Reading Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan on International Women’s Day

For those of you who are interested in learning about recent Cambodian history, particularly through the eyes of a woman, this novel will bring you to tears. Although Angelina Jolie’s film First They Killed My Father is informative, engrossing and cinematically astute, compared to the details of this novel, it is barely an introduction to the slaughter of innocent Cambodians in the mid-1970’s. Back then, the Khmer Rouge government forced civilians to move from the city to rural places, in order to work in labour camps. This book deals with class as well as national identity, depicting a child named Raami who migrates from the capital, leaving her upper-middle-class identity far behind (as that demographic was killed by militant extremists who despised education, social mobility, and the arts). Dispersed throughout the book are pieces of poetry written by Raami’s father, made all the more poignant by the fact that the reality for the Cambodian literary world was bleak – books were burned and education was treated with a sense of paranoia. The ‘bourgeoise’ were despised. People related in any way to royals or politicians went missing – including a vital member of the book.

It is not possible to remain unmoved by this impassioned telling that deals with traumatic history so sensitively. There are references to Cambodian folklore tales, myths and legends that survived the war only through word-of-mouth. It is a profound experience, to read this on International Women’s Day, because the young girl who was forced to live in extreme circumstances undergoes complex changes after her trauma. It is a story of survival, despite grave danger from a paranoid government that was intent on separating people from their families – and more than that, it’s a topic that many Westerners aren’t aware of, seeing as Cambodian history isn’t taught in schools as much.

The author’s extraordinary gift for language depicts a tale of human resilience, as one young girl’s childhood is splintered into tiny shards, leaving only the memory of happier times for her to hold onto. There are moments of beauty when the author describes the ravaged homeland, and then, silence – as we are spared the gruesome details of torture in a respectful manner. This is an account that runs from second to second, focusing narrowly on the first couple of weeks after capture and exile. As Raami creates a vivvid portrait of the vibrant, complex Cambodia it offers a unique history to a war that barely receives any mention in the National Curriculum. For the four years the Khmer Rouge reigned, there were terrible stories of emptied cities, closed hospitals, and shut-down schools in an attempt to reform the country’s agricultural land. People were killed for being even slightly intellectual, so this work of fiction exposes the secrets that a young girl must keep in order to survive. She cannot let on that her father is a member of the wealthy elite, that she was brought up in one of the richest areas of the city, when twenty-five per-cent of Cambodian people were killed for their last names. Brave citizens reveal their royal heritage in order to save their family members, who are described instead as ‘common people’ to distort the reality. They know they will be executed. They pay the price of their family’s survival with their life. Even so, this book is about joy in the face of such terror, about resilience in the face of bleakness, something that people who have reached the very pits of despair may relate to. Sunrises and trees in full bloom are just a few of the images of Cambodia’s beautiful natural landscape.

The author, it is revealed at the back of the book, chose not to write this as a memoir, despite there being a cross-over between fiction and the details of her reality, because she was too young to recall the exact details of the regime. The lyricism of her writing is a testament to those words in burned books that went missing, never to be recovered after the blood-stained country healed from collective trauma. The genocide and Civil War saw Vaddey Ratner survive a grim dictatorship by enduring forced labour when in exile. It is heart-shuddering to realise that she is exposing the facts of what she went through, in a voice that is unstoppably authentic – it originates from the heart, from the perspective of someone who wants to say: ‘I saw this. I experienced this. This is what happened to me.’ And in today’s world, where women’s accounts are often overridden, we must learn from historical fiction.

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