Loung Ung Interview
By: Joanna Hioe
“Soon darkness covers the land and still Pa has not returned.”First They Killed My Father
Few people find the courage within themselves to face the darkness. Fewer still are able to step into that darkness and wring dignity out of it. Loung Ung is one such lady. Using her gift of writing to build memoirs of life in Cambodia’s killing fields, she brings a message of hope in her books, films, and activism.
“Whenever something can help you see pass the darkness, it’s healing,” says the survivor. BW catches up with this survivor who has transformed her silence into beauty.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
To Kill a Mockingbird
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
Is a dragon an animal? It’s strong, beautiful and can fly and breathe fire.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A big chef cleaver and a very big book to read.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Curious, fun, and always hungry.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
This is too difficult! But Isabel Allende is the first to come to mind….
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Hong Kong Street Food. Actually, pretty much all street food in Asia.
How did you move from a place of being silenced to deciding to speak up for what happened in Cambodia’s history?
I was five years old when the communist Khmer Rouge soldiers stormed into my city and shattered my life. From 1975-1979—through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor—the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country’s population. Among the victims were my parents, two sisters, and twenty other relatives.
As a child, I didn’t have a voice and had to suffer in silence.
My three books were born out of my desire to reclaim my voice and use it to tell people not only of what happened in wars but how families survived its aftermaths. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, my first book, tells the stories of what it takes for a family to survive in a war (in my case, the Cambodian Genocide), and Lucky Child, my second book, is about two sisters ‘surviving the peace’ long after their wars had been declared over. In my latest, Lulu in the Sky, I wrote about the love that binds my family and me to help us go from surviving to thriving. In 2013, I was one of the writers of Girl Rising, a film that helped break the silence for other girls. This groundbreaking movie tells the stories of nine girls from developing countries who not only fought to survive but to gain their right to education despite challenges such as extreme poverty, arranged marriages, domestic slavery, and sex trafficking.
How has writing helped in your process of grieving?
As a child, I used to get angry when I heard people say how fortunate I was for being so young in the war. As if to imply that I had somehow forgotten or did not remember what happened. I wanted to scream out to them that I remembered and was still hurting, but I did not have the words to explain what I saw. So I stayed silent.
When the words came to me as an adult, I knew I had to speak up for that silent child in order to free her. For years, she had stayed mute and scared, even ashamed of her survival. Writing First They Killed My Father allowed me to give my child-self back her voice. As I wrote, I again screamed, cried, missed my family and became enraged at the crimes and atrocities with the rawness of a child’s heart. When I was done, I felt somehow released. And I came to see that I was not only lucky to survive the war, but that thanks to my child-self, I was also strong for fighting my way out of the killing fields.
I understand that writing your memoirs were a process of healing. How did rewriting your childhood memories in English (a medium that you did not think in before you moved to America) help or hinder what you wanted to say?
My second book, Lucky Child, tells the parallel story of two lives: my own, and that of one of my sisters, Chou, who stayed in Cambodia. It covers the fifteen years we were separated, from the time I left in 1980 until I was first able to return in 1995. Since that first visit, I’ve returned twenty-five times. There are universal truths, as well an understanding of our shared childhoods that bond us.
To write the book, I had to translate not only Chou’s Cambodian and Chinese words, but also the Chinese-Cambodian culture in which she lives. I translated them not simply into English, but into book form. Cambodia’s tradition is oral history, not published books. Even the concept of individual authorship is understood differently in Cambodian culture. America is a deeply individualistic place: I did this; I saw this, I achieved this. I grew up thinking, “this is what my family achieved,” not “this is what I've achieved.” Whatever I achieve is shared with my family. Lucky Child has been, from the outset, our collective achievement.
What made you choose the genre of a memoir to write in? Could you share more about the process of organising your memories and the memories of others?
Memoirs are collections of memories. My family’s story was gathered over a period of fifteen years and thirty-plus trips back to Cambodia. Many of the people I interviewed are well into their sunset years, and most live in worlds without journals, birth certificates, calendars, video cameras, photographs, and other documentation we in the West use to mark the passage of time. In the village, time is not marked by year, month, or day, but by the celebrations of Buddhist festivals, weddings, and births of a new family member. We also live a communal life, and through time and space, become each other’s memory keepers. But memories are fallible, especially when combined with immense suffering, great love, and a desire to preserve the spirits of lost loved ones in the best possible light. In cases where I could fact-check, I have done so with research and field trips. In cases where I could not, I chose to let my mind wander, my heart open, and my spirit roam without boundaries. In this way, I aimed to capture the essence of their human story. And, I hope, their humanity.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing your memoir?
I come from a culture where girls are supposed to speak and walk softly. An ideal ‘proper’ woman is supposed to walk so quietly that no one ever hears her approaching and smiles without showing her teeth.
