Martin Spice recommends a tale of survival
After They Killed Our Father: a refugee from the killing fields reunites with the sister she left behind
By Loung Ung
Loung Ung's first book about her childhood in Cambodia, First They Killed My Father, ended in 1979 with the defeat of the Khmer Rouge by an invading Vietnamese army. Her chilling account of life under the Khmer Rouge, who murdered approximately a quarter of the population, was one of the first widely available survivor testimonies.
Published in the UK in 2001, it charted the author's journey from a middle class early childhood in Phnom Pehn (seized by Pol Pot when she was five), through the killing fields and child soldiering, to an impoverished and brutal village life under the all-seeing eyes of a fanatical regime determined to return Cambodia to Year Zero.
After They Killed Our Father opens in 1980, the year Loung's brother Meng and his wife bribe their passage to the United States, taking the 10-year-old with them. Alternating chapters tell the story of two parallel childhoods, that of Loung's in Vermont and that of her sister Chou, two years older, who stayed in the village.
To Loung, America is a strange land where the cemetery outside her bedroom window inspires fear of walking ghosts and restless spirits and asking for treats at Hallowe'en does not involve a loss of face as any form of begging does in Cambodia.
On her first day at school, she is sent home because there are dead lice eggs in her hair. She is socially isolated and her lack of English initially proves a barrier to friendship as well as a source of embarrassment when she misunderstands the meaning of insults such as "turd". But one friend gives her reassurance and in high school she discovers make-up, clothes and boys alongside taunts of "five dolla for a good time" from schoolmates who have seen Platoon. But also, crucially, there is an English teacher who recognises her talent and encourages her to write her extraordinary story.
This book has many strengths, not least its eloquently understated account of Chou's village life, and her reunion with Loung in 1995 is an emotional and moving affair.
For all the horrors suffered by both sisters, the story is positive, even uplifting. At heart this is a book about the importance of family, the power of parenting, and love between siblings.
What could easily be a tale of despair and defeat becomes, through simple and powerful prose, a celebration of courage, love and humanit*