In the Shadow of the Banyan
Vaddey Ratner, 2012
Simon & Schuster
You are about to read an extraordinary story. It will take you to the very depths of despair and show you unspeakable horrors.
It will reveal a gorgeously rich culture struggling to survive through a furtive bow, a hidden ankle bracelet, fragments of remembered poetry. It will ensure that the world never forgets the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, when an estimated two million people lost their lives. It will give you hope, and it will confirm the power of storytelling to lift us up and help us not only survive but transcend suffering, cruelty, and loss.
For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours, bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. Over the next four years, as the Khmer Rouge attempts to strip the population of every shred of individual identity, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her childhood— the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father.
In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival. Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience. (From the publisher.)
• Education—B.A., cornell University
• Currently—lives in Potomac, Maryland, USA
Vaddey Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. After four years, having endured forced labor, starvation, and near execution, she escaped while many of her family members perished.
In 1981, she arrived in the U.S. as a refugee not knowing English and, in 1990, went on to graduate as her high school class valedictorian. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Cornell University, where she specialized in Southeast Asian history and literature. In recent years she traveled and lived in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, writing and researching, which culminated in her debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan. She lives in Potomac, Maryland. (From the publisher.)
How is it that so much of this bleak novel is full of beauty, even joy?... As a work of fiction, In the Shadow of the Banyan is less a testament to atrocity than a reconciliation with the past. At one point, Raami’s nanny tells her that stories “are like footpaths of the gods. They lead us back and forth across time and space and connect us to the entire universe.” What is remarkable, and honorable, here is the absence of anger, and the capacity—seemingly infinite—for empathy.
Ligaya Mishan - New York Times Book Review
The horrors committed by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, as experienced by one extremely resilient girl. A brutal novel, lyrically told.
O, The Oprah Magazine
(Starred review.) The struggle for survival is relayed with elegance and humility in Ratner’s autobiographical debut novel set in Khmer Rouge–era Cambodia. Raami is seven when civil war erupts, and she and her family are forced to leave Phnom Penh for the countryside. As minor royalty, they’re in danger; the Khmer Rouge is systematically cleansing the country of wealthy and educated people. Escaping their Phnom Penh home aboard a rusty military vehicle, a gold necklace is traded for rice, and literacy can mean death; “They say anyone with glasses reads too much... the sign of an intellectual.” Amid hunger, the loss of much of her family, and labor camp toil, Raami clings to the beauty that her father has shown her in traditional mythology and his own poetry. Raami’s story closely follows that of Ratner’s own: a child when the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, she endured years under their rule until she and her mother escaped to the United States in 1981. This stunning memorial expresses not just the terrors of the Khmer Rouge but also the beauty of what was lost. A hauntingly powerful novel imbued with the richness of old Cambodian lore, the devastation of monumental loss, and the spirit of survival.
Ratner's tale of what happens to seven-year-old Raami when the Khmer Rouge take over Cambodia is based on personal experience, though she herself was only five at the time, eventually arriving in America as a refugee in 1981. A huge in-house favorite.
Her heartrending, mournful tale depicts the horrors of thekilling fields and the senselessness of the violence there while still managingto capture small, beautiful moments…By countering the stark and abject realityof her experience with lyrical descriptions of the natural beauty of Cambodiaand its people, Ratner has crafted an elegiac tribute to the Cambodia she knewand loved.
(Starred review.) Ratner's avowedly autobiographical first novel describes her family's travails during the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s.... For four years, one terrible event follows another, with small moments of hope followed by cruelty and despair.... While names are changed (though not Ratner's father's name, which she keeps to honor his memory) and events are conflated, an author's note clarifies how little Ratner's novel has strayed from her actual memory of events. Often lyrical, sometimes a bit ponderous: a painful, personal record of Cambodia's holocaust.
1.According to the prophecy that Grandmother Queen tells Raami at the beginning of the novel, “There will remain only so many of us as rest in the shadow of a banyan tree.” What does the prophecy mean to Raami when she first hears it? How does her belief in the prophecy change by the end of the novel? After reading, what does the title of this novel mean to you?
2.Tata tells Raami, “The problem with being seven—I remember myself at that age—is that you’re aware of so much, and yet you understand so little. So you imagine the worst.” Discuss Raami’s impressions as a seven-year-old. How much is she aware of, and how much (or little) does she understand?
3.Review the scene in which Raami tells the Kamapibal her father’s real name. How does this serve as a turning point in the novel—what changes forever after this revelation? How does it affect Raami, and her relationship with both Papa and Mama?
4.Papa tells Raami, “I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything—your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world’s suffering.” How does the power of storytelling liberate Raami at different points in the novel?
5.Compare Mama’s and Papa’s styles of storytelling. When does each parent tell Raami stories, and what role do these stories serve? Which of Papa’s stories did you find most memorable? Which of Mama’s?
6.Consider Raami and her family’s Buddhist faith. How do their beliefs help them endure life under the Khmer Rouge?
7.Discuss Raami’s feelings of guilt over losing Papa and Radana. Why does she feel responsible for Papa’s decision to leave the family? For Radana’s death? How does she deal with her own guilt and grief?
8.What does Big Uncle have in common with Papa, and how do the two brothers differ? How does Big Uncle handle the responsibility of keeping his family together? What ultimately breaks his spirit?
9.Raami narrates, “my polio, time and again, had proven a blessing in disguise.” Discuss Raami’s disability, and its advantages and disadvantages during her experiences.
10.Although Raami endures so much hardship in the novel, in some ways she is a typical inquisitive child. What aspects of her character were you able to relate to?
11.Discuss how the Organization is portrayed in the novel. How does Raami picture the Organization to look, sound, and act? How do the Organization’s policies and strategies evolve over the course of the novel?
12.Names have a strong significance in the novel. Papa tells Raami he named her Vattaaraami, “Because you are my temple and my garden, my sacred ground, and in you I see all of my dreams.” What does Papa’s own name, Sisowath Ayuravann, mean? What traditions and stories are passed down through these names?
13.Consider Raami’s stay with Pok and Mae. Discuss what and how both Raami and Mama learn from them, albeit differently. Do you think their stay with Pok and Mae gave them hope?
14.“Remember who you are,” Mama tells Raami when they settle in Stung Khae. How does Raami struggle to maintain her identity as a daughter, a member of the royal family, and a Buddhist? Why does Mama later change her advice and encourage Raami to forget her identity?
15.Mama tells Raami after Radana’s death, “I live because of you—for you. I’ve chosen you over Radana.” Discuss Mama’s complicated feelings for her two daughters. Why did Raami assume that Radana was her mother’s favorite, and how does Mama’s story change Raami’s mind?
16.At the end of the novel, Raami realizes something new about her father’s decision to give himself up to the Kamapibal: “I’d mistaken his words and deeds, his letting go, for detachment, when in fact he was seeking rebirth, his own continuation in the possibility of my survival.” Discuss Papa’s “words and deeds” before he leaves the family. Why did Raami mistake his intentions, and how does she come to realize the truth about him?
17.How much did you know about the Khmer Rouge before reading In the Shadow of the Banyan? What did you learn?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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