Category Archives: Cambodian American

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Confession first: I took almost two years to finish this debut novel. Not until an interview deadline loomed (stay tuned!) could I force myself to keep turning the pages until I reached the end. Because I just couldn’t let the book go. As wrenching and terrifying as the story is – the survival of a young child through the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia that took most of her family along with some two million others – In the Shadow of the Banyan is surely one of the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous titles I’ve read in years.

Based on her own family tragedy, Vaddey Ratner‘s novel is a love letter in honor of the poet prince father she lost. Ratner’s fictionalized counterpart is Raami, the oldest daughter of a Cambodian prince who, with his privileged western education and reverence for his ancient culture, found his personal balance in beauty, knowledge, but most especially humanity. These are the unassailable traits that he imbues in his young daughter, but they are also the very elements of his royal background that take him too soon to an unknown grave. Under Khmer Rouge control, the family members disappear – murder, suicide, illness claim their shattered souls – until Raami is left only with her bewildered mother who somehow finds the steely strength to save them both.

In the book trailer available on her website, Ratner hauntingly bears witness: “[Banyan] isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy … I thought it was something much more universal, much more indicative of the human experience: our endeavor to stay alive, our very desire for life.” The book proves to be that remarkable, living gift, providing undeniable testimony that only humanity trumps deprivation, injustice, horror, and even the greatest tragedies.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Cambodian, Cambodian American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

Never Fall DownI admit I had a few false starts before I finally settled into Patricia McCormick‘s latest, which was a 2012 National Book Award finalist for Young People’s Literature. Based on the horrifying experiences of Cambodian activist/humanitarian Arn Chorn-Pond‘s childhood survival during the brutal Khmer Rouge control of his native country, McCormick “wrote his story as a novel.” She explains in her ending “Author’s Note,” “Like all trauma survivors, Arn can recall certain experiences in chilling detail; others he can tell only in vague generalities. … So I added to his recollections with my own research – and my own imagination – to fill in the missing pieces. The truth, I believe, is right there between the lines.”

With such careful creation, why did I need three attempts to finally finish? On the page, the sentences read jarringly in broken English; in the ears, the effect is even more pronounced as Ramon de Ocampo narrates in an initially grating, undefinable, pseudo-Asian accent. Might I (highly) recommend skipping forward to that ending “Author’s Note”: McCormick clarifies, “Trying to capture [Arn's] voice was like trying to bottle a lightning bug. Every time I imposed the rules of grammar or syntax on it, the lights went out. And so, in telling Arn’s story I chose to use his own distinct and beautiful voice.” That explanation sent me searching for that voice … and I found this video of writer and subject together. Their interaction convinced me I absolutely needed to finish the book: all frustration and hesitation disappeared by the final page.

In a devastating world tragedy that took the lives of almost a quarter of a country’s entire population, Arn witnesses the most heinous crimes and tragedies; he is just 11 when the Khmer Rouge begins the devastation of Cambodia. He loses most of his family, his friends, his hopes, his beliefs. He’s forced to commit indescribable acts as a child soldier, numbing his heart and mind in order to live to the next day. Miraculously, he reclaims his own humanity to become an outspoken champion of the world.

McCormick has built her lauded literary reputation on giving voice to young people facing the most challenging circumstances – from addiction to slavery to war to genocide (her first National Book Award finalistSold, is revelatory). McCormick’s next title – her first co-writing credit – is due out in August 2014, and is already making headlines: I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the WorldSight unseen, I’m already practicing chants of ‘NBA, all the way.’

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Memoir, Cambodian, Cambodian American, Nonethnic-specific, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American

The Language Inside by Holly Thompson

Language InsideThis might be a spoiler of sorts: The advance galley is printed with a March 12, 2013 pub date, but when I went searching for an image of the book’s cover to load here, online bookstores list a May date. Hmmm … if the latter is correct, then let this post serve as urgent advice: pre-order this book now.

I don’t know what makes my usually poetry-resistant brain so appreciative of novels-in-verse, but they definitely provide moments of blissful delight. And I’m growing rather partial to Holly Thompson‘s ethnic-blending, boundary-crossing, expectation-defying titles for young adults (check out her Orchards here).

