In 'Music Of The Ghosts,' A Khmer Rouge Survivor Faces 'The Reality Of Cambodia'

May 11, 2017

Writer Vaddey Ratner is used to processing pain through fiction. Her best-selling debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, was based on her experiences as little girl in Cambodia, where she and her family endured the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge and their killing fields. Ratner and her mother escaped Cambodia, eventually settling in the U.S., but her father disappeared not long after the Khmer Rouge came to power and his fate is still unknown.

A similar mystery is at the heart of Ratner's new novel, Music of the Ghosts. It centers on a Cambodian-American woman, Teera, who receives a letter from an old, blind musician in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. He claims to know what happened to her father, so Teera travels back to her home country to search for answers.

Ratner says, "I wanted to explore the more difficult questions of atonement and forgiveness in this novel. What does it mean to atone? What is possible to forgive? These are questions I continue to confront as a survivor."


Interview Highlights

On Teera feeling torn between two cultures

Teera, like myself, is an individual who struggles with divided selves. She has these two sides, these two selves — one Cambodian, one American. I think Teera, when she's in America she feels this longing for Cambodia; she feels more Cambodian than ever. But once she arrived in Cambodia she realizes that she's a stranger and that she feels very American. And her journey is a journey of trying to reconcile these two selves that she embodies.

On Teera learning that the musician may have had a hand in her father's death, but also understanding that he, too, was a victim

That's the reality of Cambodia. You can be in a taxi with a very gentle person, or at a café talking to somebody who appears to have had this history of immense suffering, and then in the next part of your conversation you learn that this person was a Khmer Rouge soldier. And you do wonder what that person had committed at that time, and you have to arrive at a place where you put away your judgement and just open yourself up to listen.

And I feel that's the only way that, as individuals and as a society, we can move forward. We must arrive at a place where — no matter who we are, on what side of this history we stand, whether as victims or as perpetrator — we have to just come together and just listen; open ourselves up and open ourselves to the possibility that the person who had inflicted pain on us may also have suffered greatly.

On the nature of closure

In the West, particularly in America, there's this whole emphasis on closure. But I have lived around the world so much and I have come to realize that in most parts of world, we go through life without finding closure, and yet we can still live a meaningful life. We can confront tragedy and we can live with that sense of loss, but still life is about taking all that in and [moving] on in the best way we can. Closure isn't static; closure is a process, it's an ongoing process.

On her own relationship to music when she was a child fleeing the Khmer Rouge and today

There was music in my head. Music for me was — when I couldn't speak, music was a kind of ... silent blessing. Music was nutrient for me when I had no food. Music was medicine when words have failed. ...

When you go to Cambodia, you see these ensembles of the wounded and the blind and you carry the music that they play for you because when you hear it you wonder: How can people living in such poverty make this beautiful music? How can they sustain this art that in a sense sustains us in return?

Radio producer Noor Wazwaz, radio editor Shannon Rhoades and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.

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On a Thursday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm Rachel Martin. Good morning. Writer Vaddey Ratner is used to processing pain through fiction. Her best-selling debut novel was based on her experiences as a little girl in Cambodia in the 1970s. She and her family endured the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge and their killing fields. Estimates put the number of dead in the millions. Ratner's new novel is also set in Cambodia, but this tale is told not by a child but a grown woman looking to her past.

VADDEY RATNER: I wanted to explore the more difficult questions of atonement and forgiveness in this novel. What does it mean to atone? What is possible to forgive? These are questions I continue to confront as a survivor.

MARTIN: Vaddey Ratner and her mom did escape Cambodia, eventually settling in the U.S. Her father, though, his fate is still unknown. He disappeared not long after the Khmer Rouge came to power. A similar mystery is at the heart of her new novel. It's called "Music Of The Ghosts." A Cambodian-American woman named Teera receives a letter from an old, blind musician in Phnom Penh, and he claims to know what happened to Teera's father. Teera travels back to Cambodia in search of answers, answers Vaddey Ratner says don't necessarily bring peace of mind.

RATNER: You know, we, in the West, particularly in America, there's this whole emphasis on closure. But I have lived around the world so much, and I have come to realize that in most part of the world, we go through life without finding closure. And yet, we can still live a meaningful life. We can confront tragedy, and we can live with that sense of loss. But still, life is about taking all that in and move on in the best way we can. Closure isn't static. Closure is a process. It's an ongoing process.

MARTIN: At the same time, this particular story builds to a moment of closure. It builds to this conversation between the old musician and Teera. The whole time, the reader kind of knows it's going to happen at some point. Would you mind reading a passage that kind of captures what transpires between these two people as they try to reconcile the truth?

RATNER: OK, yes. It would be my pleasure. (Reading) It ceases to be what it was. Anguish, grief, despair - it surrounds her like a fluorescence of dust motes in the sunlight. And yet, it no longer possesses the weight and solidity to drag her to the bottom, to the darkness within as it did those days right after she and the old musician spoke. Instead, it moves with her, rising when she rises, sitting when she sits, the sorrow of knowing. It's clear that she can put the dead to rest, bury the ghosts but not the knowledge. What she knows will now become part of her, an abiding consciousness.

MARTIN: So on the outside, it might appear that in that conversation a truth was revealed. There is some kind of closure, but it is not done for her. The truth has just awakened a new level of grief.

RATNER: Yes, a new level of grief, but because she comes out of a history in which not knowing is so immense, such a - this black hole in her life, I think there is a different quality to the sorrow of knowing, that it is somehow something more embraceable, something that can accompany her, that can continue with her.

MARTIN: We should say - I don't want to give too much away - but there is a connection between the old musician and her father. They were imprisoned, and she has to look at this old musician as someone who may have had a hand in her father's death, and at the same time, she realizes that he too was a victim of all this.

RATNER: Yes. And that's the reality of Cambodia. You can be in a taxi with a very gentle person or at a cafe talking to somebody who appears to have had this history of immense suffering. And then, in the next part of your conversation, you learn that this person was a Khmer Rouge soldier. And you have to arrive at a place where you put away your judgment and just open yourself up to listen and open ourselves to the possibility that the person who had inflicted pain on us may also have suffered greatly.

MARTIN: I'd like to end the conversation with a question about music. It is the title of the book, "Music Of The Ghosts." It is such an important character in this story in and of itself. Was there music in your own childhood amidst all the horror that was happening?

RATNER: There was music in my head. Music for me was - when I couldn't speak, music was kind of unseen and unheard and silent - this silent blessing. Music was nutrient for me when I had no food. Music was medicine. When words fail, music is our other voice, I believe.

MARTIN: Do you hear that music when you're in Cambodia today?

RATNER: Yes, I hear it all the time. When you go to Cambodia, you see these ensembles of the wounded and the blind. And you carry the music that they play for you because you - when you hear it, you wonder how can people living in such poverty make this beautiful music. How can they sustain this art that in a sense sustains us in return?

MARTIN: The book is called "Music Of The Ghosts." It's written by Vaddey Ratner. Thank you so much for talking with us.

RATNER: Thank you so much, Rachel, for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHMER JAZZ FUSION'S "PINN PEAT")

MARTIN: And this afternoon on All Things Considered, top economic grad students and the firms that hire them come together once a year for three days for speed-dating-style job interviews. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.