum necklace and a tiny pair of hoop earrings to match her anklets. This was not a child, I thought. She was a night bazaar!
As she toddled around, I pretended she had polio and a limp like me. I knew I shouldn’t wish it on her, but sometimes I couldn’t help it. Despite her bumbling and babyness, you could already tell Radana would grow up to look just like Mama.
“Eeei!” she squealed, catching a glimpse of Mama floating through one of the doorways and, before Milk Mother could stop her, she ran jingling through the hallway, calling out, “Mhum mhum mhum . . .”
Milk Mother turned back to me and asked again, with obvious annoyance, “Just what are you doing?”
“Summoning the tevodas,” I told her, grinning from ear to ear.
“Yes, I’d like to meet them this year.”
No one ever met the tevodas, of course. They were spirits and, as with all things spectral, they lived in our imaginations. Milk Mother’s tevodas—at least as she’d described them to me—sounded suspiciously familiar. With names like Skinny One, Plump One, and Dark One, I’d say she was describing herself, Om Bao, and Old Boy. By contrast, my tevodas looked nothing like me, but were as lovely as court dancers, wearing their finest silk and diadems with spires reaching all the way to the sky.
Milk Mother wasn’t listening to me, her ear tuned to a different kind of noise. Pchkooo! Again, the tremor of an explosion. She strained to hear, her head tilted in the direction of the din.
The explosions worsened. Pchkooo pchkooo pchkooo! A series of them now, just as I’d heard in the night.
Turning to me, Milk Mother said, “Darling, I don’t think you should put too much hope on the tevodas coming this year.”
She took a deep breath, seemed about to explain, but then said, “Did you wash yet?”
“No—but I was about to!”
She shot me a disapproving look and, nodding in the direction of the bath pavilion, said impatiently, “Go on then.”
“No arguing. Grandmother Queen will join the family for breakfast, and you, my bug, cannot be late.”
“Oh no, Grandmother Queen! Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I was trying to, but you kept running away.”
“But I didn’t know! You should’ve told me!”
“Well, that’s why I called and called—to tell you.” She heaved, exasperated. “Enough lingering. Go. Get ready. Try to look and behave like the princess that you are.”
I took a step, then turned back. “Milk Mother?”
“Do you believe in tevodas?”
She didn’t answer right away, just stood there and looked at me. Then finally she said, “What can you believe in if not the tevodas?”
I went down the front steps. That was all I needed to hear. The rest was easy to figure out. They were things I could see and touch—lotuses opening their petals, spiders weaving tiny silvery hammocks on wispy branches, slugs slipping through watered green grass . . .
“Raami.” Looking up, I saw Milk Mother leaning over the balcony railing. “Why are you still dawdling?”
I placed one foot in front of the other, swaying my hips slightly. “I’m practicing my walk.”
“For what—an earthworm contest?”
“To be a lady—like Mama!”
I broke a sprig of jasmine blossoms from a nearby bush and tucked it behind my ear, imagining myself as pretty as Mama. Radana appeared out of nowhere and stood in front of me. She cooed, transfixed for a second or two, and then, as if deciding I didn’t look anything like Mama, bounced off. Where are you? I heard Mama sing. I’m going to get you . . . Radana shrieked. They were playing hide-and-seek. I had polio when I was one and couldn’t walk until I was three. I was certain Mama and I didn’t play hide-and-seek when I was a baby.
From above, Milk Mother let out an exasperated sigh: “For heaven’s sake, enough lingering!”
• • •
Later that morning, in an array of brightly colored silks that almost outshone the surrounding birds and butterflies, we gathered in the dining pavilion, an open teak house with a hardwood floor and pagoda-like roof, which stood in the middle of the courtyard among the fruit and flower trees. Again, Mama had transformed herself, this time from a butterfly to a garden. Her entire being budded with blossoms. She had changed into a white lace blouse and a sapphire phamuong skirt, dotted with tiny white flowers. Her tresses, no longer loose, were now pulled back in a chignon tied with a ring of jasmine. A champak blossom, slender as a child’s pinkie, dangled on a single silk thread down the nape of her neck; when she moved to adjust herself or to reach for this or that, the blossom slid and rolled, smooth as ivory on her skin.
Beside her, in my metal brace and clunky shoes and a ruffled blue dress, I felt ungainly and stilted, like a sewing dummy on a steel post, hastily swathed in fabric. As if this wasn’t humiliating enough already, my stomach wouldn’t stop rumbling. How much longer would we have to wait?
At last, Grandmother Queen—“Sdechya,” as we called her in Khmer—appeared on the balcony, leaning heavily on Papa’s arm. She slowly descended the stairs, and we all rushed to greet her, queuing on bended knees in order of importance, heads bowed, palms joined in front of our chests, fingertips grazing our chins. She paused near the bottom and, one by one, we each scooted forward and touched our forehead to her feet. Then we trailed her to the dining pavilion and claimed our appropriate seats.
Before us was an array of food—lotus seed porridge sweetened with palm sugar, sticky rice with roasted sesame and shredded coconut, beef noodle soup topped with coriander leaves and anise stars, mushroom omelets, and slices of baguette—a dish to suit everyone’s morning taste. At the center of the table sat a silver platter of mangoes and papayas, which Old Boy had picked from the trees behind our house, and rambutans and mangosteens, which Om Bao had brought from her early morning trip to the market. Breakfast was always an extravagant affair when Grandmother Queen decided to join us. She was a high princess, as everyone constantly reminded me so that I would remember how to behave around my own grandmother.
I waited for Grandmother Queen to take her first bite before I lifted the cover off my soup bowl; when I did, steam rose like a hundred fingers tickling my nose. Tentatively, I brought a spoonful of hot broth to my lips.
“Be careful,” Mama said from across the table as she unfolded her napkin and laid it across her lap. “You don’t want to burn your tongue.” She smiled.
I stared at her, mesmerized. Maybe I had seen a New Year’s tevoda after all.
“I thought I’d visit the temple in Toul Tumpong after breakfast,” she said. “My sister will send her chauffeur. I’ll go with her, so our car is free if you’d like to venture out.” She was speaking to Papa.
But he was reading the newspaper, his head slightly cocked to one side. In his usual muted attire of brown wraparound pants and beige achar shirt, Papa was as solemn as Mama was radiant. He reached for the cup in front of him and began to sip the hot coffee mixed with condensed milk. Already he’d forgotten the rest of his breakfast as he immersed himself in the news. He hadn’t heard Mama at all.
She sighed, letting it go, determined to be in a good mood.
At one end of the table, Tata offered, “It’ll be nice for you to get out a bit.” Tata was Papa’s elder sister—half sister actually, from Grandmother Queen’s first marriage to a Norodom prince. “Tata” was not her real name, but apparently when I was a baby, I came to identify her as my “tata.” The name stuck and now everyone called her this, even Grandmother Queen, who, at the moment, reigned at the other end of the table, blissfully ensconced in old age and dementia. I’d come to believe that because she was a high princess—Preah Ang Mechas Ksatrey—Grandmother Queen was more difficult to grasp than the tevodas. As a “queen” who ruled this family, she was certainly unreachable most of the time.