So for me to write a book about my family, and then to have to stand up and raise my voice in front of groups of people to speak is always difficult. I sometimes feel very vulnerable and exposed to share these most intimate details of our lives and struggles, our heartbreaks and rage, our love and losses. And yet, I also feel very empowered and strong when I tell my story. I know that I am not only sharing only my tales of war, but also Cambodia’s stories of beauty, love, family, courage and beauty. And this is something I’m proud of.
Could you share how writing allowed you to find personal resolution and promote peace in the world?
Memoirs bring the numbers of casualties to a human face. We often hear of about how many hundreds of thousands, the millions killed in Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, etc… These are big numbers. A memoir brings it to a face, a story, a father, a mother, a daughter, a family. A memoir connects the humanity in us, which is a great way to promote peace in our world.
As Cambodia moves on from the historical effects of the genocide, what other types of topics would you like Cambodian writers to tackle to help promote nation-building and justice?
Goodness, there are so many things and issues to write about in Cambodia. It’s not important the topics I think other people should write; it’s important that they write the stories that tug their heart strings, the stories that keep them up at night. I write because I want my readers to take action. Whether they join the anti-landmines campaign or write a letter to free a person unjustly imprisoned somewhere, they must follow their passion. To me, it’s important that they act. Peace is an Action. I am grateful so many people in our world believed in this and extended my family and me a helping hand when we needed it most. It may have been a kind word spoken to me as a child or morsel of food that sustained me for one more day. All of their efforts, actions, encouragement, and support gave my family and me the chance to go beyond surviving the killing fields to thriving in peace. Thank you! No go get involve. Join a cause. Do something!
What do you think is the role of art - in particular storytelling through writing and in helping an individual and a nation, recover from trauma?
I’m a writer so I feel unqualified to answer this very big question. However, for me personally, all art forms have merits and beauty. I appreciate that what art can do, in whichever medium, is to capture the grace and beauty of a moment. For me, writing is my art and passion. When I write a story, I use words to bring it to life. For my friends who are painters, dancers, and musicians, they use their brushes, their bodies, and their voices. It’s all grand and beautiful. Whenever something can help you see pass the darkness, it’s healing.
You have actively promoted peace as an activist and writer. What would you regard as your proudest contribution in shaping the ideological landscape of Cambodia’s future?
I don’t know if I have shaped Cambodia’s ideological landscape. I’ll leave that for others to judge. However, I am proud that I’ve written books that honoured my family, and especially, my mother, grandmothers, and other aunties and mothers around the world. I started writing many years ago primarily because I wanted my father’s and mother’s descendants to know them, at least as much as I could gather of the man and woman they were. I wanted their grandchildren and great grandchildren who have never met to know them not only as victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide but as people who were vibrant, beautiful, and full of light. As a daughter, I wanted to say thank you to my parents and to let them know— wherever they may be—that I am proud to be their daughter.
From your observation, how have attitudes towards justice changed over the years (in both Cambodia and around the world) and how do you hope to position yourself, and your writing, to speak truth and create change?
There is a Cambodian Proverb that say; ‘You cannot claim heaven as your own if you are just going to sit under it.’
And if I have one message to people, it is this: Peace is an Action!
Whether in one’s heart, community, or world, peace requires daily acts of affirmations and commitments. If you want it, you must choose it. Then in whatever abilities or capabilities, an hour a day or a day a mouth, whatever time and talents you’ve got—you work for it. And you don’t have to wait to start! You can read to a child, share a meal, support a cause, AND live your life. Through our actions, we have daily opportunities in our lives to create a more peaceful and safer world for all. This work shines a light on those who’ve suffered man’s worst inhumanity to man, that the Best of Humanity is also in us. It is what heals the hearts and souls. We only have to choose it.
Do younger generations of Cambodians in their teens and 20s continue to bear the weight of Cambodia’s history? What art/media channels, or combination of channels (e.g. education, government, business), do you think are the most important in allowing a new narrative to be passed on to future generations?
William James wrote,
“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”
I’m pretty computer illiterate and use it to write emails and books. The whole digital world boggles my mind and confuses me. But I love learning of the many ways young people use it—write a novel in tweets? Done! Combine Haiku and Rap? Why not? Mix Cambodian traditional music with psychedelic pop? It’s been done! I’m excited to see what else the young generation will come up with.
What message would you like to leave with the readers of Banana Writers especially those who hope to get involved with your cause or similar causes?
Since 1997, I’ve supported Veterans International Cambodia, a physical rehabilitation charitable organization that provides desperately needed help to victims of war and landmines. Our four centers have gifted over 20,000 Cambodians with new prosthetic and orthotic limbs, wheelchairs and other mobility devices. With these, many amputees are able to walk, work, play, go to school, and support their family. Visit our center at