First They Killed My Father (Ung)

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
Loung Ung, 2000
288 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060856267

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 be her sister's gentle kindness amid brutality—Loung forged on to create for herself a courageous new life. (From the publisher.)

Author  Bio 
Where—Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Awards—Excellence in Non-Fiction Award,
   Pacific/Asian American Libraries Assn.
Currently—lives near Cleveland, Ohio USA

Loung Ung is a national spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine Free World, a program of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. She is the author of Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind, and she lives with her husband in Ohio. (From the publisher.)

Loung Ung is a Cambodian American human-rights activist, an internationally-recognized lecturer, and the national spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World. Between 1997 and 2003 she served in the same capacity for the "International Campaign to Ban Landmines", which is affiliated with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

Ung was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the sixth of seven children and the third of four girls, to Sem Im Ung and Ay Chourng Ung. Her actual birthdate is unknown; the Khmer Rouge destroyed many of the birth records of the inhabitants of cities in Cambodia. At ten years of age, she escaped from Cambodia as a survivor of what became known as "the Killing Fields" during the reign of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. After emigrating to the United States and adjusting to her new country, she wrote two books which related her life experiences from 1975 through 2003.

Ung's first memoir, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, details her experiences in Cambodia from 1975 until 1980:

"From 1975 to 1979—through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor—the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country's population. This is a story of survival: my own and my family's. Though these events constitute my own experience, my story mirrors that of millions of Cambodians. If you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story too."

Published in the United States in 2000, it became a national bestseller, and in 2001 it won the award for "Excellence in Adult Non-fiction Literature" from the Asian/Pacific American Librarians' Association. First They Killed My Father has subsequently been published in twelve countries in nine languages.

Her second memoir, Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind, chronicles her adjustment to life in the U.S. with and without her family, and the experiences of her surviving family members in Cambodia during the ensuing warfare between Vietnamese troops and the Khmer Rouge. It covers the period of 1980 until 2003, and HarperCollins published it in 2005.

In both of her memoirs, Ung wrote in the first person and, for the most part, in the present tense, describing the events and circumstances as if they were unfolding before the reader's eyes: "I wanted [the readers] to be there." (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
During the three years that the Khmer Rouge tried to create an agrarian utopia in Cambodia, two million people are believed to have died from execution, starvation and disease. Two million—a horrifying number, but so large as to seem almost an abstraction, like the distance to the nearest star. The number gains far greater psychological force with [this] new memoirs, whose author, a young girl in the Cambodia of the time, describes the terror and losses she suffered during the Khmer Rouge revolution in wrenchingly particular terms... [Ung] tells her stories straightforwardly, vividly, and without any strenuous effort to explicate their importance, allowing the stories themselves to create their own impact.
New York Times

A riveting important, moving work that those who have suffered cannot afford to forget and those who have been spared cannot afford to ignore.
San Francisco Chronicle

In 1975, Ung, now the national spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World, was the five-year-old child of a large, affluent family living in Phnom Penh, the cosmopolitan Cambodian capital. As extraordinarily well-educated Chinese-Cambodians, with the father a government agent, her family was in great danger when the Khmer Rouge took over the country and throughout Pol Pot's barbaric regime. Her parents' strength and her father's knowledge of Khmer Rouge ideology enabled the family to survive together for a while, posing as illiterate peasants, moving first between villages, and then from one work camp to another. The father was honest with the children, explaining dangers and how to avoid them, and this, along with clear sight, intelligence and the pragmatism of a young child, helped Ung to survive the war. Her restrained, unsentimental account of the four years she spent surviving the regime before escaping with a brother to Thailand and eventually the United States is astonishing—not just because of the tragedies, but also because of the immense love for her family that Ung holds onto, no matter how she is brutalized. She describes the physical devastation she is surrounded by but always returns to her memories and hopes for those she loves. Her joyful memories of life in Phnom Penh are close even as she is being trained as a child soldier, and as, one after another, both parents and two of her six siblings are murdered in the camps. Skillfully constructed, this account also stands as an eyewitness history of the period, because as a child Ung was so aware of her surroundings, and because as an adult writer she adds details to clarify the family's moves and separations. Twenty-five years after the rise of the Khmer Rouge, this powerful account is a triumph.
Publishers Weekly