“I shouldn’t be long,” Mama said. “Just a prayer and I’ll be back. It doesn’t seem right to start the New Year without offering a prayer first.”
Tata nodded. “The party is a very good idea, Aana.” She looked around, seeming pleased with the start of the day, noting the preparations being made for the celebration to take place on New Year’s Day.
In the cooking pavilion, Om Bao had started steaming the first batch of the traditional New Year’s num ansom, sticky rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. These we would give out to friends and neighbors during the coming days as each batch was made. On the balcony of the master house, the servant girls worked on their hands and knees waxing the floor and railings. They dripped beeswax from burning candles and rubbed it into the teakwood. Below them Old Boy was sweeping the ground. He had dusted and wiped the spirit house so that now it stood sparkling on its golden pedestal under the banyan tree like a miniature Buddhist temple. Several long strands of jasmine adorned its tiny pillars and the spire on its roof, and in front of its entrance, a clay pot filled with raw rice grains held three sticks of incense, an offering to the three pillars of protection—the ancestors, the tevodas, and the guardian spirits. They were all there, watching over us, keeping us out of harm’s way. We had nothing to fear, Milk Mother always said. As long as we remained within these walls, the war could not touch us.
“I couldn’t sleep a wink.” Again Tata spoke, spooning brown sugar from a small bowl and sprinkling it on her sticky rice. “The heat was awful last night and the shelling was the worst it’s ever been.”
Mama put down her fork gently, trying not to show her exasperation. I knew, though, what she was thinking—Couldn’t we talk about something else? But being the sister-in-law, and a commoner among royals, she couldn’t speak out of turn, tell Tata what to say or not to say, choose the topic of a conversation. No, that would be graceless. Our family, Raami, is like a bouquet, each stem and blossom perfectly arranged, she’d tell me, as if to convey that how we carried ourselves was not simply a game or ritual but a form of art.
Tata turned to Grandmother Queen sitting at the other end of the table. “Don’t you think so, Mechas Mae?” she asked, speaking the royal language.
Grandmother Queen, half deaf and half daydreaming, said, “Eh?”
“The shelling!” Tata repeated, almost shouting. “Didn’t you think it was awful?”
I suppressed a giggle. Talking with Grandmother Queen was like talking through a tunnel. No matter what you said, all you could hear were your own words echoing back.
Papa looked up from his newspaper and was about to say something when Om Bao stepped into the dining pavilion, bearing a silver tray with glasses of the chilled basil-seed drink she made for us every morning. She placed a glass before each of us. Resting the tip of my nose on the glass, I inhaled the sweet ambrosia. Om Bao called her drink—a mixture of soaked basil seeds and cane sugar in ice-cold water, scented with jasmine flowers—“little girls hunting for eggs.” When Old Boy picked the blossoms earlier they had been tightly closed, but now they opened up like the skirts of little girls with their heads dipped in water—hunting for eggs! It hadn’t occurred to me before, but the basil seeds did look like transparent fish eggs. I beamed into the glass, delighted by my discovery.
“Sit up straight,” Mama ordered, no longer offering me a smile.
I sat up straight, pulling my nose back. Papa glanced at me, mouthing his sympathy. He took a small sip from his glass and, looking up in surprise, exclaimed, “Om Bao! Have you lost your sweet touch?”
“I’m terribly sorry, Your Highness . . .” She looked nervously from Papa to Mama. “I’ve been trying to cut down on the cane sugar. We don’t have much left, and it is so hard to find at the market these days.” She shook her head in distress. “Your servant humbly regrets it’s not so sweet, Your Highness.” When nervous, Om Bao tended to be overly formal and loquacious. “Your servant humbly regrets” sounded even more stilted, when across the table from His Highness, I was lapping up my soup like a puppy. “Would Your Highness—”
“No, this is just right.” Papa drank it up. “Delicious!”
Om Bao smiled, her cheeks expanding like the rice cakes steaming away in the kitchen. She bowed, and bowed again, her bulbous behind bobbing, as she walked backward until she reached a respectful distance before turning around. At the steps of the cooking pavilion, Old Boy relieved her of the emptied tray, quick as always to help her with any task. At the moment he seemed unusually agitated. Perhaps he was worried that I’d revealed his and Om Bao’s morning canoodling to Grandmother Queen, who forbade such displays of affection. Om Bao patted his arm reassuringly. No, no, don’t worry, she seemed to say. He turned toward me, obviously relieved. I winked. And for the second time this morning, he offered me his gappy grin.
Papa had resumed reading. He flipped the newspaper back and forth, making soft snapping noises with the pages. I tilted my head to read the headline on the front page: “Khmer Krahom Encircle City.”
Khmer Krahom? Red Khmers? Who had ever heard of that? We were all Cambodians—or “Khmers,” as we called ourselves. I imagined people, with their bodies painted bright red, invading the city, scurrying about the streets like throngs of stinging red ants. I laughed out loud, almost choking on my basil-seed drink.
Mama gave me another warning look, her annoyance now easily piqued. It seemed the morning hadn’t gone in the direction she wanted. All anyone wanted to talk about was the war. Even Om Bao had alluded to it when she mentioned how hard it was to find cane sugar at the market.
I hid my face behind the glass, hiding my thoughts behind the little floating jasmine skirts. Red Khmers, Red Khmers, the words sang in my head. I wondered what color Khmer I was. I glanced at Papa and decided whatever he was, I was too.
“Papa, are you a Red Khmer?” It came out of me like an unexpected burp.
Tata set her glass down with a bang. The whole courtyard fell silent. Even the air seemed to have stopped moving. Mama glared at me, and when a tevoda glared at you like that, you’d better hide or risk burning.
I wished I could dip my head in the basil-seed drink and look for fish eggs.
• • •
The afternoon arrived, and it was too hot to do anything. All preparations for New Year came to a halt. The servant girls had stopped cleaning and were now combing and braiding one another’s hair on the steps of the cooking pavilion. Seated on the long, expansive teak settee under the banyan tree, Grandmother Queen leaned against the giant trunk, her eyes partly closed as she waved a round palm fan in front of her face. At her feet, Milk Mother sat swinging Radana in a hammock lowered from the branches of the tree. She pushed the hammock with one hand and scratched my back with the other as I rested my head on her lap. Alone in the dining pavilion, Papa sat on the floor writing in the leather pocket notebook he always carried with him, his back against one of the carved pillars. Beside him the radio was playing the classical pinpeat music. Milk Mother began to doze off as she listened to the chiming melodies. But I wasn’t sleepy, and neither was Radana. She kept sticking her face out of the hammock, wanting me to play with her. “Fly!” she squealed, reaching out for my hand. “I fly!” When I tried to grab her wrist, she pulled it back, giggling and clapping. Milk Mother opened her eyes, slapped my hand away, and gave Radana her pacifier. Radana lay back down in the hammock, sucking the pacifier like a piece of candy. Grandmother Queen clucked her tongue in encouragement, perhaps wishing she too had something to suck on.
Soon all three were asleep. Grandmother Queen’s fan stopped waving, Milk Mother’s hand rested on my back, and Radana’s right leg hung out of the hammock, fat and still, like a bamboo shoot, the bells on her anklet soundless.
