A Lesson from Vaddey Ratner and In the Shadow of the Banyan: Can the human spirit be destroyed?

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Genocide is term that brings a sensation of uneasiness even to people who do not know the definition.  For those individuals who know the definition chills radiate along the spine causing the extremities to quiver.  For those who experienced such violence firsthand, any external wounds may mend leaving only a scar but the internal wounds?  How can the internal injuries heal as one would think that these wounds remain continuously inflamed, ripped apart, and always oozing?

Sadly, history has many examples of genocide.  Whether researching and reading as a professional or as a layperson, the information is always emotional and often difficult to comprehend regardless of forum or method of presentation.  Perhaps it is nothing.  Perhaps it is everything.  But despite the atrocities, the horrors, perpetuated upon others, human lives may and have been eliminated but the human spirit has never been extinguished.

Many reading here will have at least an acquaintance with the term Khmer Rouge and the country of Cambodia during the mid to late 1970s.  Maybe you watched the 1984 film, The Killing Fields.

Others may have read the recent novel written by Vaddey Ratner entitled In the Shadow of the Banyan.

If you are not familiar with this work, you can read reviews from the New York Times here and from the Wall Street Journal here.  The author’s website provides a trove of information as well.

While the events which took place in Cambodia are not within my primary areas of research, an atrocity of that magnitude has a rippling effect across all spectrums.  In regard to the style of writing, the genre of historical fiction is extremely difficult to compose.  While the setting and events are drawn from history, a character or characters who relate the story are often fictional even though these characters may be based upon real individuals.  My background in writing historical fiction came at the Master’s Degree level in a seminar course with Professor Bertram H. Groene.  While Professor Groene authored many works, he is probably best known for a rather short work entitled Tracing Your Civil War Ancestor which has been reprinted many times.  It is a compact, yet highly informative research guide for history or genealogical research.

I mentioned this book even though it is not historical fiction because it represents the concise attention to detail in writing that Professor Groene wanted from his students.  This five or six student seminar course was brutal.  As the semester continued, and we began to write our own works, the class sessions consisted of us reading what we wrote and then a roundtable critiquing from both peers and Professor Groene.  For those who did not take well to constructive criticism, the course would have been a nightmare.  Inside that conference room, Professor Groene pulled no punches.  Outside the classroom, however, he was one of the most supportive and encouraging professors as he always seemed available and willing to assist with breaking down weaknesses and fortifying your strengths within your writing.  While I thrived as a student in that seminar atmosphere, as a professor I do not use the same model in the conference rooms.  I do, however, try my best to duplicate his approach outside the classroom.  This course in historical fiction did prepare me for many of the reviews and critiques a student endures working toward a doctorate.  It also opened the door for me to realize and appreciate not just the difficulty faced by an author writing historical fiction, but the impact that writing in this style can have on a general audience.

Last night an exhibit based on Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan opened at Montgomery College in Maryland.

Vaddey Ratner commented on the discussion on her Facebook page

“When a discussion of one’s book becomes a platform for dialogue about questions that concern us all — the origins of conflict and violence, the possibilities for living together in a world often torn by hatred — it is at once daunting and rewarding. At Montgomery College last month, I wrestled with some of the most challenging questions from a wonderful and engaged audience addressing the potential for atrocity and strategies for its prevention. Tonight they are continuing the discussion with a book group on campus and in May they will mount an exhibit on “Resilience in Conflict and Post-Conflict Transitions” (see last post). Here are some pics from the event.”

Even though the coordinator of the exhibit invited me to say a few words at the opening, I never felt that any words I composed could express how no genocide has ever extinguished that glowing light within the human being.  Lands and people have been torn by hatred, but somehow, somewhere, something so miniscule has always managed to endure, survive, and then grow.  If we could only manage to suppress the darkness and sadness, think of the hope and light that could remain readily visible and available instead of emerging and reemerging?

With that thought, I tried something different for the exhibit.  Instead of speaking for myself, I created a moving image using the words of Vaddey Ratner as an inspiration.  In our own lives, the sun will rise and set.  The clouds will move, and the skies will change in appearance.  If we could look beyond the obvious, and delve slightly beneath the scenery, we might discover a world of hope and promise that has already emerged in brilliant light and has yet to be torn by hatred or even cast within the shadow.

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