Keav: August 1976

Six months have elapsed since Keav’s departure. One day a message arrives, asking Ma and Pa to come and visit their daughter in a hospital, where she is very ill. Ma hurries to the medical facility and finds Keav on the verge of death. In this chapter, the narrative shifts between Luong’s memories and what she imagines Keav must have experienced, which is printed in italics. Keav’s story begins before she is in the hospital, recounting her routine at the camp, her loneliness and sorrow, and the effects of starvation on her body. As she labors in the rice fields, pains in her stomach mount until she can no longer work and she is given permission to go to the hospital. There are neither doctors nor medicine, but at least Keav can rest. 

The narrative shifts back to Ro Leap as Ma returns to the village. She weeps as she informs the family that Keav will likely not survive the night. She and Pa get permission to return to the hospital to be with Keav. Luong again adopts Keav’s perspective, imagining her relief at seeing Ma, her physical exhaustion, and her profound sadness. She longs to see her parents, but struggles to breathe. Luong sees her parents return and learns from them that Keav died before they could return. They could claim neither her belongings nor her body, which makes the loss even more profound. Luong and Chou discuss what happens when people die and Luong hopes that, for Keav’s sake, she is not reincarnated while the Khmer Rouge are in charge. Because the reality is too painful, Luong creates a fantasy world in which Keav did not die alone, but instead was with Ma and Pa. 


A memoir is a work of nonfiction. It draws on an author’s actual experience, even if some of the dialogue or details are reconstructed from memory and research. In the opening chapter, for example, Luong surely did not remember her parents’ actual words to one another at the noodle shop, but the scene captures the kinds of conversations they had. In “Keav,” Ung shifts narrative strategies. There is no way for her to know what happened to Keav or how she felt, but Luong is able to draw on her knowledge of the era and her memories of her sister to imagine what Keav might have endured. By shifting her narrative strategy and using italics to incorporate information from Keav’s perspective, Ung both shares both of their stories and offers an additional perspective for readers seeking to understand the genocide.  

Ung uses italics to distinguish the passages that relate what Luong imagines Keav experienced. Unlike the rest of the memoir, which is written in the first-person point of view, Ung uses an omniscient third-person narrative voice for Keav’s story. This distance respects Keav’s individuality and allows Ung to acknowledge that she cannot truly know another person’s experience. In a few places, Luong’s presence can be felt, as when she notes that Keav intensely misses her family, referred to as “us.”  This chapter structure gives the reader access to what Luong imagines were Keav’s thoughts and feelings, always with a slight distance retained. Regular questions from Keav’s perspective draw the reader in, as does the depiction of a profoundly lonely child, hiding her tears as she struggles and fails to make it through the workday. Seeing Luong’s memories alongside her imagined account of Keav’s experiences heightens the chapter’s intensity. 

The book’s title states that Pa is killed first, but Keav’s death comes first. Pa is the most important person in young Luong’s life, so the title might reflect how she feels about his death. Although she does not draw this distinction explicitly, perhaps Ung is suggesting there are different kinds of deaths under the Khmer Rouge. Pa’s character changes dramatically once the Khmer Rouge arrive in Phnom Penh. Early in the memoir Luong describes how much she misses the Pa of her memories, who is fun and happy. In this sense, the Pa she loved most was killed long before his execution. In terms of the family’s survival, Pa’s death has a larger impact, but Luong was also profoundly affected by the loss of Keav.