Ratner’s young life was scarred by unconscionable tragedy. When she was 5, she and her family were forced from their idyllic Cambodian home. They were separated, forced into labor camps and brutally enslaved by soldiers from the Khmer Rouge. She nearly starved and was so traumatized by the atrocities ravaging her country that she became mute.
Yet none of it left as deep a mark as this: Ratner survived, only to be haunted by the private belief that the deaths of her father and sister were somehow her fault.
The agony of that black secret is at the heart of Ratner’s new book, “In the Shadow of the Banyan,” a thinly fictionalized account of her years under the control of the Khmer Rouge.
It’s a story of terror and blight and the human capacity to inflict suffering on one another. But it’s also a tale of perseverance, hope and the drive toward life, even under the worst circumstances.
“When we have been exposed to great atrocity and unspeakable brutality, we are faced with a choice,” she says. “Do we choose to believe that which will continue us, will perpetuate our life? Or do we choose to believe in that which destroys us?”
Now 41, Ratner is a small woman with high cheekbones and deep brown eyes. She is composed and regal, though she walks with a limp that is the byproduct of childhood polio. The Potomac home she shares with her husband and daughter is on a quiet, tree-lined street where there is little to distract her from writing.
She has been writing this story, in one form or another, for more than 35 years.
Ratner’s father was a minor Cambodian prince, Neak Ang Mechas Sisowath Ayuravann, the first three words meaning his highness prince (or princess). Ratner’s name was Neak Ang Mechas Sisowath Ayuravann Vaddey, the title and family name coming first. Her father’s position afforded Ratner’s family a life of privilege and protection. But when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and unrest bubbled across Southeast Asia in the wake of the Vietnam War, the very things that had made Ratner’s family fortunate — its aristocratic roots and access to education — made it a target.
Ratner took small liberties with her story, which was published last month by Simon & Schuster and has received praise from critics. The main character in “Banyan,” Raami, is 7 rather than 5 when the Khmer Rouge takes hold; Ratner’s father was a pilot, not a poet, but the events track closely with those of her own life.
Like Ratner’s, Raami’s family is ushered out of its home in Phnom Penh and displaced into camps. Again and again, the family is moved and divided as soldiers attempt to tamp down any inklings of community or familiarity. Adults and children are sent to work long days in the fields and made to give up personal belongings.