Mama appeared in the courtyard, having returned from her trip to the temple, which took longer than she’d planned. Quietly, so as not to wake us, she climbed the few short steps to the dining pavilion and sat down next to Papa, resting her arm on his thigh. Papa put down his notebook and turned to her. “She didn’t mean it, you know. It was an innocent question.”
He was talking about me. I lowered my eyelids, just enough to make them believe I was asleep.
Papa continued, “Les Khmers Rouges, Communists, Marxists . . . Whatever we adults call them, they’re just words, funny sounds to a child, that’s all. She doesn’t know who they are or what these words mean.”
I tried repeating the names in my head—Les Khmers Rouges . . . Communists . . . They sounded so fancy and elliptical, like the names of mythical characters in the tales of the Reamker I never tired of reading, the devarajas, who were descendants of the gods, or the demon rakshasas, who fought them and fed on fat children.
“Once you shared their aspirations,” Mama said, head resting on Papa’s shoulder. “Once you believed in them.”
I wondered what kind of race they were.
“No, not them. Not the men, but the ideals. Decency, justice, integrity . . . I believed in these and always will. Not only for myself but for our children. All this”—he looked around the courtyard—“will come and go, Aana. Privileges, wealth, our titles and names are transient. But these ideals are timeless, the core of our humanity. I want our girls to grow up in a world that allows them, if nothing else, these. A world without such ideals is madness.”
“What about this madness?”
“I hoped so much it wouldn’t come to this.” He sighed and went on. “Others abandoned us long ago at the first sign of trouble. And now so have the Americans. Alas, democracy is defeated. And our friends will not stay for its execution. They left while it was still possible, and who could blame them?”
“What about us?” Mama asked. “What will happen to our family?”
Papa was silent. Then, after what seemed like a long time, he said, “It’s extremely difficult at this juncture, but I can still arrange to send you and the family to France.”
“Me and the family? What about you?”
“I will stay. As bad as it looks, there’s still hope.”
“I will not leave without you.”
He looked at her, then, leaning over, kissed the nape of her neck, his lips lingering for a moment, drinking her skin. One by one he began to remove the flowers from her hair, loosening it and letting it spread across her shoulders. I held my breath, trying to make myself invisible. Without saying more, they stood up, walked toward the front stairway, climbed the newly polished steps, and disappeared into the house.
I looked around the teak settee. Everyone was still asleep. I heard droning in the distance. The drone grew louder, until it became deafening. My heart pounded, and my ears throbbed. I looked up, squinting past the red tile roof of the master house, past the top of the banyan tree, past a row of tall skinny palms lining the front gate. Then I saw it! Way up in the sky, like a large black dragonfly, its blade slicing the air, tuktuktuktuktuk . . .
The helicopter started to descend, drowning out all other sounds. I stood up on the teak settee to better see it. All of a sudden it swooped back up and went the other way. I stretched my neck, trying to see past the gate. But it was gone. Zrup! Vanished completely, as if it had only been a thought, an imagined dot in the sky.
PCHKOOO!!! PCHKOOO!!! PCHKOOO!!!
The ground shook under me.
What People are Saying About This
Vividly told . . . a message of hope and [a] reminder of the depth of human spirit. Stories like this reach deep inside us and are, dare I say, life-changing?Bookreporter.com
Vaddey Ratner's novel is ravishing in its ability to humanize and personalize the Cambodian genocide of the 1970's. She makes us look unflinchingly at the evil that humankind is capable of, but she gives us a child to hold our handan achingly believable childso that we won't be overwhelmed. As we have passed from one century of horrors and been plunged into a new century giving us more of the same, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a truly important literary event.Robert Olen Butler (author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain)
For all the atrocities witnessed and hardships experienced, Ratner's story is filled to an even larger extent with opportunism and beauty. Ratner's gift is her exquisite descriptions of the careful details of daily life . . . Ratner describes her desire to memorialize the loved ones she lost with an enduring work of art. She has done just that; hers is a beautiful tale with considerable poetry and restraint. In the Shadow of the Banyan is an important novel, written by a survivor with unexpected grace and eloquence.Audrey
In the Shadow of the Banyan is one of the most extraordinary and beautiful acts of storytelling I have ever encountered. . . . This book pulls off the unsettling feat of beingat the same timeutterly heartbreaking and impossibly beautiful. There are some moments in this story that are among the most powerful in literature. This is a masterpiece that takes us to the highs and lows of what human beings can do in this life, and it leaves us, correspondingly, both humbled and ennobled.Chris Cleave (author of Little Bee)
Words . . . turn a world filled with injustice and hurt into a place that is beautiful and lyrical,' says Vaddey Ratner's father in her stunning debut novel, and this is exactly what she has accomplished. Ratner has managed to conflate a child's magical and indomitable hope with the horrific experience of the Khmer Rouge genocide to create a work that at once both deeply wounds and profoundly uplifts. With lyrical and breathtaking prose, Ratner plunges us into the midst of the nightmare that was thrust upon her, and yet, even amidst the darkness of starvation and violence, she never abandons us to despair. She always offers us the glimmering thread of hope and of love. She offers us wings. In a book rich with Buddhist teachings, the mythology of Cambodia, and the natural beauty of her world, Ratner weaves a moving tribute not only to her father and family but to victims of all genocidespast, present, and future.Naomi Benaron (author of Running the Rift)
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for In the Shadow of the Banyan includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Vaddey Ratner. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
“To keep you is no gain, to kill you is no loss.” For seven-year-old Raami, the collapse of her childhood world begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours, bringing details of the upheaval that has overwhelmed the streets of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. It is April 1975, and the civil war between the U.S.-backed government and the Khmer Rouge insurgency has reached its climax. As Raami plays in the magical world of her family’s estate, she is intrigued by the adults’ hushed exchanges that pit hopes for the long-awaited peace against fears that this might be the end of the life they know, a life protected and cushioned by their royal lineage. On the morning of the lunar New Year, a young soldier dressed in the black of the Revolution invades that world of carefully guarded privilege. Within hours, Raami and her family join a mass exodus as the new Khmer Rouge regime evacuates Cambodia’s cities.
Over the next four years, as she endures the tragic deaths and violent executions of friends and family members, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her childhood—the magical tales and poems she learned from her father. Whenever Raami comes close to giving up hope, she looks up at the moon and recalls the intricate tales that her father created for her, stories of fortitude and love that instilled the values that will keep her alive.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. According to the prophecy that Grandmother Queen tells Raami at the beginning of the novel, “There will remain only so many of us as rest in the shadow of a banyan tree.” What does the prophecy mean to Raami when she first hears it? How does her belief in the prophecy change by the end of the novel? After reading, what does the title of this novel mean to you?
2. Tata tells Raami, “The problem with being seven—I remember myself at that age—is that you’re aware of so much, and yet you understand so little. So you imagine the worst.” Discuss Raami’s impressions as a seven-year-old. How much is she aware of, and how much (or little) does she understand?
3. Review the scene in which Raami tells the Kamapibal her father’s real name. How does this serve as a turning point in the novel—what changes forever after this revelation? How does it affect Raami, and her relationship with both Papa and Mama?
4. Papa tells Raami, “I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything—your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world’s suffering.” How does the power of storytelling liberate Raami at different points in the novel?
