Book Riot Challenge: ‘First They Killed My Father’

One of the read harder challenges is to read a book by a South East Asian author. I thought this would be really easy for me – I live in Thailand! But it was more difficult than I thought to find English translations of Thai works here in Bangkok. A couple of weeks ago we had a few days off from work and I went away to Cambodia for a few days and there I found First They Killed My Father. 

First They Killed My Father is an autobiographical account of life during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s. Essentially, the Khmer Rouge was a communist party that ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. Led by Pol Pot, and previously known as Democratic Kampuchea, the regime was responsible for two million deaths (from a population of only seven million), the most famous of those occurring on the Killing Fields. The Khmer Rouge was a party based on Marxism, extreme Cambodian nationalism and xenophobia. Their attempts to create a classless and fully agrarian society had disasterous outcomes for the country and its citizens. The Khmer Rouge was officially dissolved in 1996. 

This book was written by Loung Ung, a young girl at the age of only five when her family was forced out of their home in Phnom Penh, 1975, in the year 2000, and reflects on her life during this difficult time. She describes life in labour camps, and training to be a child soldier. She details the deaths of family members and the decision to disperse in an attempt to save the remaining family members. It is all told from a child’s perspective and this just makes it all the more harrowing. It is useful to us as readers who perhaps have little knowledge of the place and era to hear it from a child’s perspective as we learn with her. 

It was a fantastically written book, with horrifically vivid descriptions at times, and emotion dripping off the pages. I really think that these kinds of experiences should be remembered; those who suffered deserve to have their stories heard. This book resonated with me especially because I read it whilst in Cambodia having just visited Siem Reap’s war museum. Once I started this book I could not put it down. I read as though Loung’s life depended on it.

Thoroughly worth reading, though perhaps not a beach read! I recommend reading it and watching the movie The Killing Fields as I did to get a broader understanding.


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