The memoir First They Killed My Father exposes the horrors of the Killing Fields and Cambodian genocide from the perspective of a young girl. Although the events are organized chronologically and unfold in a concrete way, the book emphasizes Luong Ung’s feelings and reactions to events that she is not able to fully understand. The author’s decision to retell her family’s story using the present tense gives the events of the book an immediacy and intimacy that foster a direct emotional connection with the protagonist, Luong. This is balanced with moments of reflection that give Luong space to consider thoughts and conclusions that a young child would not typically be able to appreciate. The narrative style and the story that unfolds  a allow readers to grasp what it was like to navigate the horrors of the Khmer Rouge’s totalitarian regime and genocide. 

The work’s title misrepresents the story’s events in an interesting way because Luong’s father is not the first member of the Ung family to die under the Khmer Rouge. Ung’s decision to characterize the father’s death as the “first” reflects her special relationship to her father. It also acknowledges the fact that he is the first member of the family to be executed by the soldiers. Months before Pa’s death, Luong’s sister Keav dies of dysentery and food poisoning while working at a labor camp. Keav’s death is the result of the Khmer Rouge’s policies, but no one directly murders her. When Keav becomes ill, she does not receive medical care because the regime does not prioritize the health and well-being of its citizens. By contrast, Pa is executed because the Khmer Rouge discover that he worked for the previous government. 

There is a second, less literal, way to think about the title. Soon after the family is forced to leave their home in Phnom Penh, Ung’s father changes how he engages with people. The ways he dissembles, concealing his personality and occupation to protect the family, suggests a form of erasure that one might liken to death. In hiding his identity and his character, the new regime “killed” who he had been before they murder him. 

Luong’s emotional account of her family’s daily struggles are presented along with a set of abstract antagonists, including the Angkar, the Khmer Rouge, and their leader, Pol Pot. While her account of starvation can apply to many families, she shares her family member’s experiences and responses on an individual level. This gives the reader a clear sense of what each of them suffered and how it has affected their character. By contrast, the soldiers, the government, and even Pol Pot, remain remote and abstract. They are never given specific qualities or descriptions, Pol Pot is the only one who is named. Even Met Bong, the woman who runs the camp where Luong lives, is referenced by a generic title not a personal name. These details and characterization help the reader to identify with the Ung family as they struggle against the faceless forces of hate and prejudice. Unnamed characters exist in the background of Luong’s world, even when they are driving the story’s events, as is the case with the Khmer Rouge soldiers and the Youns. This heightens the contrast between the comfortable world she has lost and the new one into which she has been thrust.  

Equally powerful is Luong Ung’s careful inclusion of details from Cambodian culture. The book opens with a rich description of the Ung family’s hometown, Phnom Penh. Ung describes a vibrant city full of children playing hopscotch, families going to the movie theater, people celebrating holidays, vendors selling tasty snacks, and various modes of transportation zooming past. Not long after the Khmer Rouge arrive, it becomes clear that their goal is to eliminate all of Phnom Penh’s hustle and bustle. In its place, they want to build a new society based on old-fashioned farming techniques. The Angkar outlaws holidays and religion, foreign influences, and modern technology. They force citizens to wear black uniforms and enslave anyone suspected of being influenced by western culture. They efface this world, the good as well as the bad. First They Killed My Father acts as a memorial for the people the Khmer Rouge executed and for the culture they attempted to destroy. 

While it tells a historical story, the memoir also provides an account of a girl’s journey toward maturity. It chronicles her life from age five to nine but, unlike most young children, Luong experiences a fast-changing environment that drives a coming-of-age story. Even though Luong is still a child when she boards the plane to Vermont, the ordeal she endures has made her grow older than her years. Her story details the forces and events that force her to quickly mature from a curious and playful child into a resilient and thoughtful adolescent. When the story ends, she is aware of her strengths and learning about her weaknesses, and she finds confidence and comfort as she remembers Pa.