We used to look to kings, queens, princes, and princesses as semi-divine figures and exceptional beings. Unfortunately for them, due to their wielding of absolute power and amassing wealth and landownership to the detriment of their subjects, their place in the world had been diminished. Similarly, Cambodia (bastardization of Kambuja), with great leaders, used to rule and dominate Southeast Asia; but tragically, she has become a small country whose citizens are easily provoked and prone to adapt bad habits and absorb, like a sponge, the seven major negativities that are destructive to our lives and everyone around: fear, anger, hatred, greed, jealousy, revenge, and superstition. We have lost our ways since 1431, when we were divided and conquered. No other period put Cambodia on a darker path than that of the Khmer Rouge era, where intellectuals and everything associated with beauty and modernity were turned into ashes. Thirty-nine years have passed since then. Some of us understand our downfall and are changing our ways to inch toward greatness again, and when it comes to literature, Princess Vaddey Sisowath Ratner stands at the forefront of this paradigm shift.
Sure, there should be more to the Khmer story than Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, the Killing Fields, and the nation of Democratic Kampuchea. Certain Cambodians—especially young ones—have expressed their fatigue of anything relating to this period of our history. Though Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan touches on the communist era, her story is more than that; it’s about, in her words, “the human experience—our struggle to hang onto life, our desire to live, even in the most awful circumstances. In telling this story, it isn’t my own life I wished others to take note of. I have survived, and the gift of survival, I feel, is honor enough already. My purpose is to honor the lives lost, and I wanted to do so by endeavoring to transform suffering into art.” And how! Ratner’s superior artistic merit has done great justice to what the Khmer people went through. No other literature of this dark period has shown such great depth and captured the history, the mood, the Khmer essence like In the Shadow of the Banyan. No! As much as she had lost and endured, you will not find inaccuracies, manipulative narrative, vindictiveness, salaciousness, rage, or bitterness here. Instead, you will find a calm voice—a divine voice—recounting the causes of human suffering with grace, dignity, and empathy.
The cloud passed and the moon seemed bigger and brighter, more like a full-lip pout now. Tousana, Papa had called it, I remembered now, from the Pali word dassana, meaning “insight.” When something seemed both familiar and new all in the same moment. We’d been talking about storytelling, how there could be many versions of the same story, many ways of telling it, and how each version was a kind of manifestation, as if the story itself was a living, evolving entity, a god capable of many guises (103).
Ratner has a way with words. Her well-paced, lyrical prose mellifluously moves through the pages. Granted, In the Shadow of the Banyan is fictionalized, telling a heartbreaking story of a seven-year-old princess, Raami, who suffers polio, whose father gives up his life to the dark force of the Angkar (Organization), so that she and her extended family could live; but with any period piece, inaccurate historical background can turn off readers who lived during that time, or other knowledgeable readers. Writing from a child’s perspective is hard, but Ratner does a great job by telling the story in the past tense, almost like an adult recounting the story of her younger self with the wisdom and knowledge of a learned adult. As a Khmer princess, knowledgeable of her own history and with a major in Southeast Asian studies, Ratner has the authority to tell the story and is a trustworthy storyteller at that. People write what they know, and Ratner knows a lot about Khmer people, our language, our history, our religion, our folklore, and our way of life.
Examples of Ratner’s compassion and empathy can be shown in the characters of Raami (the seven-year-old protagonist), Ayuravann (Raami’s father), and Aana (Raami’s mother). Raami is of royalty. She lives a sheltered and a luxurious life with a nanny, maids, cooks, and servants; yet, when she is thrown into the mix of the Revolutionary soldiers, the Kamaphibal (top official), the Moulithan (old or base people ), and other ordinary Cambodians, she doesn’t cringe or curl her mouth in disgust at the raggedy clothes they wear, their oily hair, the dirt under their fingernails, or their destitute nature. As a Khmer daughter, she understands the formal and informal way of speaking. She knows the difference between the peasant vernacular and that of royalty and religious figures. Like the river, Raami bends with the people and environment. She questions her parents and other adults about why things are as they seem, but she does not judge. She takes in the answers. She analyzes. This is the nature of her parents, too. They raise her with love and understanding. She receives extra love and attention due to her polio. Also, it is through poetry and folklore instilled by her parents that Raami finds her connection with other people and nature.
It’s so refreshing to read an entire novel without having to cringe at the misinterpretation of Khmer words, history, religion and folklore. Without feeling incensed at the manipulation of the meanings of words and events by the author to paint others as dark, evil, and bad people, while boasting of oneself and one’s own family as the light and goodness in the vortex of darkness. Put your trust in Princess Vaddey Sisowath Ratner. If writing gives you wings, then her novel In the Shadow of the Banyan soars high, and all you have to do is sit, read and enjoy her storytelling talent. It’s art in its highest form. How wonderful it is to admire a princess once again.