“Pa walks away with a soldier on either side of him. I stand there and wave to him. I watch Pa’s figure get smaller and smaller, and still I wave to him, hoping he will turn around and wave back. He never does. I watch until his figure disappears into the horizon of red and gold.”
This passage, from “Pa: December 1976,” describes the last time Luong sees her father, as Khmer Rouge soldiers lead him to his death. Pa has been consistently represented as a source of stability for Luong to lean on, often literally. But now she stands in one place as he recedes into the distance. Even though Luong does not move, she is not still. Her waving good-bye communicates her deep love for her father, and his failure to turn around is a final cruelty. Although Pa’s death is undoubtedly going to be horrible, his disappearance into the horizon is gentle but foreboding. While the colors in this passage could be associated with the sunset, they could also symbolize the Khmer Rouge regime, which had a red and yellow flag. Another interpretation is that the red represents blood foreshadowing the violent death Pa is walking toward.
“In my mind’s eye, I see Keav breathing deeply and trying to fill the void in her heart. Her lungs expand and take in more air as she chases our images away. This loneliness. How is she to survive this loneliness?”
Through italicized sections, like this one from “Keav: August 1976,” Luong imagines the experiences of her four family members who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Although a memoir is a work of nonfiction, Ung uses fictional techniques to imagine what her sister must have experienced and make the passage vivid for the reader. The fictional interlude also has the effect of honoring Keav’s struggle, while keeping her close to Luong. In her representation of Keav’s ordeal, Luong stresses the harm caused by isolation and loneliness, here dramatized in the tension between a void and the expansion of her lungs. Although air is insubstantial, Luong imagines that it fills an emptiness in Keav that helps her to survive, at least for a time. Luong also imagines that Keav is able to use her breath to push away memories of her loving family, which only serves to increase her loneliness. The use of a question helps to insert the reader into the scene and can grasp how horrible it must have been. Luong lets everyone see Keav, in other words, so that in the end she is not alone.
“The mountain peaks majestically jut into the sky as large clouds cast dark shadows on them. It all looks so calm and normal, as if the hell we have lived through for the past four years has never happened. … Up there somewhere in the mountains, Pa, Ma, Keav, and Geak are still trapped …I call out to them, ’I am taking you all home now.’”
In this passage, from “Back to Bat Deng: April 1979,” Luong juxtaposes the ongoing beauty of the Cambodian landscape with the horrors she and her family endured at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime. She marvels at the fact that the natural world appears unchanged when her human world has been utterly devastated by the murders of her parents and sisters. By stressing that the view is calm and normal, Luong suggests that there is nothing normal about the ordeal she survived. Yet the passage is not only about the seeming indifference of the natural world for it also shows Luong working toward a way to heal, both for herself and those she lost. Even though Pa, Ma, Keav, and Geak might seem to be fixed forever in the hell of genocide, memory lets Luong keep them present, elevating them to a place beyond the reach of the Khmer Rouge. Even though the Khmer Rouge taught her to hold her tongue, now she calls out, promising that she will never forget them.