A few weeks ago, I heard Loung Ung interviewed by Scott Simon on National Public Radio. Ung (who is the national spokesperson for the "Campaign for a Landmine-Free World," a program of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation) poignantly explained what writing her book meant to her. She said that writing her story had helped her put into perspective what had happened to her family and thousands of others in Cambodia, and that writing had offered comfort to her as she was able to put her thoughts and feelings on paper. She said the writing had offered her a place to grieve and to heal. Ah, yes, the writing (or telling) of one's story can be transforming.
I wept as I listened to Loung recount her experiences as a child living in Cambodia in the mid-70s, under the Pol Pot regime. Although it did not make sense to want to read a book that I knew was going to be very sad, I felt compelled to go directly to the nearest bookstore and find First They Killed My Father.
Loung's father was a high-ranking government official. The family of father, mother, and seven children lived in Phnom Phen. When Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army stormed into Phnom Phen in April 1975, the family fled their home and moved from village to village to hide their identity. Loung is separated from her family and trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans. The spirit of this resilient child is truly an inspiration. What her father has given her in the few years they had together sustains her long after his death. His regard for her, his belief in her spirit and spunk, as well as her mother's love, shout out from the pages and make your heart sing. As I finished reading the book, I was reminded that it is not how long we have to be a parent that matters as much as what we do with the time we have to parent a child. In her mind, Loung continues to hear what her father has told her about herself, and she survives and learns to thrive. First They Killed My Father is a grand testimony to the human spirit.
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