Leaving the safety of America, Teera returns to Cambodia for the first time since her harrowing escape as a child refugee. She carries a letter from a man who mysteriously signs himself as “the Old Musician” and claims to have known her father in the Khmer Rouge prison where he disappeared twenty-five years ago.
In Phnom Penh, Teera finds a society still in turmoil, where perpetrators and survivors of unfathomable violence live side by side, striving to mend their still beloved country. She meets a young doctor who begins to open her heart, confronts her long-buried memories, and prepares to learn her father’s fate.
Meanwhile, the Old Musician, who earns his modest keep playing ceremonial music at a temple, awaits Teera’s visit. He will have to confess the bonds he shared with her parents, the passion with which they all embraced the Khmer Rouge’s illusory promise of a democratic society, and the truth about her father’s end.
A love story for things lost and restored, a lyrical hymn to the power of forgiveness, Music of the Ghosts is a “sensitive portrait of the inheritance of survival” (USA TODAY) and a journey through the embattled geography of the heart where love can be reborn.
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Read an Excerpt
Music of the Ghosts
He feels his way in the confined space of the wooden cottage, hands groping in the dark, searching among the shadows through the blurred vision of his one good eye for the sadiev. The lute has called out to him in his dream, plucking its way persistently into his consciousness, until he’s awake, aware of its presence beside him. His fingers find the instrument. It lies aslant on the bamboo bed, deeply reposed in its dreamlessness. His fingers inadvertently brush against the single copper string, coaxing a soft ktock, similar to the click of a baby’s tongue. The Old Musician is almost blind, his left eye damaged long ago by a bludgeon and his right by age. He relies much on his senses to see, and now he sees her, feels her presence, not as a ghostly apparition overwhelming the tiny space of his cottage, nor as a thought occupying his mind, but as a longing on the verge of utterance, incarnation. He feels her move toward him. She who will inherit the sadiev, this ancient instrument used to invoke the spirits of the dead, as if in that solitary note, he has called her to him.
He lifts the lute to his chest, rousing it from its muted sleep, holding it as he often held his small daughter a lifetime ago, her heart against his heart, her tiny head resting on his shoulder. Of all that he’s tried to forget, he allows himself, without reservation, without guilt, the reprieve of this one memory. The curve of her neck against his, paired in the concave and convex of tenderness, as if they were two organs of a single anatomy.
Why are you so soft? he’d ask, and always she’d exclaim, Because I have spinning moonlets! He’d laugh then at the sagacity with which she articulated her illogic, as if it were some scientific truth or ancient wisdom whose profound meaning eluded him. Later, at an age when she could’ve explained the mystery of her pronouncement, he reminded her of those words, but she’d forgotten she’d even uttered them. Oh, Papa, I’m not a baby anymore. She spoke with a maturity that pierced him to the core. She might as well have said, Oh, Papa, I don’t need you anymore. Her eyes, he remembers, took on the detachment of one who’d learned to live with her abandonment, and he grieved her lost innocence, yearned for his baby girl, for the complete trust with which she’d once regarded him.
Something fluid and irrepressible rushes from deep within him and pools behind his eyes. He tries pushing it back. He can’t allow himself the consolation of such emotion. Sorrow is the entitlement of the inculpable. He has no claim on it, no right to grief. After all, what has he lost? Nothing. Nothing he wasn’t willing to give up then. Still, he can’t help but feel it, whatever it may be, sorrow or repentance. It flows out of him, like the season’s accumulated rain, meandering through the gorges and gullies of his disfigured face, cutting deeper into the geography of his guilt.
He runs his fingertips along the thin ridge, where the lesion has long healed. The scar, a shade lighter than the rest of his brown skin, extends crosswise from the bridge of his nose to his lower left cheek, giving the impression of two conjoined countenances, the left half dominated by his cataract eye, the right by smaller grooves and slash marks.
