There was a time in her life when Vaddey Ratner chose silence. By age 11, the reign of the Khmer Rouge had reduced her world to hunger, fear and loss. She wanted to speak of none of it. Ratner was a living skeleton, laboring in the rice fields of Cambodia while death swallowed her family, her country and her spirit.
She survived the terror of the communist revolutionaries and gradually understood that she had to speak again, to tell the world what she’d experienced as a child.
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.
When soldiers demand that Raami say her father’s name, she submits, revealing his ties to royalty. In a scene of overwhelming despair, her father asks Raami to live because he knows that he will not:
“When I lie buried beneath this earth, you will fly. For me, Raami. For your papa, you will soar.”
“I didn’t respond. I wanted him to stop talking. Whatever it was he was trying to tell me, it sounded like a good-bye.”
By the end of the Khmer Rouge’s reign in 1979, Ratner would also lose her toddler sister and much of her extended family. She and her mother made it out and were eventually brought to the United States as refugees. Experts estimate that about 2 million people died under the Khmer Rouge as a result of execution, starvation or diseases such as malaria, which could have been treated with proper medicine.
Ratner’s book is an attempt to keep vigil with those souls, by bringing their memories to life.
“There’s no rhyme or reason for why I survived or why a person like my father died,” Ratner says with tears in her eyes. “But I have to believe that a part of him lives on in me — and that those who read this book without knowing me will know my father, too, and will know those lives that were lost, those lives that I felt could be forgotten.”
Ratner and her mother landed first in Missouri and then settled in Minnesota, where Ratner was raised with two half-sisters her mother had after the war.
Ratner had stopped speaking during her final months under the Khmer Rouge. “I chose muteness because I couldn’t articulate what I was witnessing,” she says. But in the United States, she eagerly lapped up English, learning and talking incessantly.
“I was presented with this language that has no bearing, no connection to my past,” she says. “I could have a different voice, have a different expression. I could be whoever I wanted to be.”
Ratner was valedictorian of her high school class and studied Southeast Asian history and literature at Cornell University. In 1992, at age 21, she returned to Cambodia. She wanted to make sure that her father hadn’t somehow survived and was waiting for her, “that I had not abandoned him,” she says. “I wanted to be able to say to myself, ‘I went back when I could.’ ”
Of course, he wasn’t there. “And that was devastating all over again.”
Ratner married at 23 and moved to Washington to work in international affairs. Her husband, Blake, began a career in sustainable development that would lead the couple to Malaysia and Thailand. In 2005, he was asked to take a position in Cambodia.
“That’s when I panicked,” Ratner recalls. “I did not want to go back.”
But in discussions with her husband, she came to see that returning might help salve old wounds and would give their daughter the chance to develop a relationship with the country.
Even as a child, Ratner knew she would write the story of her saga. “I felt that I needed to explain — give an explanation — as an apology for why I survived when many in my family, many in my country did not,” she says.
She first tried to write it as a memoir but received only rejection slips from publishers. She put the manuscript away in a drawer. Returning to Cambodia for four years, she realized that the book needed to be fiction and that it needed to be not just her story, but that of a whole people.
Ratner, who had never written a novel before, merged multiple members of her extended family into singular characters and created dialogue when she couldn’t remember exact words.
For more than two years, she labored over the novel. It was more than halfway finished when she moved back to the United States in 2009. An agent signed on quickly, helped her edit the original version and sold the book in an auction to Simon & Schuster.
Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine put the piercing, lyrical book on its summer reading list. People magazine gave it four stars. The New York Times Book Review recommended it as an “Editors’ Choice.”
Ratner says that after hearing her story, people expect her to be a solemn, downtrodden figure. In fact, she is exuberant, happy and quick to erupt into laughter. Like the girl in the book, she has a sense that she is watched over, that she was meant to survive.
“In the end, what I really wanted to articulate is the strength of our continuity,” she says, “our desire to move on — to live.”
Ratner will be reading from “In the Shadow of the Banyan” at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, on Tuesday at 7 p.m.