Illustration by Susan and Fredrick Dittlau / Think Magazine

Illustration by Susan and Fredrick Dittlau / Think Magazine

In the Land of Fallen Palm Leaves

An essay on art,
imagination, and survival

In a world where absolutes can be deceptive, the artist’s role is an essential one.

think magazine

Not far from the ancient temples of Angkor, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I have built a home nestled among the sky-tall sugar palms. When I am on the land and all else is quiet, I’m sometimes startled by the whistling of a giant palm frond on its swift descent before crashing to the ground. This sound reminds me of the night of my sister’s death, when, despite the surrounding stillness, a pair of twin palms swayed in an apparent gesture of consolation, as if rocking her tiny body. She was only two...


  Photo: National Geographic Traveler

  Photo: National Geographic Traveler

Phnom Penh Crossroads

National Geographic Traveler

“Mama, do you see that echo?” my daughter asked. “On the wall there, looking at me.” She was three years old, and it was her first visit to Phnom Penh, the city of my birth. “Why are there so many in Cambodia?”

I followed her gaze, where she had spied a gecko clinging to a high corner. In her innocent mispronunciation, she’d touched on something I felt was hauntingly apropos: Despite its breathtaking pace of transformation, this is still, for me, a city of echoes, reverberations of the past...




The Cripple's Last Dance


You’ve asked me for my real name. What do I want with real names when fake ones have saved my life? I have many.

You ask how I became a cripple, this creature with bean-sprout legs tucked beneath my rump like a burly toad. You laugh at the ingenuity of your description. What is my history? What is my crime? How have I betrayed you? The Party? The vision?

You know, comrades, you can kill a person with too many questions...


Dance, like any other art, is a form of worship, you see. One false move can break that fragile link between you and your god.

Photo: Pen/Faulkner Foundation

Photo: Pen/Faulkner Foundation

"We live and die because of our words"

They can both hide and expose us. For writers in particular, words are the means by which we endure.


Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC, 10 September 2012

When I was a child in Cambodia, I befriended a cripple. No one knew who he had been before the Khmer Rouge revolution, or how he had become paralyzed from the waist down. Enduring starvation and the decimation of my family, I was slowly losing my ability to speak, my range of expression reduced to loss and fear. Somehow, the two of us, each handicapped and relegated to the category of ‘useless,’ survived even as more capable people fell victim to the weapons of ideology. We ought to be killed, we were told, but because bullets were more valuable than our lives, we would be left to die.

One day, pondering the absurdity of our existence, he quoted a Cambodian proverb to me from a book: Man’s death or survival depends on his tongue. During the Khmer Rouge regime, books were burned and destroyed, almost completely obliterated from society. So to see him holding up this tattered text, I was at once fearful for his life and amazed that he should be brave enough—or crazy enough—to be seen with a book.

At the time, I thought he was trying to tell me that he understood my self-imposed silence as an attempt to stay alive, just as he was trying to survive, to elude capture, by creating multiple selves, inventing competing stories about who he was and who he had been.

Now, decades later, I’ve come to understand that we live and die because of our words. They can both hide and expose us. For writers in particular, words are the means by which we endure.

As a child then—not yet a writer of course, but a child in love with words—I knew even as I chose silence that the legends and dramas my father had read with me would sustain me in this landscape of atrocity. In a place where reading and writing were forbidden, I clung to the poetry of ancient writers, whose words provided me a means of escape—a rare freedom, and possibly a lifeline.

Nietzsche wrote, “We have art so we may not be destroyed by the truth.” When asked today if I ever found out what happened to my father after the soldiers took him away, I must admit the facts: no, we never found out. In all likelihood, he suffered, and he died. While I will never stop mourning his loss, I turned to writing to find another reality beyond these bare facts, an emotional reality. My father is here, I tell myself, inside this book I’ve written in his honor. Now, I would like to believe that he lives forever.

When I think of resilience, I think of the enduring spirits of all those who made it possible for me to survive in the face of concerted efforts to silence individual expression, when rhetoric upholding some distant ideal of equality justified brutality.

As you well know, this impulse to silence is not unique to my country. On the way to Buru Island, where he would be imprisoned for fourteen years, the Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, wrote to his daughter, “I will not close my eyes, neither those in my head nor those in my soul, as the ship carries me away, along with my future, my dreams, and my beliefs. Buru Island… is but a way station on my journey in life—though to believe even that much will require no small measure of hope.” While incarcerated there under inhumane conditions, he crafted the Buru Quartet, one of the great epic novels of the last century.

If hope is our stalwart defiance against injustice, then words, whether composed on paper or in the silence of our conscience, may be our most resilient expression.

As my crippled friend told me, “The elephants have tusks, but we humans, we have our stories.”

And these may prove to outlast us all.


© Vaddey Ratner 2012