Even with a title like that, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’m not normally one for human strife stories, but I was compelled. The first time I saw the title, while searching for books for the Read Harder Challenge, I just had to read it. This is not your typical human strife story.
There was something special and horrifying about reading of the Cambodian genocide through the eyes of a child, especially a child this young. The writing in the beginning took me a minute to get into. I have to wonder if it was simply the way that Ung recalls life from before the Khmer Rouge because it gets more detailed and emotional as her story progresses. There were a few other parts that felt distant like the beginning, like she was covering it just to not have gaps in the timeline of her story. The vivid memories are captivating and haunting.
Ung explains the horrors of this genocide and the aftermath as she experienced them as a five year old, so the foresight and worry for the future that adults maintain, the planning and attempts to keep control are absent. She lives one day at a time, trying to understand the world as it is then presented, hoping for the best, mentally preparing for the worst that she can, but inevitably going through worse than she could think of. The uncertainty and ignorance of her initial displacement made the beginning that much more heartbreaking.
My son happens to be five years old right now too and I thought about how I could explain to him something like that happening, how I could deal with knowing everything that was going on and dealing with his naivete, with whining as we walked for days because he didn’t get it. I don’t think I could do it, but they probably didn’t think so before they had to do it either.
I was impressed with her mother. For as much as Ung doesn’t appreciate her mother’s strength in the beginning, I found her incredible. I was grateful that she maintained the tone through these parts and didn’t look back with a changed mind. She let the reader experience her frustration with her mother as it took place, as she did with everything else. Her father was even more impressive. In fact, her entire family had more strength and perseverance than I had anticipated. I suppose it is a testament to the human ability to endure and to hope in the face of great horrors.
This book tore my heart out. It is a hard lesson in just how much suffering there is in the world and just how ignorant we can be of it, how adept we are at ignoring it. That it was real, not only for this family but for many others, made it so much worse. I’m not sure if it was fortunate for my reading experience that I knew relatively little about the Cambodian genocide before reading this book. I had only ever heard of Pol Pot and the landmine problem. I had heard the name Pol Pot in my childhood and his name was associated with Hitler and other horrible people, but I never really had specifics. The landmine problem I learned from Angelina Jolie’s: Notes from My Travels where she recounts her visit to Cambodia. So I went into this book ignorant of the scope of the strife involved.
I fully intend on reading the other two books of the series, Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind and Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness. It also inspired me to finally read The Diary of a Young Girl, which I had been actively avoiding. I learned too much about that one and never wanted to dive into the tragedy of it. I realize from reading this that it’s not about that, not really.
Of course, there’s more to Loung Ung’s life than her past and her books. She is still an activist, please visit her activism page here. Though there is no specific release date, Angelina Jolie-Pitt has been working on Netflix movie of the book as well. You can find details here. She is also a contributor to the campaign, Girl Rising. Ung writes the story of Sokha, which is then narrated by Alicia Keys for the documentary by the same name, For details on the documentary, which was released in 2013, visit here. For details on Ung’s involvement, visit here.
There is more to women and our experiences than those popularized in the US. Sometimes it can be hard to see the activism that is still necessary in other parts of the world, or the female experience outside of our comfortable homes. Despite the opinions of naysayers, feminism is a huge part of the human rights struggle in many parts of the world, though not necessarily by name but deed. While this is a book I’d recommend to anyone looking for non-fiction, it is particularly important for feminists to read about the lives of women, for us to understand and support each other.
Have you read First They Killed My Father? What did you think?