In this "Age of Holocaust," Ung's memoir of her childhood in Pol Pot's Cambodia offers a haunting parallel to the writings of Anne Frank in the Europe of Adolf Hitler. A precocious, sparkling youngster, Ung was driven from Phnom Penh in April 1975 to relatives in the countryside, then to Khmer Rouge work camps. Here she recalls her fear, hunger, emotional pain, and loneliness as her parents and a sister were murdered and another sister died from disease. By the 1979 freeing of Cambodia by Vietnamese troops, she was a hardened, vengeful nine year old. Although written nearly 20 years later, this painful narrative retains an undeniable sense of immediacy. The childlike memories are adroitly placed in a greater context through older family members' descriptions of the political and social milieu. Recommended for public and academic libraries. —John F. Riddick, Central Michigan Univ. Lib., Mt. Pleasant.
Library Journal

Ung was a headstrong, clever child who was a delight to her father, a high-ranking government official in Phnom Penh. She was only five when the Khmer Rouge stormed the city and her family was forced to flee. They sought refuge in various camps, hiding their wealth and education, always on the move and ever fearful of being betrayed. After 20 months, Ung's father was taken away, never to be seen again. Her story of starvation, forced labor, beatings, attempted rape, separations, and the deaths of her family members is one of horror and brutality. The first-person account of Cambodia under the reign of Pol Pot will be read not only for research papers but also as a tribute to a human spirit that never gave up. YAs will applaud Ung's courage and strength. —Katherine Fitch, Rachel Carson Middle School, Fairfax, VA
School Library Journal

A rare, chilling eyewitness account of the bloody aftermath of the Khmer Rouge's merciless victory over the Cambodian government in April 1975, as seen through the eyes of a precocious child. The authornational spokesperson for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation's``Campaign for a Landmine Free World program, whose activities won her the 1997 Nobel Peace Prizewas, in 1970, the five-year-old daughter of a Cambodian government official when her loving, close-knit, middle-class family of seven children first learned of the Khmer Rouges approach to their hometown of Phnom Penh. The family fled, constantly moving, trying to hide their identity as educated urban people who would be regarded by their agrarian enemies as exploiters. Eventually they were captured, robbed, beaten, half-starved, and sent to forced-labor camps. In time, Loung's father and mother were killed, her older sister and baby sister died of malnutrition and disease, and her older brothers and she were recruited to serve the Khmer Rouge. The genocidal fury endured by Loungs family and other families caused a widespread and lasting hatred of the Khmer Rouge. Her surviving relatives split up to avoid being executed together, and through their courage and resourcefulness managed to stay alive despite the bloodbath. In time, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and Pol Pot's forces were destroyed, but not before millions of Cambodians perished. Ung, her older brother, and his family were rescued by a humanitarian group and came to the US to build a new life; ultimately, the surviving family members would meet again. A harrowing true story of the nightmare world that was Cambodia in those terrible times of mass murder and slow death through overwork, starvation, and disease. Will affect even readers who cannot find Ungs homeland on a map.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. What fundamental problems existed in the Khmer Rouge's plan that caused the destruction of so many lives? Were there any values that the Khmer Rouge claimed to hold that you share?

2. What impact did the narrator's child's voice have on your experience as a reader? How would you characterize the transformation that takes place in her narrative voice throughout the story?

3. How did it affect your reading of the book that you were aware of Loung's father's impending death long before her?

4. Would you describe Loung as a feminist? How did the experiences of the Ung family differ during the war because of gender?

5. What was your impression of the final separation, both geographic and cultural, that Loung had with her surviving family? Did you sympathize with her eventual desire to assimilate into American culture, or had you expected her to be more aggressive about pursuing her family relationships earlier on?

6. Loung saw herself as a "strong" person, as did many other people in the book, and was eventually drafted into a soldier training camp as a result. What are the qualities of a survivor? How does one reconcile compassion with a will to survive? What qualities enabled her gentle sister Chou to survive as well?

7. With armed struggle a reality of life for people all over the world both past and present, how does one draw the line as to which means are ethical and unethical for coping with it, such as the author's current campaign against the use of landmines? Are there other tools of war that you believe should be broadly banned?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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