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First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (P.S.) Paperback – April 4, 2006
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From the Back Cover
One of seven children of a high-ranking government official, Loung Ung lived a privileged life in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh until the age of five. Then, in April 1975, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army stormed into the city, forcing Ung's family to flee and, eventually, to disperse. Loung was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans, her siblings were sent to labor camps, and those who survived the horrors would not be reunited until the Khmer Rouge was destroyed.
Harrowing yet hopeful, Loung's powerful story is an unforgettable account of a family shaken and shattered, yet miraculously sustained by courage and love in the face of unspeakable brutality.
About the Author
Loung Ung was the National Spokesperson for the “Campaign for a Landmine Free World,” a program of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for co-founding the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Ung lectures extensively, appears regularly in the media, and has made more than thirty trips back to Cambodia. She is also the author of Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind and LuLu in the Sky.
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The author is to be commended for her bravery in attempting to recount real and painful memories of events she experienced as a 7-year-old child; the book is a terrific testimony of her will to survive. She has certainly done a lot to raise the awareness of the plight of Cambodians.
The problem with the book is that the author not only overly dramatizes events but in many instances even exaggerates or outright lies about them. For instance, are we to truly believe that her father was a great and gentle man who wouldn't harm a flea? The same man who was, by her own admission, a rising star in the intelligence service notorious for killing and torture of opposition political opponents? Was her family really middle class Cambodian when they owned several automobiles, had maids and bodyguards, and swam at the "club" ? Most Cambodian family certainly would have been lucky to even have food to eat!
But even if we were to grant her licenses on this and various other events, the more disturbing problem with this book is her tendency to denigrate and/or misrepresent indigenous Cambodian and Cambodian culture. One can't help notice the constant references to her "light skin" or her mother's beautiful white skin as opposed to the jealous dark skinned Khmers. In other instances, she mistakes Chinese customs for Cambodian customs. In fact, this "daughter of Cambodia" even gets facts about the fabled Angkor Wat temple wrong.
There are so many better books out there that captures the experiences of Cambodians and they don't need to resort to overdramatisations or distortion of the truth. It's a shame that the American public had to latch on to this one.
My criticism comes as an American reader, for whose benefit such Cambodian literature is aimed. Despite the lurid title (re: “Not Without My Daughter”) – and despite that it was her sister who died first – Loung Ung has graphically described the tragedy of a small middle class city child snatched from a privileged life by the jaws of war. She suffered greatly in these years, as did Cambodia itself, closely surviving incidents and memories of the kind most would rather forget. The reviews are full of the predictable American moral outrage. My response is that when you bomb a place back to the Stone Age – as the US SAC often boasted – it’s naturally overrun by cavemen and cannibals. What else would you expect? The Taliban and ISIS are recent examples of the same.
The purpose of this Cambodian literature for Americans is to deflect criticism of its own Indochina behavior (My Lai was just a “fluke” of an otherwise Just Cause); and to retroactively justify not only the Vietnam War but so-called present and future humanitarian interventions (except for the Vietnamese “youn” invasion of Cambodia itself in 1979 – since it was done by Them and not Us, their motives couldn’t have been worthy). It’s convenient that Loung Ung was only five when her ordeal began: an innocent for whom all this just blew in from nowhere, as we are also taught to believe by our policy establishment. As usual, the memoirist is also of a former middle or upper class person, someone “just like us.” Rice-pickers rarely leave written records, of course, unless someone takes time to track them down in their native setting and write for them.
For Cambodians, dumping on the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot nicely covers the fact that Cambodia was embroiled in a civil war, not entirely of its own making. Unfortunately, Ms. Ung's father was a former secret policeman and army officer; his executioners took a different view than his beloved daughter. A Hitlerite figure like Pol Pot nicely scapegoats lingering recriminations on all sides. The genocide claim also serves said purpose, though the ugliness recorded here and in other examples of KR literature differs not at all from eyewitness accounts in Bangladesh, Central America or the Yugoslav lands.
Read as one Cambodian-American’s personal tragedy it’s a moving story. As another American literary exercise in moral posturing it comes off like its predecessors: an example of a "worthy" atrocity against which we can muster all our sense of outrage, as opposed to "unworthy" ones committed in our interests which we are obliged to defend.