Meet Emma Karas: while her name and face might suggest otherwise, Emma is Japanese. Culturally, anyway: she’s lived most of her life there, speaks the language like a native, and has a preference for miso and ramen over hamburgers and pasta. When she’s unexpectedly uprooted to Lowell, Massachusetts, all she wants to do is go home – to Japan.

Emma’s mother has cancer. Her treatment means Emma, her brother, and their mother will live in Lowell with her father’s mother. Emma’s father visits as often as he can from his job in New York City. Emma is torn between being the supportive daughter to her suffering mother, and feeling disloyal to her Japanese friends and their families who remain in shock and mourning less than a year since the devastating 2011 Tōhoku tsunami and earthquake.

To fill some of her longing-to-be-home hours, Emma volunteers at the Newell Center for Long Term Care, where she’s assigned to work with Zena, a stroke victim who can only communicate through her eyes. Zena is a poet, and her silent words which Emma helps put to paper have a healing effect on them both. The Newell Center is also where Emma meets Samnang, a fellow high school student with a troubled past, who works with two elderly survivors of the Cambodian killing fields.

Emma and Samnang are both cultural anomalies as defined by others’ assumptions: ” … when the language outside / isn’t the language inside,” Emma writes in a poem. Emma can’t be Japanese and yet she’s not quite American. Samnang is American and yet his Cambodian features make him forever other. Could such teenagers be anything but destined for each other?

As lyrical and effecting as Language is, it’s not read without questions, specifically about narrative choices. Why did Emma’s mother need to have her treatment in the States? Surely a country as advanced as Japan would have equivalent treatment options; additionally, given how long the family has been based in Japan, close family friends seem to be abundant in Japan, and virtually nonexistent Stateside. Why would Emma’s mother choose to stay with her mother-in-law instead of her own parents in Vermont? Why would Emma’s father work in New York when his wife is so seriously ill? As kind and thoughtful as she is, why is YiaYia so resistant about the foods that might comfort her extended family most?

The questions go on, but eventually such logistical details pale as Emma and Zena’s tender relationship develops, and as Emma and Samnang tentatively fall in love. ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff,’ actually comes to mind. Yes, questions linger, but ultimately, those moments of blissful delight extend … and win out.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

2 Comments

Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Poetry, Cambodian American, Japanese, Nonethnic-specific, Southeast Asian American

Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness by Loung Ung + Author Interview

When I recently met Loung Ung in person at one of her Washington, DC readings, we were the lone Asian women in the room. Yes, get ready with your “uh-oh.” Within minutes, a random stranger asked if Ung and I were sisters. Surprisingly, I behaved and politely answered with, “No, Loung and I just met.” To her credit, she did promise to put her glasses back on.

I didn’t embarrass my “sister,” but I did later share the incident, to which she replied, “I got one almost as good.” A would-be reader “asked me if I wrote the book or did I have help?” What Ung wanted to say was, “You think I no write English?” But being in a public setting (and having experienced far worse), Ung merely “got heated but stayed calm,” and graciously replied with, “Yes, I wrote the book… I wrote three books.”

Indeed, that third book is Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness, which was published in May, and completes Ung’s trilogy of powerful memoirs. Above all else, Ung is a survivor – a survivor who’s managed to keep her humanity (and humor) intact in spite of enduring unspeakable atrocity. After living the first five years of her life as a privileged, pampered second-to-last daughter – one of seven children – in a large Cambodian Chinese family in Phnom Penh, she spent the next five years trapped in tortuous horror, trying to outrun destruction, war, starvation, and death. During her most formative years, she experienced both the unconditional devotion and courage of her family, and witnessed the most atrociously evil acts of inhumanity.

The United States’ evacuation of Vietnam in April 1975 affected not only Vietnam but neighboring Cambodia and Laos where the so-called Vietnam War spread. With the U.S. troops out of the way, the Communist Khmer Rouge stormed into Cambodia’s capital and largest city Phnom Penh and dispersed its inhabitants; those who survived were sent to forced labor camps where many would die of starvation, disease, torture, and execution. Over the next four years, Pol Pot and his regime claimed 1.7 million lives – a quarter of Cambodia’s then-population.

