Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes. 

Eating and Starvation 

Food is a constant concern for Luong, both when she is surrounded by the delicious treats in Phnom Penh and later when she counts each grain of rice in her insufficient daily ration. Pol Pot’s regime controlled how much people could eat, making starvation a political strategy and a human rights disaster. Starvation affects each person profoundly because it can cause people to behave in ways that they would never have thought possible. Not only are they weakened physically, they are also weakened morally, becoming cruel, self-centered, and violent. Luong grapples with this directly when she steals rice from her family, and she witnesses people beat Ma and Kim for trying to get food for the family. Overcoming starvation is integral to survival in First They Killed My Father


Colors are vividly invoked across the book and none more powerfully than red. Luong treasures the memory of a red dress Ma made for her as it becomes a potent reminder of everything the regime stole from her. As she prepares to leave Vietnam for America, Luong gazes at red squares on a new dress, hoping she has replaced the one they destroyed.  The color also has crucial political implications. The name Khmer Rouge includes the French word for red (rouge). It represents communism and the ninety-year period when Cambodia was a French colony. Red is the color of celebration, including the New Year’s celebration Luong had looked forward to before the Khmer Rouge’s victory. Finally, red is part of Cambodia’s natural beauty, which both soothes and horrifies Luong, and most importantly, it is the color of blood. 


The Khmer Rouge claims to want a society structured by radical equality, which is a recurrent motif in First They Killed My Father. The issue first appears when Luong notes that she and the poorest children in Phnom Penh are similar and different in many ways. One way to understand equality is that the Khmer Rouge wants to erase such class differences, a belief consistent with the regime’s communist influences. Unlike other forms of communism, the Khmer Rouge sees foreign influence as harmful to equality and desires to create an agricultural nation. While the Khmer Rouge claims to value equality, they do not actually reject social hierarchies. While they force some people into slavery and murder others, they grant other people special rights and powers. Through clothes, controlled rations, propaganda, and labor camps, the Khmer Rouge seeks to make everyone appear alike, but this does not lead to true equality. The memoir ends with Luong on the way to the United States, a nation built around a different idea of equality.