Vaddey Ratner, a mere slip of a thing, is tremendous. Her intellect, her passion, her insight, her willingness to share... to share and to hope that she's making a difference.... denizens, her presentation at the Literary Society luncheon was something to behold.
She analyzed her work as if we were sitting in Comp Lit 325, not the Arizona Inn. We gauged the importance of her luscious depiction of the life she led, in the family compound, In the Shadow of the Banyan, before Pol Pot. Had we noticed changes in the sentence structure, the cadence, the word choices she made as her character drew further and further into herself? Reading aloud, drawing us deeper and deeper into the almost unimaginably bizarre world in which she found herself, the room was totally still. No background chatter, no silverware clatter, just rapt attention.
How could we not. She inhabits every inch of the novel, having lived it herself. Forced labor, planting in the rice paddies, building dikes to hold back the tide, losing color in her clothing, in her foodstuffs, in her life - we sat there, mesmerized, watching her quick smile and dancing eyes, listening to her words. That she is here at all is a miracle. That we were able to hear her was a joy.
The book scared me, at first. Why would I want to plunge into the depths of human malignity? I carry enough sorrow just beneath my own surface. I didn't want to add any more. I needn't have worried; she understood and figured it out long before I began my own journey. Just listen to some of what she had to say:
Why did I survive? I never asked. I was afraid to ask because I worried that no one would have an answer.
I had to relive the story to tell the tale. Before I was a writer, I was a survivor.
I went into Art to save myself.It was like listening to myself. Why am I here, and others are not? The only answer lies within myself, and I, like Vaddey Ratner, use writing to save myself. Listening to her say that small visions of beauty kept me going, I remembered being back on Douglas-the-couch, growing a new hip, mourning the loss of an innocent child, and smiling at the sun moving across the blue sky, chasing clouds with its rays. If there was beauty in the world, perhaps there was also a cushion on which to recline while examining the tale. The world cannot be altogether awful if there is such a spectacle before my eyes every afternoon.
Does that sound too lyrical? Ratner wrote a meditation on life, love, language... the factual and the metaphysical. She has that effect on me, too, it seems.
In the Shadow of the Banyan pays homage to the spirits of those who did not survive the Khmer Rouge. That includes most of the author's large, extended, royal family. The details are wrenching. For Ratner, beauty and truth are inseparable. Incorporating that into trauma (which) was incomprehensible is the genius of her first novel. While searching for insight into the incomprehensible she presents the most awful facts through the eyes of a much loved child. In retelling the tale, she's reopening her own wounds for the greater good. This is an act of mourning and communing with the ghosts of those who loved her, and whose love she returns with her work.
Like most survivors, she's resilient. The word appears on her bio page, and it was the word I used when my tablemate asked me how she and I did it. I think the ability to rebound from disaster is, in some ways, a statement about immutable character traits.
As I take responsibility (though not guilt nor blame) for Christina-Taylor's death, so she began an answer However I failed as a child to protect those I loved.... Murmured no's were rumbling through the audience, but I knew just what she meant. She was five when Pol Pot moved the entire population of Cambodia's cities into the countryside, creating the Killing Fields along the way. A 9mm with an extended magazine showed up in the hands of a mentally ill man while I was holding hands in front of the grocery store. Neither of us had the means to prevent the inevitable. Neither of us will ever really believe it. Our situations defined powerlessness. That doesn't change the facts.
But she didn't leave us there. She went on to say that, though she may have failed in her childhood, she was honoring the spirits, her first and foremost audience for the book. The story opens with a scene of love, and that is what I took from the novel, in the end. Despite it all, she's alive. That truth and beauty are truly inseparable.
But, it gets better. I asked her how she managed to be the least angry woman in the room. That was when she turned and gave me paragraphs and paragraphs of how she has no time or energy to be angry, although it would be easy enough to give in to it, at any time, anywhere. She does not allow the anger access to her heart. What lives there is the despair... and that is where she expends her energy, rising above the despair.
And how does she do this, I wondered?
Borrow the beauty and strength from those around you.Thanks for being here, denizens. I couldn't do it without you.