Half of Ung’s immediate family somehow survived. Those horrific years – from ages 5 to 9 – eventually became her debut memoir, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, which quickly becoming a national bestseller after it was published in 2000. Five years later, she followed that success with the critically acclaimed Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind, in which she examines the parallel lives of her own American experiences with those of her one surviving sister who remained in Cambodia. Ung confronts her deep guilt of being the chosen one, the “lucky child,” and finds healing through love, family, and community.

In Lulu in the Sky, Ung is all grown up. Attending a small liberal arts college in Vermont, she begins to navigate her life as an adult, away from the “No dating, no boys” family rules she lived with from age 13. When she meets an easy-going, tall, handsome young man from Ohio, she thinks “Kismet! … I, a brown girl living in the whitest state in America, met the only Caucasian person on campus who had been to my part of the world.” How could she not fall in love with this happy Midwest boy who had spent a year in the Philippines teaching English in a refugee camp? Kismet indeed.

But falling in love – even having that love abundantly returned – is not enough to keep Ung’s fears, nightmares, and bouts of depression away. For 10 uncertain, peripatetic years, Ung will struggle to find peace in her soul and her place amidst her traditional family both near and far. Meanwhile, she needs to discover what fulfills her in the world, and how to reconcile the inhumanity she’s witnessed with the unconditional love she’s been offered.

In an essay at the end of Lulu, you write so poignantly, “If First was about getting lost, being lost, and losing, then Lucky Child was about being found, finding, and gaining.” How might you add Lulu into that description?
Lulu is my journey of going from surviving to thriving… about reconnecting, reclaiming, and rejoicing.

So what’s the backstory with Lulu? What made you write a part three?
Lulu is filled with stories about going back to Cambodia, not only as an activist but as a sister, an aunt, a daughter. I’m coming full circle from being a Chinese Cambodian, which I wrote about in First They Killed My Father; then becoming an American, which became Lucky Child; and now I’m writing about being an international citizen of the world. I’ve loved having all these roles.

Writing this book helped me learn so much about Cambodia on a spiritual and emotional level. It’s also very much about my mother. Lulu came into being one morning when I woke up and found myself crying and cleaning the floor – something I rarely do – and something I’ve never done together! It took me awhile to figure out why I did that: why I was crying when I have such a great life? What I finally realized then was that in one year I was going to outlive my mother; she died when she was 39. And in my mind, I’d always thought that as long as she was alive at this age, at my age, she could exist in another place, living out her life perhaps in a parallel universe. And in this way, we could still be connected, talk to each other, be in each other’s lives.

But what happens to this connection when her lifeline ends? As a daughter, I feared I would lose her all over again, so I began to dig into her story, to learn about her life not only as my mother, my father’s wife, but as a woman, a fully formed human person. The search for my mother really drove me to explore more about the role of who we are as women, who we are as part of the human race. It turned out to be a fun project that I really enjoyed. I think Lulu reflects this; so it’s a lighter story, more hopeful, and humorous. I went into it because of pain, a delayed separation anxiety about losing my mother again. I came out of this journey full of hope and gratitude for a mother’s love, the human heart, and the generosity of people to assist one another in our times of need. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Loung Ung,” Bookslut.com, June 2012

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012

1 Comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Cambodian, Cambodian American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American

The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine by Somaly Mam

Before you open Somaly Mam‘s astonishing memoir, you need to be prepared to bear witness to some of the most horrific acts a human being can commit against another, especially helpless young girls. Once you begin, the frank, unmitigated writing will not allow you to turn away. Once you’re finished, Mam’s miraculous resilience will draw you in to join her fight – for life.

Somaly Mam doesn’t know when she was born. She doesn’t remember her birthparents, who left her to be raised by her maternal grandmother in a remote forest village, home to “an old tribe of mountain people” – an ethnic minority group in Cambodia. At 9 or 10, a man claiming to be her grandfather took her away, eventually arriving at what he claimed was her father’s ancestral village. “Grandfather” proves to be cruel and abusive, keeping her as his servant slave.

But in the new village, Mam finds temporary refuge with the kind village schoolteacher who tells her that she is his brother’s daughter. He is the person who gives her her name: ‘Somaly’ meaning “The Necklace of Flowers Lost in the Virgin Forest,” and ‘Mam’ because he claims her – and, unlike almost everyone else, always treats her – as his valued, respected, true family.

