1/18 First They Killed My Father

By Luong Ung

This was such an interesting read to start the year with. My boss gave it to my the first day of work – we had spoken about it and he said I could have it when he was done. It’s about a five year old Cambodian girl, one of seven children, whose father was a high ranking government official before the Khmer Rouge came into Phnom Penh. It then tracks her life, and occasionally her other family members’ as well, throughout the Pol Pot regime.

It’s an autobiography of a young girl in the middle of war, and the combination of the themes (communism, war, child soldiers) and the style of writing (without much finesse, in my opinion it was very easy to tell she isn’t an author so much as someone telling her story using written words) reminded me a lot of the book I read while I was in Vietnam. In both, the girls end up in the U.S., and they have grown up there. In both, they also show us their return to their home countries after a very long time. My problems with this book are very similar to my problems with that. In fact, it’s my problem (not even the right word, more like something that discomforts me while reading) is that you have characters telling their stories from very privileged positions, tucked into and happily American while writing. Makes sense they would Americanise – I probably would too if I was taking refuge in a foreign land after living through a war. Just makes me more likely to narrow down their experiences as just their lived experiences without any generalization. I mean, of course the voices we hear are the most privileged, it’s the way of the world and makes surviving easier too. In the book, even she acknowledges that her family was only able to survive as well as they ultimately did because they were very wealthy before everything happened.

That being said, what a thought provoking piece of work. I’ve been to Cambodia a long time ago, and I wish I had read this and known some of this history before going., and I am glad to know this before my visit in June. I hope to read more, too. Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t think the writing is very good. Parts were very bare and it really did read like a teenager’s writing in parts. You know, when it’s just “this happened. Then this happened.” So that’s not worth commenting on. I am however very impressed that she has remembered so much to put to paper – in the acknowledgements she thanks her elder brother for writing so much history down, so I expect she’s also extrapolating from other stories and putting things together. But nonetheless there’s almost nothing I remember before the age of 10 and this book starts when she’s just 5! There’s very precise, small pieces of things, little details, that really capture the sense of what she was going through.

Its also very painful, as expected. It was another book I read on the trains and buses (since my boo was visiting over this time so I didn’t want to take any more) and I had to put it down several times to catch my breath. And just not cry.

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1/18 First They Killed My Father

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