5. Compare Mama’s and Papa’s styles of storytelling. When does each parent tell Raami stories, and what role do these stories serve? Which of Papa’s stories did you find most memorable? Which of Mama’s?
6. Consider Raami and her family’s Buddhist faith. How do their beliefs help them endure life under the Khmer Rouge?
7. Discuss Raami’s feelings of guilt over losing Papa and Radana. Why does she feel responsible for Papa’s decision to leave the family? For Radana’s death? How does she deal with her own guilt and grief?
8. What does Big Uncle have in common with Papa, and how do the two brothers differ? How does Big Uncle handle the responsibility of keeping his family together? What ultimately breaks his spirit?
9. Raami narrates, “my polio, time and again, had proven a blessing in disguise.” Discuss Raami’s disability, and its advantages and disadvantages during her experiences.
10. Although Raami endures so much hardship in the novel, in some ways she is a typical inquisitive child. What aspects of her character were you able to relate to?
11. Discuss how the Organization is portrayed in the novel. How does Raami picture the Organization to look, sound, and act? How do the Organization’s policies and strategies evolve over the course of the novel?
12. Names have a strong significance in the novel. Papa tells Raami he named her Vattaaraami, “Because you are my temple and my garden, my sacred ground, and in you I see all of my dreams.” What does Papa’s own name, Sisowath Ayuravann, mean? What traditions and stories are passed down through these names?
13. Consider Raami’s stay with Pok and Mae. Discuss what and how both Raami and Mama learn from them, albeit differently. Do you think their stay with Pok and Mae gave them hope?
14. “Remember who you are,” Mama tells Raami when they settle in Stung Khae. How does Raami struggle to maintain her identity as a daughter, a member of the royal family, and a Buddhist? Why does Mama later change her advice and encourage Raami to forget her identity?
15. Mama tells Raami after Radana’s death, “I live because of you—for you. I’ve chosen you over Radana.” Discuss Mama’s complicated feelings for her two daughters. Why did Raami assume that Radana was her mother’s favorite, and how does Mama’s story change Raami’s mind?
16. At the end of the novel, Raami realizes something new about her father’s decision to give himself up to the Kamapibal: “I’d mistaken his words and deeds, his letting go, for detachment, when in fact he was seeking rebirth, his own continuation in the possibility of my survival.” Discuss Papa’s “words and deeds” before he leaves the family. Why did Raami mistake his intentions, and how does she come to realize the truth about him?
17. How much did you know about the Khmer Rouge before reading In the Shadow of the Banyan? What did you learn?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Greet your book club members with traditional Cambodian food. A cooking school in Phnom Penh provides some classic recipes here: http://www.cambodia-cooking-class.com/recipes.htm
2. Imagine you’re planning a trip to Cambodia with your book club. What historical, religious, and natural sites would you want to visit? Start planning your virtual trip by visiting the Cambodia Ministry of Tourism website: http://www.tourismcambodia.org/
3. Study a map of Cambodia and chart some of the places depicted in the novel, including Phnom Penh, Kratie Province, and the border with Thailand. If you don’t own an atlas, you can view a map here: http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/asia/lgcolor/khcolor.htm
A Conversation with Vaddey Ratner
In the Shadow of the Banyan is a novel, but it is closely based on your family’s experience in Cambodia during the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. Why did you decide to write it as a novel rather than a memoir?
I was a small child when the Khmer Rouge took over the country. Revisiting that period of our life, I found that I couldn’t trust myself completely to recall the exact details of the events and places and the chronology of our forced exodus from the city to the countryside, the journey from one place to the next during the span of those four years. 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 again and again, 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. In telling this story, it isn’t my own life I wished others to take note of. I have survived, and the gift of survival, I feel, is honor enough already. My purpose is to honor the lives lost, and I wanted to do so by endeavoring to transform suffering into art.
That’s not to say that a memoir doesn’t demand artistry and skill. I’ve read many beautifully crafted literary memoirs—Angela’s Ashes, Autobiography of a Face, Running in the Family, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Woman Warrior…In my case, because I was so young when the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, and with hardly any surviving family records or pictures as source material, I had only my own mostly traumatic recollections and the understandably reluctant remembrances of my mother to rely on. What’s more, those whom I wished to write about, whose sufferings I felt deserve to be heard and remembered above my own story, are gone. I didn’t want them to be forgotten, and while, as Elie Wiesel has said, one cannot truly speak for the dead, I wished still to re-invoke the words and thoughts they’d shared with me. I felt compelled to speak of their lives, their hopes and dreams when they were still alive. And to do this well, I realized, required me not only to cull from memory and history but also to employ imagination, the art of empathy.
Speaking of art, what was your inspiration for writing?
In writing, one often speaks of voice as if it belongs exclusively to each of us as a writer, as if it emerges from a source that’s all our own. More than twenty years ago, when I was a high school student, I came across Night by Elie Wiesel. I didn’t know what it was, whether a memoir or a novel. I don’t think it even said on the book. It was a slim volume, just over a hundred pages, and I read it in one sitting. And then again and again. It was the first piece of holocaust literature I read, even though I didn’t know what the word holocaust meant at the time. It was this writing that set me on a search to find the voice for my own story at a time when I could only communicate the mundane in a language new to me. Elie Wiesel’s journey through death and inhumanity so moved me that I aspired to one day write a book that would give voice to my own family’s struggle for survival, for life, in the face of a different atrocity in Cambodia.
You were five years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, and your protagonist, Raami, is seven. Why did you decide to make her two years older?
In my own experience, I have the sense I began to perceive and understand much of what was happening about halfway through the Khmer Rouge regime, which was around when I turned seven, even though I wasn’t sure how old I was at any given time. Still, I was aware that I was growing up, maturing. I was forced to be an adult by what I endured and witnessed. Yet, there was this part of me that wanted desperately to remain a child—to be protected, to escape from all the violence and suffering. I sought beauty wherever I could find it and I clung to it. So in choosing an age for Raami, I wanted her to have that balance between insight and innocence. In the beginning of the book she is a precocious and inquisitive child, but as the story progresses, she becomes more quiet and reflective, her curiosity turns to seeking—a search to understand.
Is Raami’s experience very similar to yours? How does it differ?
Raami’s experience parallels mine. There’s not an ordeal she faces that I myself didn’t confront in one way or another. The loss of family members, starvation, forced labor, repeated uprooting and separation, the overwhelming sense that she’s basically alone but also the tenacious belief that there’s a spirit watching over her—all this I experienced and felt. Raami had polio as a baby. I had polio also when I was still an infant. Raami’s long name, Vattaraami, in Sanskrit, means a “small garden temple.” My own name, in the vernacular language, alludes to something similar. Vaddey, or “Watdey” as you pronounce it in Khmer, sounds like the “ground of a temple.” This was why my father chose the name for me.
