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Fact or Fiction, Is One Better at Presenting the Truth of Trauma?

In nonfiction, people traumatized by events might be inclined to soften the details as a form of self-protection.

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Today’s feature story is a Q&A with Cambodian author Vaddey Ratner, whose first novel — In the Shadow of the Banyan — offers a fictionalized account of her childhood under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and survival of the subsequent Cambodian genocide. Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power and endured more than four years, according to her personal biography, of forced labor, starvation, and near execution, only to escape as many of her family members — including her father — died or were left behind.

Ratner certainly had the option to tell the story a nonfiction account, but opted for fiction instead. Why do you think that is? Does fiction allow the writer — who was very young at the time the real events took place — the opportunity through imagination to get closer to the emotional truth? Yes, perhaps. Ironically, it might also allow her to get closer to the factual truth.

A novelist has just as much opportunity as the historian, biographer or journalist, to investigate and mine for facts in what is a story clouded by the chaos of war. In fact, those traumatized by real life events might even be more inclined, given the passage of time, to soften the details in order not to reopen wounds. Fiction by its very nature allows for more flexibility and, possibly, tenderness on behalf of the writer. What’s more, it might just be easier on the reader to know that the horrors which they are reading are “fiction” even if, for all intents and purposes, they are reality.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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  1. Gina
    Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is an example of this. Only decades later could Wintersen write a nonfiction version of her atrocious childhood.

  2. Posted August 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I’m looking forward to reading Vaddey Ratner’s book, having met her briefly after a BEA panel. I asked her if she was optimistic and received a long, heartfelt, thoughtful response of “yes.”

    A good examples of fictionalized version of a painful, true-to-life experience is What is the What? by Dave Eggers, based on the stories of the Lost Boys of Sudan. It’s interesting to contrast that story (basically a composite of experiences) with Zeitoun, his nonfiction book about misjustice against a business man of Middle Eastern descent. Both books engage and enrage.

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