Cambodian author to visit Darien Library, tell story of Khmer Rouge

Photo of Erin Kayata

DARIEN — Vaddey Ratner grew up in Cambodia, a country she remembers as being a beautiful home.

When she was 5, however, the Khmer Rouge regime took over, subjecting Ratner and millions of other Cambodians to forced labor and starvation. Around 2 million Cambodians lost their lives during that time. Ratner and her mother were able to escape to the United States after four years, though her father was killed after being taken away by soldiers at the beginning of the regime.

Ratner went on to graduate summa cum laude from Cornell University, where she studied Southeast Asian history and literature and now splits her time between Malayasia and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. But she remains haunted by her childhood experience.

“I think an experience like Khmer Rouge will mark you forever,” she said. “That’s part of who you are ... because you have to live with it, you have to find a way that allows you to move forward in a way that gives purpose and meaning to this life that is a gift to you, but so arbitrary.”

Ratner said she often wondered why her life was spared and how she could honor and bring understanding to the events she survived. So, she turned to writing.

“As a survivor, I feel a sense of duty to the dead,” she said. “I need to keep asking questions like, ‘Why did this happen?’ ‘What choices did we have?’ and ‘How do we attribute to wrongs we may have committed?’ I want to continue to ask that question as a duty to those who are no longer alive, so the world won’t forget, so things like this are less likely to happen.”

In 2013, Ratner published her debut novel, “In the Shadow of the Banyan,” a fictionalized account of her experience growing up under the Khmer Rouge. On April 11, her second novel, “Music of the Ghosts,” will be released. The book follows a woman who returns to the Southeast Asian nation to find answers about her father, who died in the Cambodian holocaust.

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Meet the author

Vaddey Ratner will be at the Darien Library on April 17 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. to talk about "Music of the Ghosts." For information, visit

Ratner will discuss and sign her new work when she visits the Darien Library on April 17. Despite being set worlds away from suburban Connecticut, Ratner’s work has resonated with Darien residents.

“The thing I love about Vaddey Ratner’s work is that while her own harrowing personal experiences decidedly colors her work, it colors it with a real humanity and hope,” said Jen Dayton, who works at the Darien Library and introduced her co-workers to the strength of Ratner’s work. “You walk away from one of her books believing in your fellow man, not despairing because of the inhumanity that we are capable of.”

Though both of Ratner’s books are fiction, each reflects a different part of her journey as a survivor of the Khmer Rouge.

“‘In the Shadow of the Banyan’ is autobiographical,” Ratner said. “It’s a story of survival. ‘Music of the Ghosts’ is not autobiographical or a continuation of ‘In the Shadow of Banyan,’ but is a continuation of the questions I confront as an adult and a survivor of war and genocide.”

While “In the Shadow of the Banyan” is told in a linear fashion with characters based on Ratner and her family, “Music of the Ghosts” bounces between the perspective of a half-blind Cambodian musician and an American woman going to Cambodia to confront her past as the book deals with the connection between her and the musician. Both characters are fictional, but reflective of Ratner’s feelings about her father’s death and her survival of the Khmer Rouge.

“I think (the musician’s) character grew out of my desire to understand what happened to my father,” Ratner said. “The character of the old musician is not based on my father, but the desire to imagine the suffering of someone whose experience is so different from my own and especially the suffering of an adult at that time. I was a child when I went through it, and that desire to imagine the depths of the inhumanity others may have endured, it came out of a sense of responsibility as a survivor.”

It might be hard for readers in Darien to imagine growing up under an oppressive regime, but Mallory Arents, the library’s head of adult programming, said Ratner’s first book was well received among Darien readers.

“Our community likes a couple of different things in terms of writing,” said Arents. “I think primarily people are interested in literary fiction and people love a story with an international lens or (one that) lets them put on the shoes of another human being. People want to to be transported.”

The reader-writer relationship is mutually beneficial, as Ratner hopes readers garner an understanding of her experience, and see Cambodia beyond its violent past and pay tribute to those who didn’t survive it.

“The place I loved as child was viewed as a place of death and destruction, and even as I lived through that, I remember it as a place that was beautiful,” the author said. “I wanted to show that world to a much-larger audience, an audience that had very little understanding of what Cambodia was before it became a killing field.

“What motivated me to write ‘In the Shadow of the Banyan’ was the need to pay tribute to the dead, and the same thing with ‘Music of the Ghosts.’ I want this to be a continual act of honoring those lives that are gone and the suffering I continued to witness,” she said.; @erin_kayata