Where Raami’s experience and mine diverge is in the minor details—the size of our family, the number of towns and villages we were sent to, the names of those places, the dates of various incidents. There are countless other small variations like these. As we discussed, she’s two years older, but she’s also a lot wiser than I was. She certainly regards the world with greater equanimity than I probably could at the time, than most of us can even as mature adults. Even so, as a child, I always had faith in people. In spite of the atrocities around me, I never failed to find kindness, to encounter protection and tenderness when I most needed it. I had a strong intuition about people. In writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, I needed to draw on that intuitive understanding, that ability to see and perceive people’s humanity in a way that enlarged my own. Raami shares my faith in people. Perhaps the big difference is that she can articulate it, and in so doing, magnifies it even more. Her intuition becomes prescience.
Are the characters in your novel based on real family members?
Yes, but my actual family—the group of the uncles, aunts, and cousins who left the city with us—was much larger. The novel is a contained universe, so each character is there for a reason. If I were to include everyone in my family, it would be a mammoth book! In some instances, I had to combine family members to create one character, or make other changes. My father was actually the youngest of five children, for example. But in the story, I made Raami’s father the older brother in order to capture the solemnity of my own father, his role as the pillar of the family. Every one of us looked to my father for reassurance.
So many scenes in your novel bring to life the unspeakable horror of this era of Cambodian history. Which scenes did you find the most difficult to write?
Every page was a struggle. I labored and labored, from a single word to a sentence to a paragraph. Each ordeal that had broken my heart when I was a child broke my heart again as an adult writing it. There were moments when I spiraled downward, to a depth I didn’t think I could come back from. It was a painful story to write, to relive.
You write of your father in the Author’s Note, “This is a story born of my desire to give voice to his memory, and the memory of all those silenced.” Did you find it difficult to capture your father’s voice all these years later, or did his way of speaking come naturally to you?
I’ve lived with my father’s voice for so long. He’s always with me and I’ve had long countless conversations with him. The challenge was not so much reaching back in time to capture his voice but reaching across languages. Essentially, I had to make my father speak English, and I had to do it in a way that wouldn’t change the way he sounded in Khmer. In our language, one rarely addresses people by their names: it’s either too formal or too disrespectful to use someone’s name. For example, my father would almost always call me koan—“child”—which in Khmer is extraordinarily tender and intimate, but if Raami’s father were to call her “child” or “my child,” it would sound rather formal and distant, archaic even. So he calls her by her name and simply “darling” or other terms of endearment that my own father used with me.
The voice has to fit the character. I remember my father as solemn but never morose. He not only merely saw beauty in the world, but he reflected upon it, often aloud to me. He was always hopeful, and rather idealistic—as my mother often points out—but because there was a touch of sadness about him, I’ve always thought, there was a poetic quality to his person. He spoke like a poet. While he was not a poet, he was an avid reader of poetry, especially those Khmer epics in verse like the Reamker and Mak Thoeung. He loved words, and was himself a ceaseless weaver of stories. I wanted to capture my father’s essential qualities and instill them in Raami’s father. In a way, having Raami’s father speak English helped me to write, to progress with the story. There were moments in the writing when, remembering my father’s exact words as he’d spoken them to me in our language, the tenor and tenderness of his voice, I would break down completely, and it would take many days, weeks, to come back to the writing.
Your family, like Raami’s, lost everything. Were you able to salvage any personal belongings or memorabilia?
Coming out of the experience, I thought we’d lost everything. Then, in 1993 in America, on my wedding day, my mother gave me a diamond brooch that she had received from my sdechya, my grandmother on whom Grandmother Queen is based. The brooch had been a wedding gift to my mother from my grandmother. More recently, as a gift to congratulate me on In the Shadow of the Banyan, my mother gave me a pair of diamond earrings. The settings are new, she said, but the diamonds are hers from before the war.
I also have this tiny wallet-sized picture of my father from when he was young. My mother pried it apart from an ID paper after my father was taken away. She feared the ID paper would link us to him, so she threw away the paper but kept the photo. Years later in the U.S., I noticed that his name A. Sisowath was embossed on the right-hand side. It was a poignant discovery because in those early years in America it was the only tangible link I had to him—aside from my mother. No one else I knew then was aware of his existence. Looking at the picture now, I imagine unease in his pose—the asymmetrical slant of his shoulders, the questioning arch of his left brow, the tentative smile—as if he were uncomfortable with this attempt at permanency. I imagine him walking into the room, addressing the camera skeptically, and walking out again, his spirit always in constant movement, in flight.
Did you and your mother flee to a refugee camp in Thailand just as Raami and her mother did? How did you end up in the United States?
Our escape from Cambodia was even more obstructed and circuitous. At one point along an abandoned road we were recaptured by Khmer Rouge soldiers on the run from the invading Vietnamese troops. The Khmer Rouge took us from one village to the next, then into the forest, and deeper still into the jungle. We thought this was the end—here they would kill us. What I saw, what I witnessed on that journey alone is enough for another novel.
In 1981, you arrived in the United States as a refugee speaking no English, but went on to graduate as your high school class valedictorian in 1990, and suma cum laude from Cornell in 1995. How, after witnessing all of the terrible atrocities in Cambodia, were you able to not only move forward, but to thrive and succeed?
When we left Cambodia, the images that stuck with me, overwhelmed my mind, were of corpses—corpses and flies. Then, landing at the airport in California, I was struck by all the shiny glass and stainless steel, not a single fly anywhere! Everyone and everything was humming with energy. Even the luggage carousels rolled with magical vitality. I was so far from death. Right then and there, I realized that we had so much to catch up with. The world hadn’t forgotten about us, but neither had it waited for us. It’d moved on, prospered. I felt so fortunate to be part of it. In Cambodia, staring at a muddy rain puddle, I could conjure up a whole underwater kingdom. Imagine what went through my mind walking into a supermarket in America! I remember the Safeway supermarket our sponsor took us to after we’d resettled in Jefferson City, Missouri. Safeway. Even the name sounded like a haven! I had such a yearning… a hunger to learn, and that hunger overtook all else. I absorbed everything this country had to offer me. Whatever ordeals we faced in America were nothing compared to those in Cambodia. We were given so much. How could I not thrive and succeed? I believed this, and still do.
You only began to learn English on arriving in the U.S. at age 11. How did you learn to write? What was it like re-invoking the story in a language entirely different from the language of that experience?
It began with reading. I was a copious reader in my own language, and I was a copious reader as soon as I learned to read in English. I’d devour anything I could get my hands on. I read things I didn’t quite understand. Jane Eyre, I remember, was my first grown-up novel. I thought it was so illicit—the man keeps his wife locked up in another part of his mansion while he develops romantic feelings for his young employee, this impoverished governess. Sounds like a Cambodian love story! But it wasn’t just literature I read. I’d linger over descriptions on shampoo bottles, lost in the shower, deaf to my mother’s call, soothed by adjectives—foamy, invigorating, silky…I’d move on to the list of ingredients, all those scientific names had a ring and rhythm to them, almost like poetry. In chemistry class, learning to decode the letters and numbers in formulas, I came across “tetra,” its familiarity heavy on my tongue. Then suddenly there was this flash in my memory. Tetracycline. I remembered that it was medicine—yellow and valuable as gold—that we’d had in our possession during our time in the countryside when medicine was almost nonexistent. Reading introduced me to an endless range of expression, from the thematic language of “family secrets” and “complicated love” articulated in a novel like Jane Eyre to small, incidental words that jogged my memory, revealing buried recollections.
