Ung, Loung 1970–
Ung, Loung 1970–
PERSONAL: Born April 17, 1970, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; married. Ethnicity: "Chinese Cambodian." Education: St. Michael's College, B.A., 1992.
ADDRESSES: Home—Ohio. Agent—c/o Author Mail, 7th Fl., HarperCollins Publishers, 10 E. 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.
CAREER: Author. Staff member of Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, 1997–2003, and national spokesperson for Campaign for a Landmine-Free World. Former community educator for the Abused Women's Advocacy Project of the Maine Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
AWARDS, HONORS: Asian/Pacific American Librarians' Association Award for nonfiction literature, 2001; named one of the 100 Global Leaders of Tomorrow, World Economic Forum.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Loung Ung was born to a middle-class family of Chinese and Cambodian heritage that enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in the bustling city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, during the 1970s. However, the everyday circumstances of this family, which included seven children between the ages of three and eighteen, would dramatically change when Ung was only five years old. That was the year that the Cambodian Communist Army, the Khmer Rouge, descended upon the city, intent on its program of ethnic cleansing. In an attempt to save his family, Ung's father came home one day and abruptly announced that the family would have to flee to the country. Without much notice, each member packed as much as they could carry on their backs, left the city on foot, and began walking into the countryside in search of a safe haven.
The terror, near-starvation, physical abuses, and deaths of family members that resulted from their escape and subsequent capture and torture at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during the next five years are all laid bare in Ung's autobiographical book First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. At the age of five, Ung discloses that she learned to fight and steal in order to survive. Ung's father's best efforts to keep his family safe did not work in the end. Ung's fifteen-year-old sister, one year into the family's flight, died from food poisoning. Shortly after this death, the Khmer Rouge identified Ung's father, called him away from his family, and Ung never saw him again.
Two of her older brothers disappeared around this same time, leaving Ung's mother to care for four young, half-starved children. In 1977, when Ung was not quite eight years old, her mother decided that the only way she could save her children was to send them away, having them pretend to be orphans, hoping they would be taken care of at camps specifically set up for such children. Unfortunately, the communists who ran these camps trained the children as combatants in exchange for food. Ung was taught to kill and, at one point, had to fight off an attempted rape. She learned later that during her stay at this camp, her mother and youngest sister were murdered.
The Vietnamese eventually entered Cambodia and smuggled many of the surviving refugees out of the war-torn country. Ung was miraculously reunited with the remaining members of her family and taken to a refugee camp in Thailand. In 1980, she, her brother, and his wife were sponsored by a charitable organization and taken to a new home in Vermont.
Fifteen years after escaping Cambodia and upon completing her college education, Ung returned to Cambodia for the first time since she had left. To her horror, she discovered that thirty members of her extended family had been killed in the genocide. In total, it is estimated that over two million Cambodians suffered a similar fate. After visiting Cambodia, Ung decided to purge herself of the memories. The result of her efforts is her published autobiography.
Ung was surprised, as well as pleased, by the reception of her book. She has stated that the initial impetus for writing it was to give her young nieces a chance to get to know the members of their family who died in the war. She also wanted to ensure that those same family members would never be forgotten by the world. Washington Post Book World reviewer Jonathan Yardley compared it to another classic story of childhood terror during a war, Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird. Yardley wrote: "There can be absolutely no question about the innate power of her story, the passion with which she tells it, or its enduring importance." Katherine Fitch wrote in the School Library Journal that Ung's book will be read not only for research projects, "but also as a tribute to a human spirit that never gave up."
Ung's autobiography received the first Asian/Pacific American Librarians' Association Award for nonfiction literature in a ceremony in June, 2001. First They Killed My Father has been translated into thirteen languages, and the popularity of the book has financed part of Ung's travels around the world as spokesperson for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, an organization that was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize. She became involved in the project upon returning to Cambodia and seeing so many people suffering from amputations, the result of having stepped on landmines, a plague from which her country continues to suffer.
Ung followed her memoir with a second, Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunited with the Sister She Left Behind, which continues the story of what happened after she immigrated to the United States in 1979 with her brother, leaving her older sister Chou behind along with two other siblings. As she began a new life in Vermont, her guilt and worry over the fate of her twelve-year-old sister never dissipated. The chapters of the book alternate between Ung's adventure in America, using food stamps, watching television, playing in the winter snow—in effect becoming Americanized—with the tale of Chou, who continued to run from the Khmer Rouge and scrounge for food in the devastated landscape of Cambodia. It took the sisters fifteen years to be reunited, during which time Ung received an American college education and became known as "Luanne" to her friends, while Chou struggled to obtain a basic education and entered into an arranged marriage. A writer for Kirkus Reviews called the book "a moving story of transition, transformation, and reunion." Though some reviewers noted that Chou's portion of the story sounds second-hand, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly admired Ung's first-person account, "replete with detailed memories as a child who knows she is the lucky one and can't shake the guilt or horror."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, December 15, 1999, Marlene Chamberlain, review of First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, p. 755.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2005, review of Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind, p. 113.
Library Journal, January, 2000, John F. Riddick, review of First They Killed My Father, p. 128.
Newsweek, May 2, 2005, Salil Tripathi, review of Lucky Child, p. 63.
New York Times Book Review, June 11, 2000, Joshua Wolf Shenk, "Memories of Genocide," p. 26.
Publishers Weekly, January 17, 2000, review of First They Killed My Father, p. 52; February 21, 2005, review of Lucky Child, p. 165.
School Library Journal, July, 2000, Katherine Fitch, review of First They Killed My Father, p. 130.
Washington Post Book World, December 3, 2000, Jonathan Yardley, review of First They Killed My Father, p. 2.
HarperCollins, http://www.harpercollins.com/ (February 1, 2002), "Loung Ung."
Loung Ung Home Page, http://www.loungung.com (May 3, 2006).