Monday, July 1, 2013

Thoughts on In The Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

When I was a little girl, I spent a large amount of time reading about unimaginable tragedy. I wanted to read books about slavery, about hiding in upstairs attics during World War II (there are a surprising many more books about this than just Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl by the way), about the genocide in Bosnia, and anything that involved a concentration camp.

My mother and my teachers thought my obsession was morbid and despite my mother's efforts to lead me towards the vast Babysitter's Club section of the library (which I equally devoured) I was always drawn back to these kinds of stories, particularly anything that involved mass tragedy.      

Even in college at Cornell, I remember taking a Women's Studies class, one of the few classes, beyond credits of required sciences and math, I was able to exclusively seek out and choose for myself, Women In the Holocaust. I remember signing up with Hillel, The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, a year later to take a journey to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a trip that involved an overnight eight hour bus-ride in which I hardly slept, an early arrival walking in the imaginary discarded shoes of a real victim of this tragedy, and an immediate turn-around trip back to Ithaca.  

I remember that a lot of people were confused by my intense interest in this period of history, particularly the people on this trip, some who remembered me from that class.  You are not Jewish, they said. My only response was to shake my head, I'm not.  

Then why?

To understand.

It's been a life-long obsession for me, to understand, to answer, not the question of how, but the question of why.  Why, in the shadow of my own great fortune, this kind of intolerance exists, why it repeats itself, why it happens in other countries, why it happens in our own. A futile question, in many ways, despite this life-long search.

Yesterday, I read one of the most beautiful books I've read in a long time. In the Shadow Of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner. Yes, it's about genocide, but I can not simplify the book and say that's really what it's about. I don't feel I can do this book justice with my own words, so I give you Ratner's, who tells this extraordinary story based on her own experience in Cambodia as a child under the rule of the Khmer Rouge:

A story, I had learned, through my own constant knitting and re-knitting of remembered words, can lead us back to ourselves, to our lost innocence, and in the shadow it casts over our present world, we begin to understand why we only intuited in our naivete -- that while all else may vanish, love is our one eternity.

It is this line, love is our one eternity, and this book in its entirety, that, after all these years, helped me realize, despite concerned teachers and parents labeling my obsession with tragedy and struggle as a child as morbid and morose, and confused students in the back of a bus to the museum wondering why I traveled to understand, even a confused me, as I check out more and more books from the library about these kinds of topics, that,  in fact, it is not tragedy and death I am forever obsessed with. But survival. Human triumph. Eternal love.


  1. If you're morbid, then so am I. Although, like you, I don't read these sorts of books because I have a fascination with death; it's more of an amazement at the strength of the human spirit. My class took a field trip to the Holocaust Museum when I was in high school and it's the shoes that have stuck with me all these years because they're such ordinary objects. Even kids can look at them and understand that the people who used to wear them aren't here anymore.

  2. Beautifully put. I love that line you wrote, "In the shadow of my own great fortune." I have these same questions and have always been drawn to tragedy, but I realize that it must have a triumph at the end for it to mean something than just tragedy. I've seen this book, and now I'll have to read it! Was this the one you read in a day on a Sunday? Dreamy.

  3. I, too, was always drawn to books about World War II and the Holocaust. When I taught History and English in high school, we spent a lot of time on that time period and the Sudanese conflict of the past 30 years. Some students also had that same draw, and I love your awareness of WHY we are drawn to these stories repeatedly.

    I'll definitely be checking out that book.

  4. similarly, or not, i LOVE true crime books. it's almost a gross obsession. my brother and i once took a trip to hawaii and had acquired so many true crime books and had them laying all over our hotel room. we imagined the cleaning people probably thought we were serial killers.

    i haven't read this book, but you made me want to!