Then, when it came to actually learning how to write, I basically did it on my own, at my own slow pace. Except for a community arts program in Minnesota called COMPAS when I was in high school, and a short-story writing course I took at Cornell University, I’ve had no formal training in writing. But I believe there are no better teachers than great pieces of writing: classics that tackle universal and timeless questions, and contemporary writings, from many cultural and linguistic backgrounds, that not only delve into these existential queries but also enlarge my world by transplanting me to a whole new geography of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.
I wanted to do something similar with this story. I didn’t want just to translate my family’s experience, a Cambodian experience, to a foreign audience; I wanted to take the readers and replant them in the fertile ground I’d sprung from, to let them take root and sprout, and to see my world as their own. I wanted them to see Cambodia before it became synonymous with genocide, before it became the “killing fields.” It was once a place of exquisite beauty, and I try to show that not only by locating the readers in the loveliness of the natural world but also by immersing them in the rhythm of a people’s thoughts and sentiments, in its literature and art. Only when we know what existed can we truly mourn what is lost. So, I feel, writing In the Shadow of the Banyan was not just a retelling. It was an act of creation, a long journey toward its realization.
In the Author’s Note you tell the story of visiting the royal court of Cambodia in 2009. Can you describe that experience? What was it like to return after all of those years?
Even before my visit to the Royal Palace, I had visited Cambodia countless times, always in search of my father. Each time I see him in all that’s lost and in all that’s found. My first trip back was in 1992. I went to my family’s estate in Phnom Penh. Our house was not there. Everything was gone, except, I believe, for one charred column of the bath pavilion. But even though our home was gone, I revisited other places I remembered my father and I had frequented—the promenade along the river, the lotus fountains near the Independence Monument, temples around the city…During a trip several years later, I visited the Royal Palace, just the grounds that was open to tourists, and I came across a golden statue that took my breath away. It was of a man on a horse, with a sword in his raised hand. Very gallant! I remembered that statue! For a long time I had thought it was on our estate and that it depicted my father. But it turned out the statue was of one of the kings! When I told my mother about being shocked by that encounter and the confusion in my own remembering, she had a very simple explanation: I had often accompanied my father to the Royal Palace, and the statue, with its lovely surrounding gardens, was where my father and I would escape to from the formality of a ceremony or function inside the courtly halls. There, beside the statue, he would tell me stories and tales, using the ornate setting to launch into mythical adventures. In my memory, I suppose, my father and the statue became fused—a single entity.
From 2005 to 2009, when I returned with my husband and daughter to live in Phnom Penh, a lot of things became clear in my mind. In particular, I got to witness the power of the monsoon, how in a single day the rains could flood the land; the different ways rice is grown and harvested through the seasons; the monumental struggles of the tiny creatures against the elements. I would spend hours with my little daughter watching a dung beetle fighting its way out of a cow pie! It was an epiphany. Living there—while at times difficult because of its proximity to the past—helped tremendously with the writing of In the Shadow of the Banyan .
In late 2009, just before returning to live in the States again, I was invited to have an audience with His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni, to be formally reintroduced into the royal family. I didn’t want to go, actually. I panicked. What would I bring as a gift for the king? One ought to bring a gift, right? But what could His Majesty possibly desire? Chocolate? I didn’t think so. I called my mother, and she said that I ought to consider a gift that would honor my father’s name, his spirit. So I brought three tons of rice for the poor, as a contribution to His Majesty’s humanitarian effort. At the Royal Palace, facing His Majesty, I could barely speak. All I could think about was my father, the sacrifice he’d made so that a moment such as this, my taking his place, was possible. And yet, I couldn’t help thinking, he couldn’t have known with absolute certainty that I would survive. He’d only hoped, and I felt that hope in my throat. When I swallowed it, tears rushed to my eyes. The next year, when I had another audience with the king, I was much more prepared and composed.
As In the Shadow of the Banyan makes clear, one of the Khmer Rouge’s primary strategies was splitting up families. How do you maintain your connection to your family members today—including those who only live on in your memory?
I have an uncle in Cambodia now, one of my father’s two elder brothers, the middle son. I despair every time I see him. I mourn his lost self. Once when he rode in a car with us to go to lunch, he became suddenly agitated. He explained that he was not used to being in a car and was completely disoriented. He was once a lover of cars. Now, no longer a prince, he lives a humble life, has kept the name he took on when we’d relinquished our royal identity, and feels most balanced when he shuffles along the uneven streets of Phnom Penh in flip-flops or barefoot. Whenever I look into his eyes, I think there are small deaths like these, some parts of ourselves that were buried with the others. My uncle cries every time he sees me, as I do when I see him or read the letters he sends me.
When I returned to live in Cambodia with my husband and daughter, one of the first things I did was to surround our new home with flowers I remembered from my childhood home. I filled our small garden with orchid, jasmine, bird of paradise, lobster claw, and frangipani of different colors, even though, I learned, Cambodians believe it is a flower that attracts ghosts. If so, I thought, it was a fitting offering. I filled our vases each day with fresh stems of lotus. A couple of years later, we bought a piece of land in Siem Reap and built a house there, which for me was very therapeutic, a willful act to counter the destruction I had helplessly witnessed as a child.
How does your family, specifically your mother, feel about your decision to write In the Shadow of the Banyan?
My family is extremely supportive. They’ve watched me persevere for so long with this. They’ve not only seen me tormented by my recollection, by my reckoning with the past, but also by the labor of writing itself. They are very happy that this is a story I can now share with the world.
As for my mother, she’s very proud. I couldn’t have written this book without her blessing, and, of course, her sharing of painful memories. Some of the stories about family members she told me have made their way into the narrative. We’ve been through everything together. This book is hers, too.
An important theme of your novel is the power of stories. What do you hope readers will take away from your own storytelling?
I’ve always loved stories, the written word. Even at a very young age, I sensed their intrinsic power. Like Raami, I saw and understood the world through stories. In Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouge, when I was lost in a forest or abandoned by my work unit among the vast rice fields because I moved too slowly, I would recall the legends my father or nanny had told me or those tales I’d been able to read myself. I’d invoke them like incantations, chanting aloud descriptions and dialogues I’d memorized, to chase away my fear of being alone in the middle of nowhere, in the silence around me. Stories were magic spells, I felt, and storytelling, the ability to tell and recall something, was a kind of sorcery, a power you could use to transform and transport yourself. I still feel this way, and I think it shows in crafting In the Shadow of the Banyan as I did. But I hope the story is layered enough so that every reader finds the inspiration or message they seek.
A Conversation with Vaddey Ratner, Author of In the Shadow of the Banyan
In the Author's Note, you write that Raami's story in In the Shadow of the Banyan, "is, in essence, my own." You were five years old when on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over the Cambodian government. Can you give readers some historical context?
