A Conversation with Vaddey Ratner on
Music of the Ghosts
Your first novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, also dealt with the Cambodian genocide. Why did you decide to return to this topic for your second book? What aspects of the tragedy were you able to highlight here that you weren’t able to earlier?
An experience like this marks you forever. It defines not just your own history but that of your entire family, even the next generation. You can never stop asking questions about what happened and why. With Banyan, my paramount purpose in writing was to honor the lives lost, to honor the courage and love that made my own survival possible.
Music of the Ghosts is about the survivors—people like myself who were victims, as well as those who may have had a hand in the destruction. I truly believe that I would not be alive today without the humanity of others. I wanted to explore that humanity from all sides. The only way I know to do that is to put aside my own personal pain, my own loss, and turn the light on what the experiences of others might have been.
In examining atrocities around the world, there’s often an intense focus on an individual dictator, like Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot. It’s easy to look at these men and say, they’re an aberration, they’re not like the rest of us—unique in their appetite for power, their readiness to use violence toward that end. Yet a single person cannot will such an atrocity. I’m interested in the lives of those caught in the same events who end up on the wrong side. What choices did they make? What motivates people to support a cause that becomes so murderous?
On a personal level, to this day I’ve never learned what happened to my own father after he disappeared in the early days after the Khmer Rouge takeover. I’ve never learned how his life ended. So I feel a duty to understand the suffering of others in its fullest extent, including the suffering of those who didn’t make it.
In the novel, Teera asks the question, Why does such suffering recur again and again? Like her, I feel we have yet to honor the dead with an answer. We cannot hope to understand, we cannot hope to change, if we are not willing to see suffering in others that is equal to or greater than our own.
In the Shadow of the Banyan was both a critical and a commercial hit, receiving not only major prize and “best of” nominations, but also appearing on the New York Times bestseller list. What was your reaction to this sudden success? Did it affect your approach to writing your sophomore novel?
I was stunned into stillness. After absorbing that, the overwhelming feeling was just gratitude. It reaffirmed what I believed all along—that the world still cares, that we haven’t been forgotten. The world can be a noisy place, with so many voices competing to be heard. Sometimes you can’t raise your voice to be heard, but instead you must speak in a voice that is so quiet that people have to silence themselves to hear you. That’s the approach I took with Banyan—to write quietly, to write with the belief that if I have something important to say, the world will listen.
I took the same approach with Music of the Ghosts. After the buzz of media attention and touring, I felt I needed to remove myself. When my husband was offered an overseas position again with his environmental policy work, I seized upon the opportunity for us to move with our daughter. Now we live in Malaysia, where we’ve made a home on the Andaman Sea. The greatest noise is waves crashing on the rocks. Each morning, each evening, facing the vast sea, I am reminded of my insignificance, and I can’t help but ask myself again, Why am I here? Why did I survive, and what can I do with that survival? I wrote Banyan in solitude, confronting what I felt was most essential. In Malaysia, I’ve been able to recover the quiet in which to write, to probe.
The adage is that authors should “write what they know,” but topics like war, genocide, and the refugee experience are undoubtedly traumatic. How did you negotiate writing about these themes of your own experiences?
I don’t quite subscribe to this adage, at least not in a narrow sense. Often we assume that the fact of living through some episode imparts understanding. Yet, living through an experience sometimes gives you instead a glimpse of the immensity of your own ignorance. A single experience can be examined from so many different perspectives. You can explore your trauma, but you have to also be willing to see how the experience has affected others. As I writer, I see my experience as a beginning point, not a limit. Writing Music was extremely difficult, yet I also felt it necessary.
Very few novels have been written about the twentieth-century Cambodian experience, either in America or abroad. Do you feel the pressure of representation, with both Music of the Ghosts and Banyan? How do you negotiate this as an Asian-American writer?
Over these last two decades, I’ve moved so many times between continents, repeatedly disassembling and recreating a home. The world has become so traversable, and I don’t think in terms of representing a group when I write. What I’m searching for is the human story, and the human experience of loss and love, suffering and triumph. If you remove the differences of geography, these are the things that remain.
At the same time, I’m very particular about the language of my narrative. When writing about Cambodian characters and landscape, I want the narrative language to mirror that experience. Though I write in English, I’m trying to capture the rhythm of my birth language. When Banyan came out, very few readers or reviewers understood this, because most are unfamiliar with the Khmer language, both its beauty and the way it was brutalized during the revolution. At that time, poetry was cause for execution. To simply speak with any hint of reflection beyond the rote recitation of slogans invited suspicion. So I’ve made a very conscious choice to invoke the rhythm and metaphor and richness of a language in an effort to rebuild a world that was swiftly destroyed.
