Q&A with author Vaddey Ratner
Vaddey Ratner’s debut novel, “In the Shadow of the Banyan,” is a New York Times best-seller and the result of her recent travels back to her native country of Cambodia and Southeast Asia. Vaddey 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 and her mother 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 in Minnesota. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Cornell University, where she specialized in Southeast Asian history and literature.
What are the best books you’ve read recently?
Some of the best books I’m currently reading are “White Oleander” by Janet Fitch, “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers, and “Imagining Argentina” by Lawrence Thornton. All are incredible works by writers of significant talent and skill.
“Imagining Argentina” intrigues me for its use of magical realism to tell a contemporary atrocity that took place in Buenos Aires in the latest 1970s during a repressive regime ruled by the country’s ruthless military generals, who were responsible for the disappearances of more than two thousand men, women, and children. When reality is filled with violence and madness, sometimes it feels a retreat into magic—the sorcery of imagination—is the only way to find our lost ones. It’s not just a literary premise but a landscape I myself once had to navigate.
What was your favorite book as a child?
When I was a child in Cambodia before the war, I loved the Reamker, the Cambodian adaptation of the Hindu Ramayana. During the Khmer Rouge regime, books were banned, and knowing how to read and write could get you killed.
When I came to America, the very first book I received was “Pat the Bunny.” A little boy—the son of my American sponsor—gave it to me, and even though I was 11 years old, I loved that book! Imagine to have come out of an experience where you’re stripped not only of your family, home, and country, but also of your thoughts and feelings, and then to arrive in a new land where you’re given this tiny picture book that teaches you to employ all your senses again as if you were a toddler just discovering the simple daily wonders of your world. The book was pure magic to me. There aren’t many words in it, but as I was just learning English it took me the whole year to absorb everything. Needless to say, it was among the first books I got my daughter.
I also loved A.A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, the complete classic version, of course. The Hundred Acre Wood, for me, is as perfect a world as could be. You’re allowed to explore, stretch your imagination, but in the end you’re always safe, always loved.
Why do you enjoy attending book festivals, either as a presenter or audience member?
As a presenter, I can attend other talks and participate in various activities. I love this because I get the best of both—to share my writing with others, and to learn about other writers and their works.
Have you been to the D.C. area before? If so, what is your favorite thing about it?
I live in Potomac, Maryland, and as a resident of the DC area, I love the Smithsonian art museums—such amazing collections, and they’re all free, open to everyone.
What is the most difficult, or challenging, aspect of being a writer?
Ah, writing itself of course! But ultimately, it is also the most rewarding!