If his daughter saw him now, would she compare the jaggedness of his face to the surface of the moon? How would she describe the crudeness of his appearance? Would she see poetry in it? Find some consolably mysterious expression for its irreparable ruin? He never did make the connection between the softness of her skin and her imaginary moonlets. Now he is left to guess she probably associated the distant velvety appearance of the full moon with the caress of sleep, the lure of dreams that causes one’s body to relax and soften. But even this is too rational a deduction, for he cannot trust his memories of the full moon to make such a leap. The last moon he saw clearly was more than two decades ago, the evening Sokhon died in Slak Daek, one among many of Pol Pot’s secret security prisons across the country, each known only by their coded euphemism as sala. School. That evening, at Sala Slak Daek, the moon was bathed not in gentle porous light but in the glaring hue of Sokhon’s blood. Blood that now tinges his one-eyed vision and sometimes alters the tone and texture of his memories, the truth.
He closes both eyes, for the effort of keeping them open has begun to strain the muscles and nerves of the right one, as if the left eye, unaware of its uselessness, its compromised existence, continues to strive as the right eye does. Sometimes he thinks this is the sum of his predicament: he is dead but his body has yet to be aware of his death.
He reaches into the pocket of his cotton tunic hanging on a bamboo peg above his pillow and withdraws a cone-shaped plectrum made to put over the fingertip. In the old days, this would be crafted from bronze or, if one was a wealthy enough musician, from silver or gold. But this plectrum is fashioned out of a recycled bullet casing. Art from war, said Narunn, the man who gave it to him, a doctor who treats the poor and sometimes victims of violence and torture; who, upon examining his eyes, informed him that the cataract covering his left pupil was caused by untreated “hyphema.” An English word, the Old Musician noted. A medical term. A vision clouded by spilled blood. Or as the young doctor explained, Hemorrhaging in the front of your eye, between the cornea and the iris. Caused by blunt trauma. I believe yours happened at a time when there was no means of treatment. The doctor did not inquire what might’ve been the source of the trauma, as if the lesions and scars on the Old Musician intimated the blunt force of ideology, that politics is not mere rhetoric in this place of wars and revolutions and violent coups but a bludgeon with which to forge one’s destiny.
Indeed the doctor was kind enough not to interrogate. Instead he revealed to the Old Musician that the brass plectrum was made by a young woman who’d lost half her face in an acid attack, who worked to reconstruct her life, if not her visage, by learning to make jewelry in a rehabilitation program for the maimed and the handicapped. Hope is a kind of jewel, don’t you think? his young friend pondered aloud. At once metal-hard and malleable . . .
Certainly it is the only recyclable currency, the Old Musician thinks, in a country where chaos can suddenly descend and everything, including human life, loses all value.
He places the plectrum over the tip of the ring finger of his right hand, the brass heavy and cool against his nailless skin. It refuses to grow back, the nail of this one finger, the lunula destroyed, a moon permanently obliterated by one smash of his interrogator’s pistol. The other fingernails are thick and deformed, some filling only half of the nail beds. He’s often surprised that he can still feel with these digits, as if the injuries they sustained decades ago heighten their wariness of contact, sabotage.
He tilts the sadiev so that it lies diagonally across his torso, the open side of the cut-gourd sound box now covering the area of his chest where his heartbeats are most pronounced, its domed chamber capturing his every tremor and stirring.
Ksae diev, some call it. He dislikes it, the harshness of the ks against his throat, as if the solidity of the first consonant pressed against the evanescence of the second inevitably leads to a betrayal of sound. He much prefers sadiev, the syllables melting into each other so that it’s barely a whisper, delicate and fleeting, much like the echo it produces.
Eyes still closed, he takes a deep breath as he would before every performance, diving past the noise in his head, the surging memories, his plagued conscience, until he reaches only silence. Then tenderly, with the ring finger of his right hand, the brass plectrum securely in place, he begins to pluck the lower part of the string, while higher up the fingers of his left weave an intricate dance. He plays the song he wrote for his daughter, upon her entry into his world, into his solitary existence as a musician. I thought I was alone. I walked the universe, looking for another . . . He remembers the day he brought her home from the hospital, her breath so tenuous still that he wanted to buttress it with notes and words. I came upon a reflection . . . and saw you standing at the fringes of my dream.
