Vaddey Ratner is the author of the critically acclaimed bestseller In the Shadow of the Banyan, a young girl’s story of struggle and survival during the Khmer Rouge. Her new novel, Music of the Ghosts, follows a former child refugee, Teera, returning to her homeland of Cambodia. Inspired by a mysterious letter from a man identifying himself as the Old Musician, she tries to find answers about her father’s death under the Pol Pot regime.
The narrative artfully interweaves painful remnants of the past with the startling reality of modern-day Cambodia, and is informed by Ratner’s four-year experience under the Khmer Rouge – before her escape to Thailand as a 9-year-old and resettlement in America as a refugee – as well as her reintroduction to Cambodia as an adult.
Ratner recently chatted with Anna Koo about the inspiration behind her new novel.
Music features significantly in Music of the Ghosts, from the sadiev, sralai and other instruments Teera’s father left for her, to the song he sang to her before he left her to join the communists. What does music mean to you personally? Why have you chosen specifically these Cambodian traditional instruments to write about, and what is your experience with them?
As a child, before I was ready to talk, I learned to sing. I would wander in our home garden, singing lines from the Lakhon performances that my father took me to see. I felt that music was my other voice, a sort of companion that followed me. To this day, particularly when I am alone writing, I will hum or sing to myself. It fills the solitude I surround myself with in order to create.
I continue to be struck by how deeply music runs in our culture, how essential it is in reclaiming and rebuilding our society. I recall that in the Khao I Dang refugee camp in Thailand, my mother, who headed an orphanage, gathered surviving musicians and dancers, anyone with an artistic background, to mount a performance. The effect that had on all of us refugees, surrounded by dire poverty, astounded me.
Through music we transcend so much of the suffering that we encounter on a daily basis. My own writing, I hope, will bring attention not only to Cambodia’s tragedy but also to its music. The particular instruments that shape the structure of the novel – the sadiev, sralai, and sampho – are individual remnants of the past, each with its unique mystery, but they are also essential elements of an ensemble. The story of these instruments echoes in some way the story of the survivors who animate the novel.
Within the narrative itself are also many Khmer language references. How has the language been significant to your life in America, and why did you choose to include it in this way? Why have you chosen to write the book in English instead of Khmer?
The language for me is hugely significant. In the years in which I couldn’t return, the language – along with the music – became my passageway to Cambodia, because it allowed me to step into a world that I’d lost. For my English-language readers, I think it’s important that they feel the rhythm of the Khmer language.
Beyond that, there are phrases that just don’t translate. Like the phrase ‘chaik knea ros’, which in its most literal sense means sharing an existence, or coexisting, especially in difficult circumstances. Or the word ‘pralung’, which is often translated as spirit or soul, referring to the enduring yet evolving essence of a life. They deserve the richness of a full explanation. Writing is a language all its own.
I know how to read and write in Khmer, but I don’t claim to have the skill of a writer in the Khmer language. That would take years of focused effort to cultivate. I write in English because that is the language where my writing self resides.
Grief, loss, torture and forgiveness are interwoven in the narrative. How much of this is informed by your personal experiences? Why have you chosen to focus on these themes for this novel?
A great deal is informed by my experiences. I have never been tortured in the ways I describe for the Old Musician, but I know the anguish of being put in a place where the lives of those you love is in your hands, when anything you say or do can have dire consequences. That anguish is explored in my first book, In the Shadow of the Banyan, through a child’s perspective. My own experience led me to ask about the experiences of others – both perpetrators and victims.
I wrote Music of the Ghosts not to absolve anyone of their crimes but to explore what happens when you hold people accountable. In the novel, the Old Musician comes to the conclusion that he cannot be forgiven, and he doesn’t ask for it; he is simply asking for the opportunity to account for his crimes. Forgiveness depends on the conscience of each of us as individuals. It’s a very personal decision, what we can and cannot forgive.
For me, to forgive means simultaneously holding accountable those who’ve done wrong and choosing for myself not to pursue retribution. It’s an effort to end a cycle of suffering.
Family is central to the characters and their relationships, as the storyline follows Teera’s search for traces of her own family, as well as the Old Musician’s longing for his daughter. Ultimately, the lure of Cambodia is tied to the promise of a complete family. What does family mean to you, given your personal history with the Khmer Rouge? As a female writer, why did you decide for Teera to make her decision about coming back to Cambodia based on family, which one could say is a more traditional, rather than feminist, decision?
Teera’s return to Cambodia is compelled not by the promise to complete a family but by her necessity to confront, and to reconcile with, the overwhelming loss, the total absence, of family. Following the recent death of her aunt, she is alone in this world, and she’s come to Cambodia after 25 years in order to make peace with that aloneness. Her experience of loss is similar to mine. My own family was decimated, and whether in Cambodia or America, wherever I live in the world for that matter, I’ve learned to count those I love as my family, be they distant relatives or friends.
There are multiple layers to my identity – I am a writer, I am female, Cambodian, American, a person of colour, a refugee, a global citizen, a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister, a friend. I could go on. Writing allows me to explore the ever-evolving multiplicity of what it means to be human.
In your adult life, you have spent a good portion of your time in Cambodia and Southeast Asia. What are your thoughts on the changes that have taken place in Cambodia in recent years?
Every time I step off the plane upon arriving in Cambodia, I prepare myself for two emotions that arrive simultaneously: joy and heartbreak. I cannot go long without missing the country tremendously, so there’s an immense joy on returning. But it breaks my heart to see the country laid bare before me, to see the enduring poverty and struggle.
We have such a wealth of natural resources, such creativity and capability. With such wealth, there should not be this level of poverty and inequality. Yet, in talking to people, especially old people, I find that, for so many, their humanity and generosity remain intact. And I meet young people, pursuing an education, full of such drive and intelligence, such understanding of the world, including many who come from backgrounds with so few material resources. Imagine what can be achieved when these characteristics of our people – humanity and generosity, intelligence and drive – are brought together. I have encountered individuals who achieve this, and it gives me so much hope for Cambodia.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Music of the Ghosts (Touchstone, 336pp), will be available later this week at Monument Books for $24.50.