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

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.

Many of Vaddey Ratner's family members perished in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
Kristina Sherk / Courtesy of Touchstone
Courtesy of Touchstone
Many of Vaddey Ratner's family members perished in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

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.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.