He adjusts the sadiev slightly on his chest. He often dreams of her. Not his daughter. But the little girl to whom this lute rightly belongs. Except she’s no longer a little girl, the three-year-old he once met . . . He wonders about the person she’s become, the woman she’s grown into. He dares not confuse one with the other, the young daughter he lost long ago and the woman he now waits to meet. They’re not the same person, he reminds himself. They are not. And you, you are not him. Can never be him. The father she lost.
Sometimes, though, his memory rebels. It contrives a game, tricking him into believing that the past can be altered, that he can make up for the missing years, give her back what he stole from her. He can amend—atone. But for what exactly? A betrayal of oneself, one’s conscience? Was that what he’d hoped when he decided to write to her? To seek forgiveness for his crimes? Or was it simply, as he said, that he wished to return the musical instruments her father had left for her?
He thinks again of the letter, not what it said, but what it was on the verge of saying, what it almost revealed. I knew your father. He and I were . . . His failing eyesight had required him to enlist the help of the young doctor to write those words. He told Dr. Narunn to cross out the incomplete sentence. When he’d finished dictating the rest of the letter, the doctor wanted to copy it onto fresh, clean paper, without the crossed-out words. The Old Musician would not allow it. He’d send it as it was, with the mistake, as if he wanted her to see the duplicity of his mind, the treachery of his thoughts. He and I were . . . What they were—men, animals, two sides of a single reality—was destroyed with one deliberate stroke, the laceration made by a moving blade.
He glides the fingers of his left hand closer to the gourd sound box, producing a periodic overtone, like an echo or a ripple in the pond. I thought I was alone. I walked the universe, looking for your footsteps. I heard my heart echo . . . and felt you knocking on the edge of my dream.
The quality of each note—its resonance and tone—varies as he slides the half-cut gourd across his chest. He plucks faster and harder, reaching a crescendo. Then, in three distinct notes, he concludes the song.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Music of the Ghosts 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.
As Music of the Ghosts opens, Teera’s beloved aunt Amara, the only link to her traumatic childhood escape from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge genocide, has just passed away. Now, she must return to her homeland to rediscover a family legacy.
At age thirty-seven, Teera is in many ways a stranger to this new Cambodia and the stories it holds. In addition to fulfilling her promise to return her aunt’s ashes to Phnom Penh, she has been called by a letter from a half-blind man, the Old Musician, who is searching for a peace he can’t find in the temple compound where he earns his keep by playing for ceremonies and funerals. Still, the Old Musician and the young woman are bound by history, and the story of the three instruments that are her birthright.
In this lyrical and poignant novel (the follow-up to the author’s bestselling In the Shadow of the Banyan), the heartbreak of the Old Musician’s past intertwines with Teera’s own voyage of self-discovery, as questions of past trauma, present justice, and the legacy of love change both of them forever.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Teera feels sure that Amara has had to live with a “divided self” since fleeing her homeland and coming to live in Minnesota. In what ways does Teera, herself, live with an incomplete sense of her identity?
2. When she first visits Wat Nagara, Teera panics, feeling sorrowful and isolated. “She wanted to be alone with the ghosts, to seek communion with her loved ones. Instead she came face to face with her aloneness, saw it reflected wholly, indelibly, in the engraved invocation.” Compare these two kinds of solitude. Why is one so much more painful for her than the other?
3. Among the many parallels between the musicians’ lives, both Sokhon and Tun abandon their young daughters on the eve of war. Review each father’s reasons for doing so. Is this abandonment more cruel or more kind?
4. Compare the ways in which the novel’s three main female characters, Channara, Amara, and Suteera, deal with the trauma of the Cambodian genocide. What are the “breaking points” for their grief? Would you characterize some of the women as stronger than others?
5. How does Mr. Chum become a father figure for Teera during her visit to Cambodia? Describe the many ways the novel invokes the meaning of family, disrupted and recreated.
