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'In the Shadow of the Banyan' by Vaddey Ratner

Book Club Discussion Questions

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In the Shadow of the Banyan

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Simon & Schuster
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner is historical fiction that is heavily based on the author's own story (as revealed in the "Author's Note" at the end of the book). These questions will help you or your book club explore not only the story, but also the way Ratner's writing examines deeper themes.

Note: Book clubs interested in a themed discussion should check out these articles on Cambodian food and Cambodian culture.

Spoiler Warning: These questions reveal important details about the novel. Finish the book before reading on.

Questions about the Plot:

  1. How much did you know about this period of Cambodian history before reading In the Shadow of the Banyan? What did you learn?
  2. What images of brutality and devastation have remained with you most since reading the novel?
  3. What images of hope and love have remained with you most?
  4. Why did Papa have to leave? Do you think it was more to protect his family or more from guilt about his place of privilege and complicity in injustice toward the poor? (Such as the story he shares about his childhood friend who was beaten).
  5. How do Pok and Mae help the family?
  6. Do you think Raami held onto guilt for revealing her father's name or letting her sister get bitten by mosquitoes? Do you think her mother resented her? Was it fair to expect so much from a seven year old?
  7. How did the revelation of Raami's mother's childhood story change your opinion of her? Did it also show a darker side to the Buddhism her father embraced (ie, Raami's grandfather abandoning her mother and the rest of his family and not being allowed to comfort his own children after their mother's suicide)? How did Raami reconcile these things?
  8. What finally caused Big Uncle to give up?
  9. Why did Raami stop speaking?
  10. The ending and the author's note seem to stress the value of remembering. Why do you think this is important?
Questions that Examine the Writing & Metaphors/Themes within Specific Passages:

  1. There are several passages at the beginning of the novel that address the Buddhist stories Raami's father shared with her and the idea of transformation or heaven. For instance, when Om Bao is mourning, Raami thinks, "He was still mourning her. He wouldn't see what I saw. He wouldn't believe me. When he was ready, I would show him this secret world, where all he thought he had lost was in fact only hidden -- transformed. And only then would he discern the invisible, the magical" (23).

    Then later, after their first night sleeping in the old temple, Papa wakes Raami up early to show her the prayer hall covered in ribbons of fog. "'It's so beautiful.' [she says].

    'It is, isn't it?' Papa squeezed my hand. 'That's why I wanted you to see it.' He let out a long, slow breath, adding to the vapor around us. 'It's a gift to be able to imagine heaven, and a rebirth to actually glimpse it.'

    'Is this heaven then?' I asked, blinking away the last remnants of sleep, thinking perhaps I was still dreaming.

    'At least its mirror image" [Papa said]. 'If one glimpses heaven's reflection on earth, then somewhere must exist the real thing'" (71).

    Then later in the conversation, Papa says, "You see, Raami, as beautiful as this temple is, it's only a tiny, modest glimpse of what is divinely possible in all of us. We are capable of extraordinary beauty if we dare to dream...No matter what ugliness or destruction you may witness around you, I want you always to believe that the tiniest glimpse of beauty here and there is a reflection of the gods' abode. It is real, Raami. There exists such a place, such sacred space" (72).

    How does the hope of heaven and a larger narrative help Raami in the story? Is she able to hold onto it throughout? Do you think these passages reflect a life-truth?

  2. Raami's mother is more practical and finds less comfort from stories or religion. She says to Raami after her sister's death, "I have no stories to tell you, Raami. There is only this reality -- when your sister died, I wanted to die with her. But I fought to live. I live because of you -- for you" (223). Which do you think is more helpful, her mother's steely but realistic struggle to survive or her father's focus on seeing glimpses of another, better world? Which does Raami choose? What do you choose?
  3. At the end of the novel, Raami says, "A story, I had learned through my own constant knitting and reknitting of remembered words, can lead us back to ourselves, so our lost innocence, and in the shadow it casts over our present world, we begin to understand what we only intuited in our naivete -- that while all else may vanish, love is our one eternity" (310). What do you think of this interpretation of the stories that sustained her? Of her own story?
  4. Toward the beginning of the novel, when Om Bao is mourning, he says,"'I lived because she lived. Now she is gone. Without her, I am nothing, Princess. Nothing.'

    'Oh.' To mourn then, I thought, is to feel your own nothingness" (22).

    Later, Mae tells Raami about their calf that died and how the mother cow will not stop moaning for it. Pok is carving her a little calf to hang around her neck. "'You mean like a charm?' I felt certain that even an animal as dull witted as a cow would know the difference between her real calf and a miniature wooden replica. 'Why? What for?' <> 'Oh, I don't know,' Mae said, closing the front door. 'I suppose he just wants to give shape to her sorrow'

    ...Soon, Mae and Radana were snoring back and forth, like a pair of whistles answering each other's calls, while Mama and I searched for the dark shapes of our sorrows" (166).

    In what ways does grief have a shape? In what ways is it like feeling your own nothingness? Discuss grief in the novel and in your own experience.

  5. Raami's father tells her the story of his childhood friend who was poor and was beaten for arguing with him. Later, after the temple sweeper disappears, Raami says, "I realized with a start how the sparseness of one existence mirrored another, how an old man's poverty gave a glimpse of the hardship he must have endured when he was a boy, must have suffered his whole life, and that small, forgotten patch of ground, with its dilapidated hut and drenched belongings, held in it the devastation of Papa's childhood friend. It was clear that the old sweeper was a version of Sambath, and just as I saw a manifestation of my father in everything that was noble and good, he saw a manifestation of his friend everywhere, in every poverty-stricken person he met, and tried to do for each what he hadn't been able to do for his friend" (122).

    Just as, in this passage, Raami is able to see the bigger picture in one small story, so this idea of finding the larger truth in the everyday continues throughout the novel. When Raami has lived with Pok and Mae for a while, she says, "And so, as I navigated the human terrain, as I negotiated for my survival, I began to discern what Pok had wanted me to see that day when he walked us across the rice fields and showed me what lay beneath the paddy water -- that hidden in the unbroken and seemingly imperturbable monotony of rural geography, existed those, like needle leeches, who fed on blood and destruction. If I was to survive my uprooting and transplantation, I must grow and stretch myself as a young rice shoot would. I must rise above the mire and muck, the savagery of my environment, while appearing to thrive in it" (186).

    Discuss the role of metaphor in the novel, the role of metaphor in the cultivation of hope, and the role of metaphor in personal growth.

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