What other authors or novels influenced this book?
I continue my habit of reading many different authors at once, and by inclination I’m drawn to novels whose characters are very complex. I can’t point to authors who directly influenced my writing of Music of the Ghosts. More important inspiration came from Cambodians I spoke to while researching and writing—street musicians and students, victims of land mines, archaeologists, former soldiers, demining experts, fishers living on the Tonle Sap Lake. Traces of their voices infuse the story.
You movingly and vividly describe the music of Cambodia, from pop songs to temple offerings. Are you a musical person? What was your relationship to music while writing this novel?
I love to sing. When I walk around the house alone, in moments between writing, I often sing. My voice is probably best suited for the music of smoat, the Cambodian sung poetry. But I’m not a performer. I guess I’m a musical person in the sense that I’m attuned to hear the musicality in almost everything, perhaps most clearly in the quality of a person’s voice when speaking.
The heroine of In the Shadow of the Banyan is only seven; when Music of the Ghosts begins, Teera is thirty-seven, and the Old Musician is nearly twice that. Why did you decide to write in the voices of older characters? What did writing in these voices allow you to express that you couldn’t in a younger character’s voice?
A child sees the world in a very direct way, absorbing events as they happen. Love a child, and that child will love you back. As the child protagonist of Banyan, Raami is like that. Her humanity expands or contracts in proportion to the humanity she is shown. When something scares her, she retreats into her own little world.
For adults, for Teera and the Old Musician, the decision to love or to forgive comes with much more reflection, a sense of risks and consequences. To explore the questions that animate Music, I needed a much larger canvas, with multiple perspectives, and the ability to move across continents and across decades in the periods before and after the revolution.
What has the response from the Cambodian immigrant community been to your writing?
The vast majority of Cambodians who resettled in the United States came not as immigrants by choice but as refugees of war, and most arrived illiterate even in our own language. Those who were educated and survived, and those who came before the war, have reached out to me and speak of Banyan as if it is also their family’s history, as if it also carries their own memories. I’ve had this response not only from those in the United States but also from the Cambodian diaspora in France, Australia, and elsewhere.
The response from younger Cambodian-Americans has been equally wonderful. I often meet those who tell me, “This is what I was never told, what my parents could never say to me.” As the result of their experience reading Banyan, I sense a newfound tenderness for the older generation. Many survivors face the difficulty of confronting past losses, and then in addition they often lack the language to express themselves to their children. Often the English they’ve managed to learn is not adequate to the task, and their children’s grasp of Khmer is similarly limited. How can you talk about such things? Even when you have the language, it’s hard enough.
The more surprising resonance, however, has come from young Cambodians living in Cambodia who read the novel in English. Their exposure to their own history is often cursory or highly politicized. Many have told me they so appreciate the humanity portrayed in Banyan amidst the tragedy. Seeing how humanity could survive even at such a time gives them hope in their own struggles today. I think Music of the Ghosts will speak even more directly to the potential to heal, to forgive, to triumph.
As your author’s note says, you wrote this book in order to “explore the questions of responsibility, atonement, forgiveness, and justice.” What message do you hope readers will take away from Music of the Ghosts?
Not all of us are refugees or survivors of atrocity. Yet, the experience of survivors—from Cambodia or from more recent tragedies in places such as Syria and Sudan—affects us all. How we respond to violence, individually and collectively, ultimately affects all of us.
Music of the Ghosts is about the survivors of one terrible regime. The questions it probes, however, are more universal: How do we account for the crimes we have committed knowingly, and for the suffering we contribute to perhaps without knowing? What does it take to atone? What is possible to forgive?
These are questions for society, but they are also questions for each of us as individuals. More than providing answers, I hope that my novel will spark conversations among readers that probe these questions fearlessly.
Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, Music is a love story. I hope it will speak to those who’ve been displaced and longed for home, to those who’ve suffered and dared to imagine a new beginning, to those who believe in the capacity of love to mend our wounds.
What can readers expect from your next novel?
In a world defined by walls and borders, what does it mean to be free—in the realm of law and conscience, in the realm of art and expression, in the realm of family? There’s little I can say yet about my next novel at this very early stage. But it begins with a question. What is freedom?