6. “The hues of one love simmer in another.” There are many layered relationships in the novel, in which certain figures become stand-ins or foils for another. Choose a few pairings to discuss. Some ideas include: Channara/Teera, Sokhon/Tun, Teera/Sita, Teera/Lah, and Narunn/The Old Musician.
7. Several times in the novel, Teera’s first encounters are infused with questions from the past, as in her descriptions of meeting the Old Musician and Dr. Narunn. How does the author’s writing convey this interplay of perception, hope, and memory? What does it reveal about the characters?
8. Much of the novel explores how we adapt to and survive in the face of inhumanity. Still, it doesn’t sugarcoat the lasting effects of fear, desperation, and ruthlessness on its characters’ psyches. Would you say that Music of the Ghosts has an optimistic message?
9. “Foreigners have often said ours is a ‘culture of impunity.’ An English phrase, as you know. . . . What does it really mean?” Discuss the abbot’s question. Judging by Ratner’s description in the book, would you describe the Cambodian culture as such?
10. One of Music of the Ghosts’ most resonant themes is that of justice: what it entails, and what its limits are. What is your definition of justice? Is there a difference between justice and retribution, as the Old Musician suggests?
11. Consider the modern children in the book: the young monks, Lah, and Makara, the young addict-turned-novice. How are they affected by the legacy of the war and genocide?
12. The Old Musician feels responsible for Sokhon’s fate, and a single question has tormented him for decades. Was he right to do what he did in Slak Daek? What would you have done in the same situation? The question is a good one for debate.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read an English translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s poem Guerre, which makes such a strong impression on Tun as a student at Chomroeun Vichea high school. What light does it shed on the character of the young Tun, or the Old Musician he becomes?
2. Sense memories of Cambodia as it was before the Khmer Rouge are incredibly important to all of the book’s characters. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a town or city with a Cambodian restaurant, consider having them cater your book club with Khmer delicacies. If the closest Cambodian eatery is too far away, try your hand at some simple snacks with easy-to-find ingredients, like this classic iced coffee drink (cambokitchen.wordpress.com/2014/02/24/cambodian-coffee/) or a banana rice pudding (karenskitchen1.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/going-bananas-for-rice-pudding/). To listen to the sounds of the traditional Khmer instruments described in the novel, including the ksae diev (lute) and sralai (oboe), a good beginning is The Music of Cambodia: Solo Instrumental Music, available for ordering at www.harmonies.com/releases/13076.htm/. You can also listen to the Khmer rock ballad that Narunn and Teera sing to each other, “Allo Oun, Allo Bong” at www.youtube.com/watch?v=HizwnxE9hpY/.
3. In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner’s first novel, is based on the author’s own childhood experiences surviving the Khmer Rouge regime. Visit her website at www.vaddeyratner.com/ to watch her describe her effort to transform tragedy into art (the video in under Books > In the Shadow of the Banyan), listen to and read her interviews with NPR and others (under Press > Interviews), or read her short essays on storytelling, imagination, and human rights (under Press > Vaddey’s Writing).
4. View the collection of short videos providing vignettes of contemporary life in Phnom Penh at http://whitebuilding.org/en/media/films. Select one to share with your book group, and explain why you chose it.
A Conversation With Vaddey Ratner
Your first novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, also dealt with the Cambodian genocide. Why did you decide to return to this topic for your second book? What aspects of the tragedy were you able to highlight here that you weren’t able to earlier?
An experience like this marks you forever. It defines not just your own history but that of your entire family, even the next generation. You can never stop asking questions about what happened and why. With Banyan, my paramount purpose in writing was to honor the lives lost, to honor the courage and love that made my own survival possible.
Music of the Ghosts is about the survivors—people like myself who were victims, as well as those who may have had a hand in the destruction. I truly believe that I would not be alive today without the humanity of others. I wanted to explore that humanity from all sides. The only way I know to do that is to put aside my own personal pain, my own loss, and turn the light on what the experiences of others might have been.