In spite of a bond with the Mam family that remains strong even today, Mam’s childhood respite does not last long. At 12, she is sent to be brutally raped to pay Grandfather’s debts. At 14 she is married off to a violent soldier with whom she experiences only misery. When he disappears, Grandfather sells her to a brothel where submission in the only way to survive the endless hell.

A Swiss humanitarian worker is the first to help Mam out of sexual slavery; while Mam writes about him with nothing but admiration, the fact that he initially hires her as a teenage prostitute is one disturbing fact impossible to overlook. Through sheer will and impossible energy, Mam not only gets out … she miraculously helps many, many others to freedom, rehabilitation, and new life.

Mam wrote this book in hopes that “it will stop me from having to tell my story over and over again, because repeating it is very difficult.” In it are people, places, memories that she “never want[s] to have to talk about … again … [i]t makes me vomit.” And yet because “one day I may no longer be here … I want everyone to know what is happening to the women of Cambodia.”

She insists, “My story isn’t important. The point is not what happened to me. I write my story to shed light on the lives of so many thousands of other women. They have no voice, so let this one life stand for their stories. On their behalf, I would like this book to serve as a call to the governments of the world to get involved in the battle against the sexual exploitation of women and children.” Join her call to (open, waiting, hopeful) arms: www.somaly.org.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008 (United States)

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Cambodian, Cambodian American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American

World and Town by Gish Jen

Hattie Kong’s email inbox is full of desperate pleas from various relatives to please send back her parents’ bones to the family plot in Qufu, China. Because her American missionary mother and her Confucius-descended Chinese father found their final rest in Iowa, the remaining Kong family members are convinced that all manner of unfortunate events – from anorexia to useless boyfriends to even a four-wheel-drive vehicle getting stuck – are a direct result of her parents’ afterlife estrangement from their Kong ancestors, never mind that Hattie’s late mother is actually reposed in her hometown. “‘Hogwash,’” continues to be Hattie’s reply.

At 68, Hattie is mostly alone. Born and raised in China, she landed in the U.S. as a teenager and stayed. She recently lost her husband and best friend, one after the other; her one son lives in Hong Kong, while she lives with her dogs in upstate New York. She’s retired from her biology teaching job, she has a few friends whom she meets to walk and eat. She paints although not necessarily well.

When a Cambodian family arrives with a trailer – thanks to a local church group – just beyond her backyard, Hattie takes cookies and delivers their kitchen drawer (which only Hattie seemed to notice when it fell out during the move). Hattie’s rescue mission is just beginning. The traumatized parents and the older son are survivors of Cambodia’s Killing Fields; their American-born daughter Sophy has a troubled past all her own.

As Hattie adjusts her daily routines to accommodate her new neighbors, Hattie’s heart relives old challenges when her first love, Carter, appears in town. Suddenly her controlled, well-regulated life is anything but … and she must fight old friends, electronic intrusions, God Squad, and even her own ‘Hattie-is-batty’-doubts to somehow regain her crumbling balance.

In spite of moments of clever buoyancy, Gish Jen‘s fourth novel (six years after The Love Wife) seems much … well … heavier than her others. Hattie’s self-absorption, too often mixed with self-pity, becomes weighty baggage over the almost-400 pages. As I was plodding through the final chapters, my mother proudly, even gleefully announced (on the Fourth of July, of all days), that she had finally finished Jen’s debut, Typical American, with delighted enjoyment. Shockingly, that book is already two decades old … and I must admit, I found myself longing for those whimsical, exasperated, hysterical days of Jen’s ‘typical’ youth …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Cambodian, Cambodian American, Chinese, Chinese American, Hapa, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American

Roots and Wings by Many Ly

Born and raised in a small Pennsylvania town, the only connection 14-year-old Grace has to her Cambodian heritage are her mother and her grandmother. While these three generations of women clearly need and love one another, they are uncertain as to how to truly know each other.

When Grace’s grandmother Naree dies unexpectedly, her mother Chandra decides she will be the dutiful daughter she wasn’t when her mother was alive, and take her mother’s ashes back to St. Petersburg, Florida. Fourteen year ago, Chandra and Naree fled their tight Cambodian American community without a single explanation to anyone, including longtime companions with whom Naree shared a childhood in Cambodia, and with whom she somehow survived the brutal Khmer Rouge. Mother and daughter settled where no one would know them, where Chandra became a teacher, and fatherless Grace was raised without a past.

