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

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

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.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.