First They Killed My Father
A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
Author: Loung Ung
Published By: Harper Perennial
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Remember when we were in school and the teacher asked you to read a book you normally would never have picked up on your own? Some people hated this, explaining that they disliked being told what to read. I, however, loved being introduced to different styles of writing and a variety of tales thanks to the selections offered by my teachers. I try to add variety to my reading now as I did in school by taking advantage of sales at Barnes & Noble. On one such occasion, during a buy two get one free deal, I picked up a book with a rather intriguing title, First They Killed My Father.
In this gripping memoir, survivor Loung Ung discusses her experiences during the Khmer Rouge uprising in Cambodia. In April of 1975, Loung, then only five years old, and her family were forced to flee the middle class lifestyle they lived in Phnom Penh and go into hiding. The refugees of Phnom Penh suffered greatly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
At an age when she should have been dancing and playing with her friends and taking lessons at school, Loung was sent to work in the fields, helping to grow food for the war effort. Starvation and survival were the lessons Loung learned as she struggled to stay alive on the tiny rations she and her family were offered.
During the five years she lived under Khmer Rouge rule, Loung lost everything she held dear. Her oldest sister died working the rice fields for the war effort. Her father, mother and youngest sister were taken away by soldiers, never to be seen again. Loung was separated from the rest of her siblings and eventually trained as a youth soldier. It was only through an act of fate that she was reunited with the surviving members of her family.
Choosing to write First They Killed My Father in a first person child point of view, Loung Ung adds a poignancy to an already heartbreaking memoir. As Loung states in an interview included at the end of the book, she wished to “dispel the theory that children suffer less than adults in their traumatic experiences.” Writing the book in this style brings the atrocities that took place during the Khmer Rouge uprising home. For many, this was just a horrible event that took place in some distant land to a distant people. Loung’s writing style allows the reader to experience everything she went through as if it were happening to them, right here in their own home country. It captures your attention in a way that no third person biography could.
I was completely captivated by this book from first page to last. The events described in First They Killed My Father are very important moments in history as told by a witness to all that took place. It is a story of survival and perseverance in a time of pain, suffering and death. Loung Ung’s decision to share her tale of survival with the world at large in an effort to create awareness of the struggles of her people is one deserving of great praise. There is no doubt in my mind how painful these memories are to Loung and yet, it is important to let the world know what atrocities took place during the Khmer Rouge uprising and the lasting effects that they had on Cambodians and their country as a whole.
First They Killed My Father is an important read for anyone. What happened to Loung could happen to anyone and it is important for us to learn from our history to prevent the same mistakes from happening elsewhere. No one should have to suffer what Loung Ung’s family went through and it is only through knowledge that society can prevent history from repeating itself. First They Killed My Father is an incredibly riveting well-written memoir, so engaging that I can’t wait to get my hands on Loung Ung’s second memoir Lucky Child.