In 1969, President Nixon authorized a secret bombing campaign on Cambodia, in an effort to target suspected Vietcong base camps and supply routes. The B-52 raids continued, spreading throughout the country, and by 1973 left hundreds of thousands of Cambodians dead and millions more displaced. Taking advantage of the resulting political turmoil, a Maoist guerrilla group known as the Khmer Rougeor "Red Khmer"recruited more members from the already immiserated population into their movement, deepening the civil war against the U.S.-backed government troops. On April 17th, 1975, the day of the Cambodian Lunar New Year, the Khmer Rouge stormed into Phnom Penh, the capital city, and took control of the country. They began that very morning to evacuate the urban population to rural areas. For the next four years, the Khmer Rouge attempted one of the most radical social transformations in modern history, ending in nearly two million deaths. In the Shadow of the Banyan takes place in the span of those four years.
You experienced many of the atrocities that Raami experiences in the book, yet you decided to write this as a novel rather than a memoir. Why?
Yes, I encountered the atrocities Raami encounters. And like her, I survived. This alone reminds me I have been given so much. When I look at what I've been able to achieve, it is so modest, nothing at all really, compared to the enormous sacrifices my family made for me in the most trying circumstances. I owe everything I have now, my very life, to my family's courage, conviction, and strength. I wrote this story as a novel instead of a memoir precisely because I wanted to honor those whose lives were cut short, whose desire for my survival, even as they faced their own deaths, carried me through inhumanity, whose hopes and dreams have borne me to this moment. I wanted to memorialize the people I loved, and I wanted to do so by endeavoring to transform their suffering and their aspirations into a work of art.
How much of what takes place in the novel is based on yourand your family'sown experience?
The story mirrors my own family's ordeal during those four years, beginning with the sudden forced expulsion from home to the countryside, the subsequent transfer and uprooting, the dissolution of our large family, the disappearances and deaths of loved ones, the starvation and inhumane labor, and finally our escape at the fall of the regime. Thus, the overall narrative arc of the novel follows closely the trajectory of our real-life journey. Within that, however, I've taken literary license to rearrange the chronology of some smaller events, collapse time and geography, fuse family members to create distinct characters, reimagine the fragments of remembered conversations and, at times, add dialogue to give cohesion to a particular scene. Even as I made countless small alterations, I labored to articulate the truth of that experience as faithfully as I remembered it, and, where memory failed or faltered, then at the very least, as I understood itas I've come to understand through my probing and questioning over the years.
In the book, Raami and her mother flee to a refugee camp in Thailand. Did you have a similar experience? How did you end up in the United States?
Yes, my mother and I escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, except that our actual journey, believe it or not, was much more impeded and tortuous than the one described in the novel. In 1979, as the Khmer Rouge regime was collapsing and its forces losing the country to the invading Vietnamese troops, one of the things they did was plant mines and explosives everywherein rice fields and orchards, on footpaths and roads, beneath bridges and crossings, along the shores of rivers and streams. They did this as much to thwart the Vietnamese military advance as to deter ordinary citizens like us from making a run for the borders. Unlike Raami and her mother, we didn't have the luxury of a rescue. Our journey was entirely over land. This meant every step we took could bring us closer to freedomor death.
Once we arrived in the refugee camp, my mother was recruited right way to assist with the humanitarian effort there. An educated person like her was in high demand, because the Khmer Rouge had eliminated some ninety percent of the country's intellectuals. As war refugees, we were eligible to apply for immigration to various Western countries. In France, my mother thought, we would encounter too many relatives and friends, those who had been fortunate or wise enough to leave the country before the Khmer Rouge takeover. She could not face the idea of having to explain again and again her losses, the nightmare we'd endured. Australia was too foreign, Canada too cold. She wasn't sure if she'd even seen a picture of England. United States of America sounded perfect, she thought, because we knew absolutely no one there, and the Catholic organization that wanted to sponsor us was in some place called Missouri"Misery," as she pronounced it. It carried the resonance of our ordeal. So Missouri it was!
English was not your first language, yet In the Shadow of the Banyan is so beautifully written. Did you take any writing classes before you wrote the book?
I still struggle with the language, and perhaps, this is why I write as I do, with the utmost care and attention, knowing that, unlike a native speaker, I can't take the language for granted, I can't be casual about it. So I write and rewrite, conscious of every word, as I would be of my own breath.
As for writing classes, there were only two: one through a community-based arts program during high school, and another at Cornell University, a short-story course I'd signed up for because I couldn't really afford to go home that summer. Other than these two classes, books were my teachers. I read voraciously. The best way to learn to write, I believe, is directly from the writings themselves, absorbing the various elements of the craftsetting, plot, characterization, point-of-view, languageintuitively, without the interference of instruction. When it came to writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, I had such a clear vision for this story, knew every aspect of it so intimately, I felt all I needed was Raami. I needed to access her innocence and her humanity, remember the child I was and what kept me alive.
Who are some of your literary influences?
I came to love English literature through the British classics my teachers introduced me to. Even when I couldn't understand much of what I was reading, I recognized a lyricism in these writings that echoed my native tongue, not abandoned lyricism but the kind contained within formality and rules. Khmer is like that, at once poetical and formal.
Elie Wiesel's Night was the first holocaust writing I encountered. It changed my life. It gave voice to my loss and tragedy at a time when I was still struggling to express the mundane in a new language. Reading that book, I felt I was not alone in my despair. An experience, I've since learned, can be both deeply personal and universal.
If to me Elie Wiesel is a hero, then Michael Ondaatje is a kind of literary sorcerer. In his hands, words have such magic and surprising manifestations. His writings are among the most evocative and compassionate. There's not a character he's created that I'm not in love with, seduced by. He's simply brilliant. [Ondaatje's novel The English Patient was a 1991 Discover Great New Writers selection. -Ed.]
There are countless others whose writings have taught me important lessons about the craft: Gabriel García Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, Anaïs Nin, Amitav Ghosh, Romesh Gunesekera, Mario Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz, V.S. Naipaul, Isabel Allende, Bharati Mukherjee, Vikram Seth, Chang-rae Lee, Kazuo Ishiguro John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Harper Lee... I have a vast pantheon!
What has been the most gratifying part of writing this book? The most painful?
When I set out to write this book, the one person that I wanted most to understand it was my mother. While I wanted the language to be simple, I didn't want in any way to simplify the emotions. Once my mother read In the Shadow of the Banyan, what she said to me made me feel I had not only honored the dead, but I'd done right by her. That was the most gratifying. The most painful was re-living the experiences again, re-invoking the losses.
How does it feel to finally share your story with the world? What was your family's reaction?
My overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude. I'm grateful the story is finding an audience. I feel reaffirmed in my conviction that a story of our common humanity will resonate across time and geography.
As for my family, they have always been supportive, and they are happy to see that all my effort has resulted in this tangible entity that I can now share with the world. Once my mother read the book, she asked if my editor and agent and others also cried as she did when reading it. When I said yes, she seemed relieved, indebted. I wonder if somehow she felt as I had when I first read Nightthat she is not alone, that there are others now to help her mourn what was lost.
What do you hope readers will take away from In the Shadow of the Banyan?
There was more to Cambodia than the "killing fields." Even as I set the story in this time of war and atrocity, I wanted to convey what I felt was true to my experience. As a child living through that period, it was the small glimpses of beauty that sustained me. So I want the same for my readers, to see beauty where I saw itin literature and poetry and music, in the architecture and landscape of that disappearing world. In the Shadow of the Banyan is a meditation on life, love, and language itself, that which connects us as human beings.
Who have you discovered lately?
