First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
By Luong Ung, 2000
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it.”
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There are so many memoirs written by victims of the Khmer Rouge that it’s hard to figure out which one to read.
Some people might be turned off by this fact. However, it was made into a movie simply because it’s a good story. You won’t go wrong starting here. A well-written, moving, and emotionally gut-wrenching book. You can feel what the narrator is feeling—her anger, her sadness, her hatred, but also her love for her family. It’s hard not to be emotionally pulled into the story and not to come out feeling more empathetic than you were before reading the book.
For more books on Cambodia, check out my post of the 25 Best Books Cambodia: Read Before You Go!
The author, Luong Ung, was five years old when on April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and forced everyone including her parents and six brothers and sisters to leave the city for the countryside. Like many city families, they eventually ended up in a labor camp in the northwest, the area of the country that experienced the worst of the four years under the Khmer Rouge (1975 – 1979).
There is one important thing about the family that makes their situation more tenuous than most. The father was a high-ranking military officer in the Lon Nol government. If found out, he would surely be killed. The father is smart, though, and he keeps the family moving, evading discovery. Anytime he senses danger, they change camps.
You know from the title of the book that the father’s background will eventually catch up to him. Knowing this from the beginning doesn’t detract from the story. In fact, it gives it an added sense of suspense. You know it will happen; you just don’t know when.
I have to admit that one thought kept on going through my mind as I read this book: She was 5 years old when these events started. How was she able to remember it all? How accurate is her account of events?
Also, can we ever be sure of what really happens in our own lives? Reality can often be perceived differently by different people. A former reporter for the New York Times, Tim Carr, wrote a book called The Night of The Gun. In it, he mentions that his recollection of events that he swears happened at a particular time and a particular order are true, while he finds that when asking other people about the same events, they recall events happening in a completely different way.
I think we can take all memoirs as a reflection of someone’s perception of what happened. That’s all they are and that’s generally good with me as long as they didn’t invent things intentionally like James Fry did in A Million Little Pieces. So probably her account is not much more accurate or less accurate than an adults’.
If you’re planning on a trip to Cambodia and want to read a book on Cambodia to better understand the country, I highly recommend adding First They Killed My Father to your reading list. It’s one of the best memoirs written about the time Cambodia was under the Khmer Rouge. It will also give you an understanding of what it must have felt like to be one of the 2 million victims of the Khmer Rouge.
Even if you have no plans on visiting Cambodia, First They Killed My Father is still an important book to read. It will help you get an idea of what happens to a country when it falls under an autocratic regime that puts ideology above people.
I’ve read the book twice. The first time was in the print version and the second time in audio. The print version is of course terrific. The audio is also good. I would have preferred someone of Cambodian descent to have narrated, but overall, the narrator did a decent job with the different voices. Her voice is also youthful-sounding enough to go with the age of Loung of five years old. The best part of the audio version is that you learn how to pronounce everyone’s Cambodian name.
The best advice I can give you is to pay attention to the names of all the family members at the beginning, so you can keep them straight as you read along. There are 7 children along with the father and mother and aunt and uncle.
- Loung – narrator; 5 years old at the beginning of the book
- Pa – father; half Cambodian half Chinese; a major in the military
- Ma – mother; Chinese ancestry
- Meng – oldest brother; 18 years old; responsible, reliable, and kind
- Khoi – 16 years old; other siblings fear him
- Keav – 14 years old; beautiful
- Kim – 10 years old; small and quick
- Chou – 8 years old; quiet, shy, and obedient
- Gaek – 3 years old; adorable
“I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it. ”
“In my heart I know the truth, but my mind cannot accept the reality of what this all means.”
“This is what the war has done to me. Now I want to destroy because of it. There is such hate and rage inside me now. The Angkar has taught me to hate so deeply that I now know I have the power to destroy and kill.”
About the Author – Loung Ung
Loung Ung is an author, human rights activist and public speaker. She was born in Cambodia in 1970. She came to the United States in the summer of 1980 as a refugee, settling down in Vermont. She attended St. Michael’s College in Vermont. She has worked on projects to end violence against women, to stop the use of child soldiers, and to eradicate landmines. Along with First They Killed My Father, she has also written two sequels about her life: Lucky Child and Lulu in the Sky.
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