Monday, 17 June 2013

Book review- After They Killed Our Father

After They Killed Our Father: A Refugee from the Killing Fields Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind- Loung Ung, 2007

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After They Killed Our Father: A Refugee from the Killing Fields Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind is the second memoir from Cambodian-American author and activist Loung Ung, who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide as a child before resettling in the United States. Her first book, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers was first published in the USA in 2000 and became a national bestseller, earning the Asian/Pacific American Librarians’ Association’s award for ‘Excellence in Adult Non-fiction literature’ in 2001.  While her first memoir details her experiences in the Khmer Rouge killing fields from the age of five, a period in which Ung lost her mother, father and two of her sisters, her second is a coming-of-age story that follows the parallel upbringings of Ung and her sister Chou, who remained in Cambodia while Ung, the younger sibling, was taken to the United States. After They Killed Our Father follows the lives of Loung and Chou Ung from 1980 to 2003, with Loung’s story written in the first person and Chou’s in the third, and with consecutive chapters dedicated to each.

The two sisters, separated in 1980 at the ages of ten and twelve, were reunited fifteen years later in 1995 with Loung Ung’s first return to her native country. Since then, Ung had made over twenty journeys back to Cambodia before the publication of this book as a part of her work for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation’s landmine clearance campaigns. The time spent with her sister during these visits allowed Ung to hear Chou’s story from the time they had spent apart, and Ung was to translate her sister’s words from Khmer to English for the purpose of this memoir. The book was first published in the USA in 2005 with the title Lucky Child; this name rings true for Ung, whose new life granted her safety, comfort, education and independence, while her sister’s life in the village she lived in with an aunt and uncle was defined by housework, childcare and early marriage, leaving her no time to go to school. Despite her relative privilege, Ung recalls the acute loneliness and depression of her first years in Vermont, plagued with mourning for her deceased and distant relatives and her nightmares of the Khmer Rouge atrocities she had witnessed; such memories are painfully described and are incredibly moving.

This touching story highlights both the bravery of refugees such as Ung who fled Indochina in their millions following the communist takeovers of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975, as well as serving as an insight into the deep fractures that penetrate Cambodian society today as a result of the dark years of the country’s recent history. During the years of Khmer Rouge power between 1975 and 1979, between a fifth and a third of the population of Cambodia were wiped out, families were torn apart and the land remains littered with landmines from American bombing in the war preceding the communist takeover. Today, Loung Ung does valuable work to help to reconcile her native country’s turbulent past. Besides providing a strong voice on Cambodian issues through her writing, Ung serves as the national spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World and “has lectured widely at schools, universities and corporations on Cambodia, child soldiers, women and war, and landmines”.

After They Killed Our Father has not been a hugely useful read for the purpose of my project, primarily because there is little to learn from it about life in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Instead, the focus of this memoir is on the aftermath of the killing fields; the experiences of a refugee fleeing Cambodia and trying to come to terms with her identity in a foreign country, and of another who stays behind and lives in fear of attacks from the Khmer Rouge, who remained at large in Cambodia for many years following their ousting by a Vietnamese invasion. Having already read a very poignant memoir of survival in the killing fields, Denise Affonço’s To the End of Hell, and therefore having some understanding of the horrors endured by those who lived through those times, Ung’s second memoir provided me with a new perspective; that of the long-term impact that the raw tragedy of the Khmer Rouge era had on a family in the succeeding two decades. Yet despite the immense sense of pain and loss that pervades the lives of the Ung family as described by the author, Ung uses humour to good effect and has a very amiable character; in fact her own character is much better developed in her memoir than that of her passive and subservient sister Chou. There are several funny moments from Ung’s memories of learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture and overall, the book has an upbeat ending. Chou Ung seems to find peace in Cambodia, happiness with her large family and prosperity with the business she runs with her husband. Meanwhile, Loung Ung, the first person in her family to graduate from college, finally comes to terms with her dual identity after many years of struggling; after her first brave visit to Cambodia in 1995, the author found her spiritual home and now owns land in her sister’s village.

A family is reunited after a decade and a half spent apart, albeit not complete. And although their lives have become so significantly different due to their contrasting upbringings, the Ung sisters return to the closeness of their childhood years despite the bridges between them. For me, the most touching aspect of Ung’s story was her ability to re-connect with a culture that she tried so hard during her teenage years to shake off and to finally seem to find peace with who she is. And now, Ung is working to raise awareness of Cambodia’s traumas in the wider world. Luong Ung is evidently a strong character and an inspiring woman. The life experiences she shares in this memoir are both moving and eye-opening.

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