The Vietnam War is one that has always puzzled me. First, I know it was a time of social upheaval in the United States, but I’d also always heard that no one really knew what Americans were fighting for. In high school, I learned something to this effect: bad things were happening in Cambodia with a dictator named Pol Pot, which meant Cambodians were fleeing to Laos as refugees. And Vietnam tied in how? Of course, thinking about all this I see that regardless of what happened, my view is Americentric. It’s not about how Americans felt from so far away, but what happened to the people who lived where the war took place.
First, They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers is a memoir by Loung Ung, first published in 2000. She narrates the story in present tense as herself when she was five. Because her “character” is so young, the details of what’s happening early on are unclear. Basically, a General Nol overthrew the Cambodian Prince’s government in 1970. Loung Ung’s father worked for the general’s government. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodia Civil War and overthrew General Nol’s government when they invaded the capitol of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, where Ung and her family lived. Her father had to hid who he worked for or risk his whole family being killed.
The family lives through the Cambodia Genocide, a time when the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, tried to enact communism in the country. People are starving to death everywhere, working to grow crops that they can’t eat because the Khmer Rouge sell those crops to China to pay for weapons. Everyone has the same black pajama clothes, same short haircut, and no one must reveal if they’ve been educated or lived in a city.
The book, thus, is educational but appropriately confusing at first. Less knowledgeable readers will gain information about the Genocide as it happens along with Ung. Readers will fear the Vietnamese when the Ung family is told to by the Khmer Rough and feel saved by the Vietnamese when they help wipe out the Khmer Rouge.
Because the story is all in first-person present-tense, you feel like you’re trying to survive with this little starving girl. I listened to the audio book, and it is really hard to engage with for more than 15-20 minutes. The narrator, Tavia Gilbert, reads clearly and emotionally, and one benefit of the audio book is hearing correct pronunciations of the cities’ and people’s names. But the intensity of Gilbert’s reading meant I couldn’t listen my whole forty-minute commute, and one day I almost threw up from feeling so awful.
Strangely, sometimes Ung writes from a family member’s perspective in present tense. For instance, she wasn’t there when her brother got caught stealing corn and is beaten, but he did tell her about it when he returned home. When two of her family members are murdered, she describes it in present tense from their points of view, though Ung wasn’t there and never knew what actually happened for certain. Why does she do this? Is this creative nonfiction more so that memoir? I do see reasons the author may have chose such points of view: she humanizes her family’s experiences by giving them the reader’s full attention and puts us in their shoes. It is strange, but you get wrapped up in the telling, too.
Ung’s writing skills are impressive, guiding readers through her entire family — all nine of them — and giving each person a quality to separate him or her from the rest. I rarely confused their names and grew to hope for each one individually. The horrible imagery (and there is a lot) is brief enough to get the point across, but meaningful in a way that honestly depicts the Cambodian Genocide.
The ending doesn’t polish up Ung’s life to make it happy. Though she clearly lives to write this memoir, I never knew how until it happened. The misery goes on and on — again, like you’re living it yourself. There’s an anger that will boil in any sympathetic reader. What I learned after I read the book is that there are two more memoirs: Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind (2005) and Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness (2012). I’m not sure that I’ll read these, though I must admit, her first “Daughter of Cambodia” memoir is good enough to make me brave what misery may lay in her other books.
One of my book blog friends, Alicia @ A Kernel of Nonsense, mentioned a book she read set in Asia, and I felt ashamed that I had none I could point to on my reading list. When I found this audio book and knew I could listen to it on my commute, I was pleased. However, the experience was more meaningful that I had predicted, and I am now on the hunt for memoirs in audio book format from non-Western countries so I can increase a global perspective.