|Vaddey Ratner, photo by Kristina Sherk|
Q: How similar was your own family's experience in Cambodia to that of the family in your book, and why did you decide to write a novel rather than a memoir?
A: From beginning to end, the narrative follows my experience and that of my family, from the forced exodus to the many relocations, separations, and losses. Of course I was a very young child when the revolution arrived, so there was so much I couldn’t begin to comprehend. There are things I remember vividly, and gaps I had to fill by probing others’ recollections. Yet, beyond the limitations of memory, there is a more fundamental reason I chose fiction. I didn’t want the focus to be on my own experience, the fact of my survival. In writing, I found I was seeking something that went beyond a chronicling of facts and events. I wanted to invite readers into that lost world, to see it through the eyes of a child, and to discover with her the power of storytelling as a means of survival, of continuation.
Q: How difficult was it for you to revisit such terrible experiences?
A: It was extremely difficult. Every loss I experienced anew, and there were days when I didn’t know whether I would be able to emerge. I would labor and linger over a sentence or paragraph for days, sometimes weeks, seeking the words to describe that emotional landscape—its horror as well as its moments of beauty.
Q: Did your family agree with your decision to write the book?
A: Writing is a very solitary endeavor, and I’m not sure my mother or others quite understood what I was doing when I was in the midst of it. Yet they encouraged me, knowing that I so needed to write this story. It felt essential, like breath. Once the book was complete and I shared it with my mother, she told me it’s the story she would have written if she’d had the words.
Q: Could you discuss the book's title, and why you chose it?
A: The title is my rendering of a phrase from a Cambodian Buddhist proverb, which speaks of a time of bloodshed and darkness. My interpretation of the proverb is that our history, our past, is like the banyan tree, with its wide-reaching branches. It can cast a shadow over us as well as offer shade when we need sheltering.
Q: Are you working on another book now?
A: I have the filament of a story, a second novel that I’m working on. It’s still taking shape, and as I begin to write I’m discovering that story, exploring its possibilities. The working title is Music of the Ghosts.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m deeply touched by the messages I receive from readers who write to describe their encounter with In the Shadow of the Banyan and the connections they find to their own lives. I never expected that it would find a place in the hearts of people with such diverse histories, and in so many places.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb