First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung

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.

first they 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.

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36 comments

  1. I’ve heard a lot about this one. It sounds like a powerful, sometimes harrowing story. I can see why it would be hard to listen to it for more than a short while at a time. I’m glad there is that personal, first-hand account of what happened in Cambodia, from someone who is from that place. As you say, it’s easy to see that story from an Americentric perspective…

  2. I’m afraid Cambodia’s downfall began when it was secretly bombed by Nixon and Kissinger during the Vietnam War.

    Can I recommend Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, the story of a North Vietnamese soldier, comparable to All Quiet on the Western Front

    • You can recommend anything you like! ☺️ I’ll see if my library has it. I’ve recently moved in to a memoir that’s quite similar (so far) to Ung’s about the Liberian civil war.

  3. What I remember hearing about Cambodia as a kid was that everyone with glasses was killed because it showed they could read. Likely an oversimplification but it stuck with me as a glasses-wearing kid. I’m hesitant to read something so intense but I also feel like it’s important to know the truth about history and honour people’s stories but not hiding from the hard stuff.

    • Yes! Ung mentioned people not wearing glasses or they would be killed. People who couldn’t see just bumping around. I’m guessing the book is less intense if you read it instead of listening to it like I did.

  4. I’ve never really understood the Vietnam War either – just that it was a kind of proxy war between the Chinese and the Americans. I believe it’s the only war America fought in the last century that Britain refused to join in with them, but again I’m pretty vague as to why not. I suspect the then British government felt it was an unjust war but I could be completely wrong on that. I don’t really like personal memoirs much, but I really must read a political history of the war sometime…

    • I found the author’s perspective easy to follow because she was so young when the war started. Basically, she knows nothing, so the story, written in first-person, is told as if we know nothing, too.

      What do you not like about personal memoirs? I’m starting to think I like autobiography better than memoir. The autobiography just goes through a person’s life, leaving the reader to decide what’s interesting and what’s time passing. The memoir is a book that the author writes after having decided a certain thing that happened to him/her is “very important.”

      • For FF. I was a draft resister during the Vietnam War because all through the cold war the Americans sought to overthrow any government they deemed to be socialist (The Congo, Angola, Chile, Vietnam springs to mind, though the CIA was also involved in the overthrow of an elected government in Australia). The North Vietnamese, who had just thrown off the Japanese and French occupying forces, sought help not from their enemies the Chinese, but from the USSR.

        • Interesting – thank you! I had no idea about the Australian government thing. Because I was a kid during the Vietnam period we didn’t learn anything about it at school but I was too young to be properly interested in current affairs, so the sixties and early seventies are kind of a gap in my knowledge. I really must look for some good history books on the period.

      • The fact that they’re personal memoirs basically! I prefer more distance and less bias when learning about a piece of history I know nothing about. I’m more likely to read a memoir about something I do know about already, but even then I often find the bias gets in my way. It’s just personal preference, though.

  5. This sounds way too intense for me, but I do understand the feeling of wanting to read more by Asians and set in Asia. I was reminded when I saw quite a few posts today about Asian Lit Bingo. It’s something I need to rectify in my reading.

    • There are many books set in Asia that aren’t about war, but I know that many cultures, families, borders, etc. are defined by war. Notice how many fiction books out there have two timelines, one about a Vietnamese-American and one about their grandparents in Vietnam, etc. I’ve seen a few of those.

  6. Wow, this sounds incredible. And really intense. I’m not sure I’d be able to get through it. No need to feel ashamed, just means you have some incredible reads ahead of you.

  7. Wow this sounds like a powerful book. I’ve read a few about the Vietnam war, the Khemer Rouge rule, etc. and I’m always surprised at how brutal it all was, it seems like we should have heard more about it here in Western countries considering how many people died. I wonder how reading it vs listening to it would have been different?

    • The audio actor was fantastic. She would get loud, simplistic, angry, confused, etc. as needed to really convey the emotions of a five-year-old girl who had a good life and, over the years, fixates on killing Pol Pot.

  8. I’d not heard of this book before, but this is definitely a part of history (like most of it, haha) that I know almost nothing about. It sounds like a difficult read, but a good one. Was it confusing enough at the beginning that you had to google to follow along or was there enough explanation to help you out?

    • I tried to Google because I feel like I should know more history, but then I realized that knowing more than the narrator when she was five wouldn’t actually make a huge difference. It’s fine to learn as she does.

  9. I’ve read a couple of novels on this subject, and was struck by how horrible the conditions were. Dogs At the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien and The Disappeared by Kim Echlin. Both are very good!

    I love how reading about something leads to more books! Unfortunately, it doesn’t lead to more time…

    • No, but since I’m sticking to audio books, I have time for this new interest any time I drive. I’m still doing the “meet me in the middle” challenge I developed at the new year.

  10. Solid review, as always, Melanie. This book was once on my To Read list, but as you pointed out, it can be incredibly overwhelming. I had a few friends recommend that this isn’t the right book for me to read. For goodness sake, I had to pull over on the freeway and ugly cry during the Into Thin Air audiobook. And, while it’s traumatic, it’s not nearly as bad.

    Do you know anyone who has read the other two memoirs (Creative non-fiction?) who can let you know if they are worth continuing? Whenever I read memoirs broken into pieces, I always feel compelled to continue– no matter how painful the content might be. I’m looking at you, Angelou. 😉

    • Wait, why did you ugly cry at Into Thin Air? I haven’t read that one, but I have read Into the Wild, and Loung Ung’s book is waaaaaaay more emotional than that one. The only nonfiction book I’ve found more upsetting was Missoula, but that’s because I’ve been surrounded by football and rape culture most of my life. In fact, the University of Notre Dame was mentioned in Missoula, referencing a girl who attended ND’s sister school across the street who died by suicide while I taught at her school.

      I’m thinking I will read Ung’s follow-up memoirs even though I don’t have them in audiobook format. They have to be better to some degree, better than a genocide….right?

      • I was a bit shocked that I ugly cried for this book, honestly. Krakauer does such a great job helping you understand the people of the exhibition that when things started to go horribly wrong, and people started to die, I felt like I was losing characters I loved. Looking back at it, this is strange for me. I mean, I’m a crier, but not often for non-fiction. I attribute this to Krakauer’s journalistic details while writing in such a way it felt like fiction. I really connected with those climbing the mountain.

        Ah, see, I think this is an attribution to the strength of Krakauer’s writing. Missoula is on my TBR (along with all his other books, let’s be honest) because I feel like I *need* to read it. There are so many troubling things happening in our own country we aren’t seeing everything from. It’s not genocide, but it’s still horrifying.

        I don’t know anyone who has read Lucky Child, but I imagine it’s also going to be challenging. But, perhaps not through audiobook. While I prefer non-fiction in audiobook most times, I think I need to recognize when to walk away from challenging topics in this format.

        • I can’t say that I recommend Missoula to anyone…I was really upset about it for days. Honestly, it’s mostly detailed step-by-step descriptions of rape and then detailed step-by-step descriptions of what happens in a court situation during which people attempt to ruin the victim’s credibility and get away with it. You don’t learn anything you didn’t already know, but you have horrible details and images in your head now, a deep sense of injustice, and a powerless feeling with no hope of overcoming it (given current statistics on rapists never spending a day in jail).

  11. A friend of mine picked this up at the bookstore and said she wanted to read it. Books like this are so important for everyone to be exposed to, to live through someone else’s life during such an awful experience. I’ll add this to my nonfiction list

    • You can read this as a stand-alone novel, but be aware that it has two more books about Ung’s life! I hate getting sucked into series, but this one might be worth it, especially if I can find audiobook versions of the second and third memoirs. They’re not at my library. :/

  12. Wow, this sounds like such a harrowing read. I’m really fuzzy about all of the history in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and have always wanted to read more to learn more about it. I’m impressed that in high school you actually learned a little bit about the Vietnam War! We never got to that recent of events when I was in high school – we never made it past learning about WW2. This book sounds like it might be a good place to start – rather than focusing on the facts sounds like it focuses more on the human stories.

    • The human stories really sort out a lot of the history, so I DO think this is a good book to read to get the historical perspective, too. Because Ung is confused, we learn with her. But of course she learns what people have heard, which means there may be places where you don’t get ALL the history. I’m not sure if that makes sense. Basically, she’s not a journalist, so she’s not looking at what happens happening from multiple perspectives. However, it helped me better comprehend what I had learned previously.

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