In examining atrocities around the world, there’s often an intense focus on an individual dictator, like Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot. It’s easy to look at these men and say, they’re an aberration, they’re not like the rest of us—unique in their appetite for power, their readiness to use violence toward that end. Yet a single person cannot will such an atrocity. I’m interested in the lives of those caught in the same events who end up on the wrong side. What choices did they make? What motivates people to support a cause that becomes so murderous?
On a personal level, to this day I’ve never learned what happened to my own father after he disappeared in the early days after the Khmer Rouge takeover. I’ve never learned how his life ended. So I feel a duty to understand the suffering of others in its fullest extent, including the suffering of those who didn’t make it.
In the novel, Teera asks the question, Why does such suffering recur again and again? Like her, I feel we have yet to honor the dead with an answer. We cannot hope to understand, we cannot hope to change, if we are not willing to see suffering in others that is equal to or greater than our own.
In the Shadow of the Banyan was both a critical and a commercial hit, receiving not only major prize and “best of” nominations, but also appearing on the New York Times bestseller list. What was your reaction to this sudden success? Did it affect your approach to writing your sophomore novel?
I was stunned into stillness. After absorbing that, the overwhelming feeling was just gratitude. It reaffirmed what I believed all along—that the world still cares, that we haven’t been forgotten. The world can be a noisy place, with so many voices competing to be heard. Sometimes you can’t raise your voice to be heard, but instead you must speak in a voice that is so quiet that people have to silence themselves to hear you. That’s the approach I took with Banyan—to write quietly, to write with the belief that if I have something important to say, the world will listen.
I took the same approach with Music of the Ghosts. After the buzz of media attention and touring, I felt I needed to remove myself. When my husband was offered an overseas position again with his environmental policy work, I seized upon the opportunity for us to move with our daughter. Now we live in Malaysia, where we’ve made a home on the Andaman Sea. The greatest noise is waves crashing on the rocks. Each morning, each evening, facing the vast sea, I am reminded of my insignificance, and I can’t help but ask myself again, Why am I here? Why did I survive, and what can I do with that survival? I wrote Banyan in solitude, confronting what I felt was most essential. In Malaysia, I’ve been able to recover the quiet in which to write, to probe.
The adage is that authors should “write what they know,” but topics like war, genocide, and the refugee experience are undoubtedly traumatic. How did you negotiate writing about these themes of your own experiences?
I don’t quite subscribe to this adage, at least not in a narrow sense. Often we assume that the fact of living through some episode imparts understanding. Yet, living through an experience sometimes gives you instead a glimpse of the immensity of your own ignorance. A single experience can be examined from so many different perspectives. You can explore your trauma, but you have to also be willing to see how the experience has affected others. As I writer, I see my experience as a beginning point, not a limit. Writing Music was extremely difficult, yet I also felt it necessary.
Very few novels have been written about the twentieth-century Cambodian experience, either in America or abroad. Do you feel the pressure of representation, with both Music of the Ghosts and Banyan? How do you negotiate this as an Asian-American writer?
Over these last two decades, I’ve moved so many times between continents, repeatedly disassembling and recreating a home. The world has become so traversable, and I don’t think in terms of representing a group when I write. What I’m searching for is the human story, and the human experience of loss and love, suffering and triumph. If you remove the differences of geography, these are the things that remain.
At the same time, I’m very particular about the language of my narrative. When writing about Cambodian characters and landscape, I want the narrative language to mirror that experience. Though I write in English, I’m trying to capture the rhythm of my birth language. When Banyan came out, very few readers or reviewers understood this, because most are unfamiliar with the Khmer language, both its beauty and the way it was brutalized during the revolution. At that time, poetry was cause for execution. To simply speak with any hint of reflection beyond the rote recitation of slogans invited suspicion. So I’ve made a very conscious choice to invoke the rhythm and metaphor and richness of a language in an effort to rebuild a world that was swiftly destroyed.
What other authors or novels influenced this book?