John BanvilleI can't believe I hadn't read him before. He is at once wry and lyricalnot an easy combination! I'm also reading Tan Twan Eng, a Malaysian writer. He's wonderful with his scenes. They're like Chinese scrolls, self-contained and allegoric, where every brushstroke carries a meaning.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This novel was recommended to me and I thought I would continue the favor. This is a fast, easy read, told by the perspective of a little girl who lived through the Cambodian Civil War and the Khmer Rouge. I didn't know much about this time in Cambodia and the narrative is written so well you feel like you are there. Throughout the novel there are many references to Cambodia stories/poems that paint a beautiful picture of Cambodian culture. I would recommend this and I am glad to have read it.
This is a wonderful book. Beautifully written. I slowed down my reading to take in every word. I highly recommend this book. You will not be disappointed.
This novel is a work of the heart. It is Vaddey Ratner's chance to put meaning to the lives of those she lost. She is bringing them back through her words so that others may know that they once existed on this Earth. This novel brings to life a period of history that I never fully understood before reading her book. I knew about the "killing fields" and I knew that Pol Pot was a very very bad man but I did not know the details of what occurred in Cambodia during the late 1970′s. In the Shadow of the Banyan, brings the horror and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge into the light of day. While a heavy focus of the novel is the day to day life of under the Khmer Rouge, the stars of this novel truly are the Cambodian people who fought to survive and to hold on to those they loved whether in the flesh or in memory. This is Vaddey Ratner's debut novel. It is an amazing debut! Although all of the main events in the story that happen to Raami also happened to Vaddey, she chose to write it as fiction rather then non-fiction so that she could more easily tie events together and fill in the gaps of memory that would be expected after so long a time. I am grateful that she put her experiences out as fiction because I think she will reach more people through fiction. I was a young child during the period covered in this book yet I knew very little of the piece of history. As I read In the Shadow of the Banyan, I found myself constantly going to Google to search for more information on this time period, filling in my own gaps of knowledge. I recommend that you read this book. I also recommend that you read it with a tissue box within your reach. As Chris Cleave, the author of Little Bee, said this truly is a novel that is "heartbreaking and impossibly beautiful" at the same time. It feels weird to say a novel is beautiful when it is about such a seriously sad subject, but this novel is beautiful. Read this book!
Think of war-torn 1970's Cambodia. Based on true experiences of an upper class family, forced from their Phnom Penh palace to live in crowded, makeshift housing and slave in countryside rice paddies. Revolutionary Soldiers seize the "Tiger Prince" father, a famous poet, leaving the mourning wife and two daughters to confront famine, disease, monsoons, pestilence, and loss of self-worth. Amid these hardships, there is much beauty and knowledge found in the lush landscapes, views of the night sky, and kindnesses of the rural people. Written from the daughter's viewpoint, these pages contain hope, resilience, and determination to seek a fulfilling life, thanks to teachings of her beloved father, who never fades from memory.
Moving. I was part way through this book (on Kindle - no back cover to read) before I realised that it was semi-autobiographical. Knowing this made it so much more powerful. It is a story of amazing courage and determination to live. The author was only 5 years old in 1975, when the change in regime that resulted in the atrocities of the Killing Fields of Cambodia, occurred. The narrator of this novel is seven at the start. She is from a wealthy family, related to the King, and has never known any hardship. As news filters through of the Khmer Rouge's uprising in the town, the adults realise that their lives could be changed as a result, but no one could have had any inkling of the serious nature of this change. The 'Organisation's' method of control was to instil fear and panic, separating family groups and forcing everyone to work at a punishing rate, on megre rations. All this is recorded historically, but the strength of this book was the incidious way that things seemed to get gradually worse and worse, along with the telling of events with the naiivity of a seven year old. For someone who didn't speak a word of English until she was eleven years old, Vaddey Ratner's descriptions are wonderful: "...the whole house was hot and stuffy, like the inside of a balloon." and "Pok looked at me. Silence seemed to have overtaken him again. Then his face broke open like the morning sun." There is an author's note at the back of the book, explaining how she came to write it and how difficult it was to relive these events. I sincerely hope it was theraputic for her. An excellent, if harrowing, read. Highly recommended.
One of the best books I've read in a long time. The character and story stayed with me long after reading the book. This is one of those books you wish didn't end.
Although I have not completed the book yet, I was instantly drawn in to the story by the descriptive writing. The characters have a very real feel to them and I am eager to read more! I highly recommend.
A beautifully written book, each word to be savored.It lets the reader see into a world that is hard to fathom, beautiful but heart breaking. I did not want this book to end.
I really enjoyed this novel by Vaddey Ratner. It was extremely well written and although it is told from the perspective of a child, it is full of meaningful insight. I really didn't know much about the Cambodian Revolution before starting this novel but Ratner does an exceptional job of weaving true historical details into her semi-autobiographical novel. The author's notes at the end of the book were definitely worth reading as well. I would recommend this novel very highly!
interesting subject and very good read.
The book introduces the reader to the class distinctions in what was Cambodia and also the character of the peaceful masses. The revolution was frightening even to the reader. I can see why the narrator wanted to write to honor her parents and family.
Such a dark time yet the writing is almost poetical. Quite a story told to the reader.
I realize the author spent alot of time and effort, however, as an historical account of Cambodia's Kymer Rouge period, it leaves the horror out in this emotional second hand story from an eight year old's perspective. Recommended for young people, as the bloody parts are absent and only hinted.
Information I never knew. Shocking story of what the people went through. Told beautifully.
Always knew the history of Cambodia and the Khemer Rouge was sad but the story of this family was so amazing. I could not stop reading and even though I knew this was fiction I felt as though it was happening right in front of me. Beautifully written.
This story is both amazing and heartbreaking.
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner is a heartrending story of the adversity faced by one young Cambodian girl during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. The author, having lived through these same extraordinarily brutal times in Phnom Penh, writes in artful prose a novel that transports readers to a time in the life of the young girl, Raami, who endures more brutality, violence, persecution and despair in 4 years than most people could imagine over a lifetime. While these horrific life experiences are masterfully illustrated by Ratner, the novel pulls from such terrifying realities something that overcomes the evils committed by the Khmer Rouge ¿ the inspiration Raami draws from those who have left indelible, positive prints on her memories. Most importantly, Raami finds perseverance by her recollections of her father¿s poetry, a mechanism by which she is able to cope with the atrocities she has witnessed and lived through. Brilliantly crafted, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a must read for those readers interested in learning of the extremely violent times in Cambodia in the 1970s, but with that knowledge and understanding, readers should be forewarned that humanity can be, and was in these times, graphically brutal, making some passages very difficult to read. While In the Shadow of the Banyan was difficult at times, I am deeply grateful for being given the opportunity to read Ratner¿s book and believe In the Shadow of the Banyan would make for an excellent, albeit difficult, discussion group pick.
I really wanted to like this book more but I just didn't. I found parts of it kind of boring. However, the story is heartbreaking.
Such a moving story
I love it!
one of the most beautifully books ever written and dealing with subjects as grief and loss. I still wonder how this was possible with such pain as Ms. Ratner experienced. Thanks to her for sharing her gift of lyrical talent.