“Your father may have brought you wings, Raami. But it is I who must to teach you to fly. I want you to understand this. This is not a story.”
In the “Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner, character Raami is a seven-year-old girl with a leg damaged by polio, whose father taught her that words could make her fly and that stories are the gift life brings to those who listen. She yearns to walk with the grace of her beautiful mother, to run as freely as her little sister, but her father, Cambodia’s Tiger Prince, teaches her the power of words and the ability to transform her world into poetry.
And a lovely world it is. Every morning Raami’s father leaves their gated villa, wanders through the streets of Phnom Penh and comes home with a poem to write. The family is of royal blood, the descendants of King Sisowath, except for Raami’s mother. “Our family,” she tells her daughter, “is like a bouquet, each stem and blossom perfectly arranged.”
And then the bouquet is pulled apart when the Khmer Rouge enter Phnom Penh and send the city’s residents onto the highways that lead into the countryside. Hastily, Raami’s family throw what they will need into their car—jewelry stitched into an old pillow, food, Raami’s treasured copy of the Reamker, the Ramayana, and in her father’s pocket his fountain pen and the small leather notebook that goes with him everywhere.
Deep in the Cambodian countryside, the family finds that little of what they brought is of any use to them. The world is new and inexplicable; only Raami’s mother knows how to survive without servants or the safety of a walled garden. The rules have all changed. Religion and education have been swallowed up by the new force which is Angkar, The Organization. Soldiers in black look for class enemies. When they ask Raami to give her father’s name, she announces it proudly. Sisowath rings in the air like a death sentence.
The Tiger Prince is well-known for his courage and his poetry; even away from Phnom Penh peasants smile when they see his face. He gives himself up, telling his captors that the rest of the family are commoners who are relatives of his wife. Raami hears him writing in the dark, tearing a page from his notebook; the next morning he is carried away in an oxcart while his daughter begs him for one more story.
The remaining family is torn apart. Raami, her mother, and her sister are taken to an old peasant couple who have always longed for children and see the three strangers as an answer to their deepest wish. “Don’t forget who you are,” Raami’s mother tells her as she sees her daughter learn to love the rural life. But under Angkar, happiness is a treacherous state and Raami’s mother is forced to teach her oldest daughter that the only way to survive is to put memories of the past in the farthest reaches of her brain.
Torn from their peasant family after the death of Raami’s baby sister, she and her mother sink deeper into hunger, exhaustion, and the madness of the Pol Pot years. By the end of the book, their deaths seem inevitable, as Angkar puts them to work excavating what seems to be a gigantic gravesite.
The opening dedication of this novel provides a powerful clue to how it will end. “In the memory of my father,” Vaddey Ratner writes, “Neak Ang Mecha Sisowath Ayuravann.” The name rings like a clear bell. It’s the name of Raami’s father.
This book is a novel because, to tell her own story with the depth that she wanted, Vaddey Ratner needed to create thoughts and speech and feelings that as a small child she could neither remember nor completely comprehend. She has taken lives that were snuffed out and lives that held on in spite of unimaginable cruelty and turned what some cynically call a “misery memoir” to a story that is mythic in its scope and description. The beauty of Cambodia, the courage of its people, and the horror of its recent history is told with the resonance and poetry of Raami’s beloved Reamker. This is an unforgettable narrative and a tribute to the courage of Vaddey Ratner’s parents.
Cambodia is attempting to erase the Pol Pot years. “In the Shadow of the Banyan” helps to ensure that the world, and the Khmer people, will always remember the years between 1975 and 1979 when a group of Cambodians did its best to destroy their beautiful country, and failed.
Vaddey Ratner reads from her book, “In the Shadow of the Banyan” on Oct. 2 at the Elliot Bay Book Company. Visit www.elliotbaybook.com.