Now suddenly in St. Petersburg, Grace and Chandra are welcomed by most with open arms, especially by Naree’s closest, oldest friend Oum Palla and her two sons. As Chandra prepares for Naree’s traditional Cambodian funeral (and assuage some of her burdensome guilt), Grace sees an opportunity to learn more about her own past, including who her unnamed father might be. By connecting with the family’s scattered roots, Grace (and Chandra) will finally be ready to understand, forgive, and ultimately release those waiting wings …

Ly’s bicultural coming-of-age story of self-discovery contrasts teenage innocence with the worst of generations-old scars of war. Alas, Ly’s debut title, Home is East, is definitely the more memorable read. Moments (pages!) devoted to self-pity ultimately mar what could have been a powerful experience of multi-generational transforming change.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2008

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Cambodian, Cambodian American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American

Alive in the Killing Fields: Surviving the Khmer Rouge Genocide by Nawuth Keat with Martha E. Kendall

‘Collateral damage’ is such a detached, sanitized phrase for the innocent people who pay the highest price for the tragic folly of war; and surely the youngest and the eldest suffer the greatest.

“I want people to know the truth about what happened,” Nawuth Keat told Martha E. Kendall, who was then his World Literature instructor at San Jose City College in northern California. A quiet young man with limited English proficiency, Nawuth surprised his fellow students on the very last day of class with his story. His teacher realized the power of his memories, and put words to his family’s tragedies, his desperate survival, and his odyssey to the other side of the world. “Here is Nawuth’s truth,” she writes in the preface.

When the Khmer Rouge savaged Cambodia, “Mop” (Nawuth’s childhood family nickname) was just 9. He witnessed the massacre of his mother, grandmother, aunt, uncle, baby sister, and babysitter. He miraculously survived three gunshot wounds on that “terrible night in 1973.” His remaining six siblings and their father were scattered, and suffered horribly through the brutal Khmer occupation; some survived, some did not.

Starvation proved to be the most excruciating, neverending challenge for all: Nawuth dreams first of having three meals a day, then just one meal a day, and then any food at all. “All we had was love for our family, and that’s what made us want to survive,” he recalls.

Written for a middle-grade audience, Alive is understandably not as graphic as bestselling memoir First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. But be prepared: Alive‘s impact is just as wrenching. Paired together, the two titles would do well for a parent/child discussion, and is certainly appropriate for any classroom. This unfiltered look at Nawuth’s childhood robbed by war’s death and destruction provides early training that ‘collateral damage’ is simply too high a price to ever pay, that war’s prevention is clearly the better investment.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2009

Leave a comment

Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Cambodian, Cambodian American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American

Dragon Chica by May-lee Chai

May-lee Chai‘s second novel is one of those titles to consider reading from the end, in this case with the “Acknowledgements,” where the Chinese Caucasian hapa Chai recounts her long personal involvement with the Cambodian American community.

At 15, writing for her Midwest hometown newspaper in the early 1980s, Chai began a story that she would not finish until decades later with Dragon Chica. When a Chinese Cambodian family opened a Chinese restaurant in Chai’s town, Chai went to interview the mother who had survived the Khmer Rouge killing fields, but had lost three of her children before she could escape. “However, her family received so many death threats that she moved the family away from our town before I could finish writing my article. My inability to tell her story has haunted me for years.”

Seemingly as a direct result, throughout Chai’s career as student activist, journalist, award-winning writer, she has vigilantly represented the Cambodian and Cambodian American experience. Over a quarter-of-a-century later, she crystallizes those experiences to create Dragon‘s coming-of-age protagonist Nea: “She cannot, of course, represent everyone, but she embodies the fighting spirit, the loyalty, the pain, and the promise of a new generation.”

Knowing this much adds a deeper sense of urgency to young Nea’s story. At 11, Nea lives a hardscrabble life in Texas with her overworked mother, three sisters, and a brother; they have somehow survived the Khmer Rouge killing fields in their native Cambodia, although they lost their father and so many others. The family is surprised with the miraculous news that they have relatives in Nebraska who invite them into the family business. Once wealthy back home, Nea’s aunt and uncle – unrecognizably aged beyond their years – now run a Chinese restaurant, ironically named “The Silver Palace.”

