First They Killed My Father – A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung
Harper Collins/February 2000
From a childhood survivor of Cambodia’s brutal Pol Pot regime comes an unforgettable narrative of war crimes and desperate actions, the unnerving strength of a small girl and her family, and their triumph of spirit.
Until the age of five, Lounge Ung lived in Phnom Penh, one of seven children of a high-ranking government official. She was a precocious child who loved the open city markets, fried crickets, chicken fights, and sassing her parents. While her beautiful mother worried that Loung was a troublemaker — that she stomped around like a thirsty cow — her beloved father knew Lounge was a clever girl.
When Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army stormed into Phnom Penh in April 1975, Ung’s family fled their home and moved from village to village to hide their identity, their education, their former life of privilege. Eventually, the family dispersed in order to survive.
Because Lounge was resilient and determined, she was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans, while other siblings were sent to labor camps. As the Vietnamese penetrated Cambodia, destroying the Khmer Rouge, Loung and her surviving siblings were slowly reunited.
Bolstered by the shocking bravery of one brother, the vision of the others — and sustained by her sister’s gentle kindness amid brutality — Loung forged on to create for herself a courageous new life.
You may remember my review of In the Shadow of the Banyan a few weeks back. While reading Banyan I kept wishing that the author had written a memoir instead. Quixotic Magpie, a fellow blogger, suggested that I try First They Killed My Father.
This was exactly the kind of book I wanted to read about that time and place. It was brutal and unforgettable. It was awful but hopeful.
I knew it wouldn’t be an easy read but Ung’s love for her family, her honesty, her determination to make it through made this a story of redemption.
Ung tells the story in an honest and forthright matter without pulling any punches. I highly recommend this book.
“Kim tells me that from now on I have to watch out for myself. Not only am I never to talk to anyone about our former lives, but I’m never to trust anyone either. It is best if I just stop talking completely so I won’t unintentionally disclose information about our family. To talk is to bring danger to the family. At five years old, I am beginning to know what lonliness feels like, silent and alone and suspecting that everyone wants to hurt me.”
“I do not care why or how the Angkor plans to restore Cambodia. All I know is the constant pain of hunger in my stomach.”
“Nothing should be this beautiful. The gods are playing tricks on us. How could they be so cruel and still make the sky so lovely? I want to destroy all the beautiful things.”
12 thoughts on “First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung”
Though works like this are horrifying, I find myself reading a fair amount of things like this. As much as I believe in understanding and championing the good in the world, I also think that to understand people and the universe one must really know about things like this too. The quote above makes this sound like it was really, really well written.
I don't know why I'm drawn to works like this over and over, but I definitely am. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. ~ George Santayana
I am glad this is what you were looking for. I know after I read this book, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I read this book and knew so much more about what that place at that time was like, when before I had known very little. And you are so right – it wasn't an easy read, it was awful, but hopeful.
It sounds very interesting! I will have to put it on my list!
Thank you for suggesting this book! You're a trustworthy gal 🙂
Rebecca, if you read it I'd love to know you think of it!
This does sound interesting! I'm a little hesitant to read something so horrific after my last couple of reads, but I will definitely keep it in mind for the future!
You need some literary sorbet first 😉
A while ago, I read a fictional account of Cambodia's horrific past: it was one of the Inspector Singh novels. Even then, I could feel the chills running down my spine, can't imagine what a memoir would do. I do admire people who put the pain and horror they went through into a book. We should all read them, so we can try and prevent terrible things like this happening again. AND be thankful for what we have.
This sounds like a MUST read! I hadn't heard of it before now but I'm adding it to my TBR list. I have to be in the right mood for books like this but I am definitely going to read it. Thanks for sharing!
Inspector Singh..that sounds familiar, but I don't believe I've read any of those. Authors that write memoirs about those kinds of things are so brave. I felt honored to read her words.
I wish I had read it years ago, but I'm so glad I got around to it!