By Anya Shukla
I knew of the Cambodian genocide before I began reading “First They Killed My Father,” but this book gave me a new, devastating lens through which to see the war. Even four days after its ending, I can still feel this book in my body. I didn’t expect the memoir to have such an impact.
It’s especially interesting to note how America and China contributed to this war. America’s bombings of the Cambodian countryside during the Vietnam war helped grow Khmer Rouge ranks, while Chinese policies and advice influenced Pol Pot (the Khmer Rouge leader) and his dreams of a self-sustaining, agrarian Cambodian society.
Review: In her memoir, “First They Killed My Father,” author Loung Ung looks back at her life during the Cambodian genocide. In 1975, a five-year-old Ung and her middle-class family left her hometown of Phnom Peng after a takeover by the communist Khmer Rouge. They spent the next several years in agrarian villages, working under inhumane conditions and fearing indiscriminate torture from the Khmer Rouge. As members of her family succumbed to starvation, disease, and death, Ung found herself training as a child soldier, unsure of how much longer she could continue.
Ung writes from the perspective of her five-year-old self, emphasizing the impact of the Khmer Rouge regime on her young mind. She forgoes literary frills for an honest, heartbreaking retelling of the horrors she faced and—against all odds—survived. My Rating: 5/5.
What I Loved: How Ung imbues history with humanity. “First They Killed My Father” goes beyond genocide facts and figures to show the psychological and emotional impact of the war, especially on children.
Ung starts the story off as a whiny child, unable to understand why her family is fleeing Phnom Peng. “‘Nobody cares about me,’” she moans (pg. 87). Yet as her family runs from village to village, hoping to escape persecution, she becomes hardened.
Although Ung is only six, she works in a labor camp, picking green beans on an empty stomach. In theory, all food is shared equally under the Khmer Rouge’s communist regime. In practice, the village chief and original inhabitants (individuals idealized for their lack of “contamination” from cities) take the choicest items for themselves. Ung’s family can barely survive on their food rations, and their bodies feel the effects of malnutrition. They must also hide all aspects of their former life, as the Khmer Rouge targets and kills intellectuals and former city-dwellers.
By the time she is eight or nine, Ung has seen more than her fair share of death: Khmer Rouge soldiers take away her father; her sister passes away from disease; her mother and sister disappear one night, never to return. These moments fill her with rage. “I dream of the day we have power again,” she says, imagining revenge on the Khmer Rouge. “I will come back for them. I will get them back and beat them until I am tired. I won’t forget, not ever” (pg. 342). She watches as two women kill a captured Khmer Rouge soldier, staring as a hammer breaks his skull and a knife stabs his stomach: “This, maybe, is how Pa died” (pg. 522).
Ung’s father notes that because of the war, “there will be a generation of children missing from our country” (pg. 171). He is referring to the fact that under the stress of labor camps, many Cambodian women could not give birth. Yet Ung’s story shows his words have a deeper meaning. After all, the Khmer Rouge forced a generation of children to become child soldiers, to steal for their families, to imagine how their loved ones were brutally murdered. These kids pushed aside their youth and became the leaders of their families at twelve or thirteen. There is a generation of Cambodian children who are missing, not because they weren’t born, but because they were forced to grow up too quickly.
What I Didn’t Love: I’m not a huge fan of Ung’s simple writing style. The plain, short sentences don’t draw my attention.
However, I understand why Ung utilized a childlike tone throughout her book: to accentuate the atrocities she faced as a little girl. The ordinary writing allows the genocide’s awful events to take center stage. So I’ll accept this choice for the sake of the storyline.
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “I wonder where the gods go now that their homes have been destroyed” (pg. 176).
Up next: “Cyclopedia Exotica” by Aminder Dhaliwal.