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Manoa 16.1 (2004) 49-53
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Surviving the Peace:
An Interview with Loung Ung
Loung Ung was born in 1970 into a middle-class family in Phnom Penh. Five years later, her family was forced out of the city by the Khmer Rouge in the mass evacuation to the countryside. By 1978 , the Khmer Rouge had killed Ung's parents and two of her siblings, and she was forced to train as a child soldier. In 1980 , she and her older brother escaped by boat to Thailand, where they spent five months in a refugee camp. They then relocated to Vermont.
Ung's memoir, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,was published by HarperCollins in 2000, becoming a national bestseller and receiving the 2001 Asian/Pacific American Librarians' Association award for excellence in adult nonfiction. The book has been published in eleven countries and translated into more than a dozen languages, including German, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Khmer.
Today, Ung is sought after as a speaker on Cambodia, child soldiers, women in wartime, refugee issues, domestic violence, and land mines. From 1997 to 2003 , she worked for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation's campaign for a land-mine-free world. Before that, she was a community educator for the Abused Women's Advocacy Project of the Maine Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She continues to serve as a national spokesperson for the campaign to ban land mines.
This interview was conducted by telephone in August 2003 .
SM How did you come to write First They Killed My Father?
LU I decided to publish the book for one main reason: I'm an activist. I wanted to talk about land mines. I wanted to talk about child soldiers. I wanted to talk about poverty and AIDS issues and child prostitution—all the problems in Cambodia I learned about when I went back in 1995.
But when I returned to the U.S., I just couldn't get anybody interested in these issues. I realized that I would have more credibility if I was a published writer. Publishing this book was a vehicle for my activism. [End Page 49]
SM How difficult was it for you to relive the war, and talk about the horrors left over from the war?
LU It was really difficult. I had to imagine my sister's last day before she died, her physical suffering, and her deterioration.
And going back to Cambodia was scary. I left when I was ten years old, and the images I had of Cambodia were ones of blood and wounded people and war and pain and hunger. And even though I was going back as a twenty-five-year-old adult, I still had dreams of getting off the plane and being a child again—of being lost, extending my hand and having no one there to grab it. It was really painful. But when I arrived, I saw my brothers and sisters, and it was a great reunion.
Then I got out in the country and saw the amputees, the poverty, the red-light districts where young girls are selling their bodies, and I realized how really blessed I am, how lucky, how much I have. Of course, a lot of guilt comes with that. I think that for the last eight years, since 1995 , I've been trying to do good work to make sure that those left behind are not forgotten.
SM Is that how you got involved with the campaign for a land-mine-free world?
LU I always knew a little about land mines, but it wasn't until I went back to Cambodia in 1995 that I decided to get more involved. It made me so mad when I learned the story of how people fought to survive. Five million Cambodians survived the war. Now, years later, they are having a hard time surviving the peace—because of land mines.
I remember I was walking in the street and I met a young girl. This was my third...