First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung is a memoir of the author’s childhood living under the Pol Pot regime. It opens right before the Khmer Rouge army storms into Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Ung’s family has to abandon their home and belongings overnight and ends with her migration to the United States. Encapsulated within is the story of a young Chinese-Cambodian girl who survived a genocide that exterminated millions of her people.
As I had no previous knowledge of this event, the dreadful title of the memoir kept my stomach in knots as my mind constantly speculated over when such tragedies would come to an end, or if they would at all. Not helped by the fact that the tortures inflicted on the author and her family are relentless and without mercy. Living under an oppressive regime where all individuality is stripped is scary enough but the consistent humiliations and threat of annihilation synthesized a dystopian society in my head unlike any other. Last year I’d read The Rape of Nanking and while that book is a textbook autopsy of war crimes, horrors that have been speculated to be the cause for the author’s suicide, First They Killed My Father somehow felt even more devastating because a young child stood at the center screaming for justice.
The memoir is somewhat fictionalized with snippets of dream-like imaginations from the young Ung. It’s debatable whether these scenes are a reaction to the trauma inflicted upon her or some other underlying psychological condition. I’m not a huge fan of creative nonfiction so I don’t care about having to question the validity of the way a nonfiction narrative unfolds, however, in this case, I didn’t object to Ung’s approach to storytelling. The fictionalized events read like self-inflicted wounds but perhaps awarded the author some therapy I must allow as an interloper.
If you have even the slightest appreciation for engaging memoirs, First They Killed My Father is a must-read. If not for the fact that it reads like fiction then to educate oneself about one of the most sickening genocides in modern history.