Photo by Kristina Sherk

Photo by Kristina Sherk

Vaddey Ratner, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide and war refugee, is a Cambodian American novelist. She is the author of two critically-acclaimed novels. Her debut autobiographical New York Times bestseller, In the Shadow of the Banyan, was a finalist for both the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award and the 2013 Indies Choice Book of the Year and was selected for the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program 2015-2016. Her second novel, Music of the Ghosts, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize 2018. Her works have been translated into twenty languages.

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 and her mother escaped while many of her family members perished. In 1981, she arrived in rural Missouri as a refugee not knowing English, and later, living in the low-income Torre de San Miguel housing project in Saint Paul, Minnesota, graduated as her 1990 high school class valedictorian. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Cornell University, where she specialized in Southeast Asian history and literature.

Ratner is a descendant of King Sisowath, who ruled Cambodia in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1970, her father’s first cousin, Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, led the coup that ended monarchal reign to establish a short-lived republic, soon engulfed in the chaos of the broader Vietnam War. Once the Khmer Rouge took power, forcing the entire urban population into agrarian work camps, the royal name that once meant protection and comfort now marked them for death.

Based on her childhood experience, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a story about the unbreakable bonds of family, and the power of stories to transcend loss and suffering. “First and foremost,” says Ratner, “I wanted to honor the lives lost and those who made monumental sacrifices to save me. And I wanted to do so through art . . . to draw to the foreground an experience I feel we all share as human beings—our hunger for life, our desire to live even in the face of death.”

The result is an unforgettable celebration of innocence and the transcendent power of imagination, a work Little Bee author Chris Cleave calls “one of the most extraordinary acts of storytelling I have ever encountered . . . utterly heartbreaking and impossibly beautiful.” The novel appears on eight lists of the best books of 2012, including The Christian Science Monitor and Kirkus ReviewsThe Washington Post calls it “a tale of perseverance, hope and the drive toward life . . . piercing, lyrical.”

Ratner’s second novel Music of the Ghosts explores the legacy of genocide and the journey toward atonement and forgiveness. “Tenaciously melodic . . . a symphony’s elevating effect on emotion,” writes the New York Times Book Review. “Ratner stirs feeling—sorrow, sympathy, pleasure—through language so ethereal in the face of dislocation and loss . . . Music of the Ghosts has been fashioned by a writer scarred by war, a writer whose ability to discern the poetic even in brutal landscapes and histories may be the gift that helped her reassemble the fragments of a self and a life after such shattering suffering.”

Ratner has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition, and her life and work have been profiled in USA Today and The Washington Post. She has spoken to diverse audiences including the PEN/Faulkner Foundation annual gala on the theme of art and resilience, the United Nations Association on human rights and the responsibility of global citizenship, and the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, chaired by Salman Rushdie, on the theme of bravery in art and politics.

Ratner lives with her husband and daughter outside of Washington, DC in Potomac, Maryland, and divides her time between the US and Southeast Asia.  

Follow Vaddey: