I picked up First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers for the first time in 2004. My wife, a diplomat, had just been assigned to the US embassy in Cambodia. We were living in Paris at the time, which has a sizeable Cambodian community, and immediately rushed out to Le Petit Cambodge for a delicious meal to prepare us for the adventure. Our server recommended we read First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. We bought Ung’s book on the way home and fought over it for the rest of the week: I simply could not put it down.
Ung’s tale greatly informed our experience in Cambodia and helped us begin to understand the collective trauma of the Khmer Rouge era that still affects the country in so many ways. I soon discovered that any Cambodian old enough to have lived through the seventies would begin to talk: “You see that tree over there? I was six in the Khmer Rouge days and my job was to strip it of bark to dye everything black,” or “They used to put a plastic bag over my head so I would pass out again and again.” I felt like every Cambodian I knew was retelling Ung’s moving account but from a slightly different, personal point of view.
I read First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers a second time in 2007, just before leaving Cambodia on our way to my wife’s onward assignment in Switzerland. It was the perfect book end to our stay there. The people who perpetrated Cambodia’s genocide were never brought to justice. Pol Pot—Brother Number One—died of old age in his sleep. Yet the people of Cambodia remember, and Ung has preserved their most painful chapter in a format accessible to the rest of the world. I thank her for that. Even if the reader knows nothing of the horrors of the Cambodia’s tragic experiment with agrarian utopia, Ung’s masterful storytelling guarantees First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers will strike a chord. I highly recommend this book. – Gregory E. Buford