The reunited family settles into a tenuous routine. Auntie is still reeling from the tortuous loss of her children. Uncle, who gambles away his pain, is desperately trying to keep the family together. Nea, her mother, and her siblings must again adjust to a new town hardly welcoming of strange faces. As secrets whispered and hushed continue to loom, the family’s shared past is not enough to keep them together.

That Chai has lived many of Nea’s experiences (she captures her own difficult Midwest coming-of age in her 2007 memoir Hapa Girl) is evident in her vivid writing. She certainly feels Nea’s anxiety, the desperation of hoping to fit it, the scars of the hateful racism. Where Chai falters briefly is when she seems to rush toward resolutions, most notably in the last few pages when larger-than-life emotions flip-flop too quickly from cemented unforgiveness to sudden understanding. While the overall story clearly belongs to Nea, it’s nevertheless a bit skimpy with Nea’s younger siblings, although her younger brother finally gets a few welcome chapters near book’s end.

That the novel is a timely addition to the too-few available Cambodian American titles is more important than a few quibbles. Told with unflinching clarity and unapologetic determination, Nea’s story is to be mourned, remembered, and ultimately lauded, not only as it bears witness to Cambodian American immigration, but as a commemoration of hard-won American rebirth.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

1 Comment

Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Cambodian American, Chinese American, Hapa, Southeast Asian American

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung + Author Interview

For someone who has experienced hell, Loung Ung is a bright, welcoming voice filled with inviting laughter.

She’s warm: “I just had dinner with my writing group last night. They’re my PenGals. I just love them! I don’t know what I would do without them.”

She’s practical: “I hate to drive! I have a 1997 beat-up old Toyota so if I get another ding on it, I don’t have to worry!”

She’s mischievous: “Yeah, just about when everyone is pulling out their boots and scarves, I like to share pictures of me on the beach with my friends at home who are freezing.”

She’s curious: “I tried to Google you, but I couldn’t figure out which Terry Hong you are!”

She’s goofy: “When I don’t feel like cooking, and my husband doesn’t feel like cooking, I just tell him, ‘Hey, I moved to Ohio for love! Make me something warm and good! Pour me a glass of wine and I’ll sit at the counter and entertain you while you cook for me!’”

Yes, she loves to eat, and she’s not even picky: “I can eat anything, and sleep anywhere!” she declares. “I grew up eating out of the garbage cans, so nothing ever upsets my stomach!”

And there she offers a glimpse of her past. Above all else, Loung Ung is a survivor – a survivor who has managed to keep her humanity (and humor) intact in spite of enduring unspeakable atrocity. After living the first five years of her life as a privileged, pampered second-to-last daughter – one of seven children – in a large Cambodian-Chinese family in Phnom Penh, she spent the next five years trapped in tortuous horror, trying to outrun destruction, war, starvation, and death. During her most formative years, she experienced both the unconditional devotion and courage of her family, and witnessed the most atrocious evil acts of inhumanity.

The United States’ evacuation of Vietnam in April 1975 affected not only Vietnam, but neighboring Cambodia and Laos, where the so-called Vietnam War spread. With the U.S. troops out of the way, the Communist Khmer Rouge stormed into Cambodia’s capital (and largest city) Phnom Penh and dispersed its inhabitants; those who survived were sent to forced labor camps where many would die of starvation, disease, torture, and execution. Over the next four years, Pol Pot and his regime claimed 1.7 million lives – a quarter of Cambodia’s then-population.

Half of Loung’s immediate family somehow survived. Those horrific years – from ages 5 to 9 – eventually became Loung’s debut memoir, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, originally published in 2000, which quickly became a national bestseller. Five years later, she followed that success with the critically acclaimed Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind.

With the same courageous energy that allowed her to survive when so many did not, Loung has spent most of her adulthood enabling, championing, saving other people’s lives. As an international activist, Loung was the perfect choice to inaugurate the 10×10 team of exceptional writers. [... click here for more: author interview appears on pages 6-13]

Author interview: 10×10: Educate Girls, Change the World Book Club Kit, March 2011, pages 6-13

Readers: Adult

Published: 2000

6 Comments

Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Cambodian, Cambodian American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American