I continue my habit of reading many different authors at once, and by inclination I’m drawn to novels whose characters are very complex. I can’t point to authors who directly influenced my writing of Music of the Ghosts. More important inspiration came from Cambodians I spoke to while researching and writing—street musicians and students, victims of land mines, archaeologists, former soldiers, demining experts, fishers living on the Tonle Sap Lake. Traces of their voices infuse the story.
You movingly and vividly describe the music of Cambodia, from pop songs to temple offerings. Are you a musical person? What was your relationship to music while writing this novel?
I love to sing. When I walk around the house alone, in moments between writing, I often sing. My voice is probably best suited for the music of smoat, the Cambodian sung poetry. But I’m not a performer. I guess I’m a musical person in the sense that I’m attuned to hear the musicality in almost everything, perhaps most clearly in the quality of a person’s voice when speaking.
The heroine of In the Shadow of the Banyan is only seven; when Music of the Ghosts begins, Teera is thirty-seven, and the Old Musician is nearly twice that. Why did you decide to write in the voices of older characters? What did writing in these voices allow you to express that you couldn’t in a younger character’s voice?
A child sees the world in a very direct way, absorbing events as they happen. Love a child, and that child will love you back. As the child protagonist of Banyan, Raami is like that. Her humanity expands or contracts in proportion to the humanity she is shown. When something scares her, she retreats into her own little world.
For adults, for Teera and the Old Musician, the decision to love or to forgive comes with much more reflection, a sense of risks and consequences. To explore the questions that animate Music, I needed a much larger canvas, with multiple perspectives, and the ability to move across continents and across decades in the periods before and after the revolution.
What has the response from the Cambodian immigrant community been to your writing?
The vast majority of Cambodians who resettled in the United States came not as immigrants by choice but as refugees of war, and most arrived illiterate even in our own language. Those who were educated and survived, and those who came before the war, have reached out to me and speak of Banyan as if it is also their family’s history, as if it also carries their own memories. I’ve had this response not only from those in the United States but also from the Cambodian diaspora in France, Australia, and elsewhere.
The response from younger Cambodian-Americans has been equally wonderful. I often meet those who tell me, “This is what I was never told, what my parents could never say to me.” As the result of their experience reading Banyan, I sense a newfound tenderness for the older generation. Many survivors face the difficulty of confronting past losses, and then in addition they often lack the language to express themselves to their children. Often the English they’ve managed to learn is not adequate to the task, and their children’s grasp of Khmer is similarly limited. How can you talk about such things? Even when you have the language, it’s hard enough.
The more surprising resonance, however, has come from young Cambodians living in Cambodia who read the novel in English. Their exposure to their own history is often cursory or highly politicized. Many have told me they so appreciate the humanity portrayed in Banyan amidst the tragedy. Seeing how humanity could survive even at such a time gives them hope in their own struggles today. I think Music of the Ghosts will speak even more directly to the potential to heal, to forgive, to triumph.
As your author’s note says, you wrote this book in order to “explore the questions of responsibility, atonement, forgiveness, and justice.” What message do you hope readers will take away from Music of the Ghosts?
Not all of us are refugees or survivors of atrocity. Yet, the experience of survivors—from Cambodia or from more recent tragedies in places such as Syria and Sudan—affects us all. How we respond to violence, individually and collectively, ultimately affects all of us.
Music of the Ghosts is about the survivors of one terrible regime. The questions it probes, however, are more universal: How do we account for the crimes we have committed knowingly, and for the suffering we contribute to perhaps without knowing? What does it take to atone? What is possible to forgive?
These are questions for society, but they are also questions for each of us as individuals. More than providing answers, I hope that my novel will spark conversations among readers that probe these questions fearlessly.
Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, Music is a love story. I hope it will speak to those who’ve been displaced and longed for home, to those who’ve suffered and dared to imagine a new beginning, to those who believe in the capacity of love to mend our wounds.
What can readers expect from your next novel?
In a world defined by walls and borders, what does it mean to be free—in the realm of law and conscience, in the realm of art and expression, in the realm of family? There’s little I can say yet about my next novel at this very early stage. But it begins with a question. What is freedom?