Pa: December 1976

The Ung family is in constant danger that the soldiers will learn that Pa worked for the Lon Nol government. Their allotment of food is decreasing and the stress of their situation has everyone on edge. Luong overhears Pa whisper to Ma that his past has been discovered. Although it would be safer to send the children away, Ma says she cannot do it. The next day two men approach their hut, asking for Pa’s help pulling an ox wagon out of the mud. He asks to talk to his family before leaving. He and Ma enter the hut and Luong hears the sounds of her sobs. He hugs each of the children, as the soldiers promise that Pa will return the next day. Pa walks off, flanked by soldiers, as Luong watches and waves until she can no longer see him.  

Luong tries to believe that her father will return, but deep down she knows that she will never see her again. As she slowly confronts his absence, rage overcomes her. The most important lesson that the Angkar have taught her is how to hate so profoundly that she can imagine killing another human. She breaks out of her rage, to visualize what happened to her father. When he was a monk, he was taught that some people could leave their bodies and travel the world as spirits. Luong fancies that she has this ability and goes on an imaginative journey in search of Pa.  

The narrative shifts into italics as Luong describes a scene familiar to readers who know the history of the Killing Fields. A group of people kneel around a large hole, already partially filled with corpses. Soldiers mill around and one is armed with a large hammer, covered with blood and bits of hair. Luong sees a blindfolded Pa kneel at the edge of the hole and her spirit rushes to comfort him. While other victims beg for mercy, Pa quietly prays and thinks of his family. She imagines her spirit embraces his and promises to love him forever. Just before her father’s death, the soldier with the hammer steps behind Pa, and the narrative ends. 

The family slowly comes to terms with Pa’s death, although Ma refuses to give up hope without evidence that he has died. Luong rages silently at the Khmer Rouge for killing Keav and Pa. Khmer Rouge soldiers continue to escort people out of the village. Because Ma always depended on Pa, Luong worries about how they will survive. She dreams of him and recounts a family trip to Angkor Wat, where faces of gods on the temple’s walls resembled Pa. Their lives are harder but, when Ma steals baby shrimp while fishing, Luong’s confidence in their ability to survive grows. 


While previous chapters show how the Ung family uses silence to protect themselves, this one expands the role of silence to include many difficult topics, like the death of Keav and the increasing number of disappearances in the village. Whether from fear or from grief, the family avoids many topics, creating a feeling of estrangement even within their shared private space. Too young to know any better, Geak is the only person in the family who voices her feelings. Not only has the Khmer Rouge affected their relationships with other people but it has also reorganized how they interact with one another. This silence contributes to the loneliness that pervades the narrative. 

Pa has the opportunity to say farewell to his family and, as he does so, he stands erect for the first time since they left Phnom Penh. Luong is able to say goodbye to the Pa she knew before the Khmer Rouge took power. Having lost everything, he stands tall to meet his death. A seemingly small detail, Pa’s change in posture reveals the strength of his character and the lengths to which he was willing to go to protect his family, hiding himself to save them. Luong’s ongoing fidelity to her father is expressed in her waving as he retreats in life and in her imagined travel to him in the moments before his death. These two behaviors emphasize how important he is to her, and his memory will continue to sustain her throughout the memoir.  

As in the chapter describing Keav’s death, “Pa” includes a narration of his final moments. Luong imagines these events because she did not witness them directly, and the description is in italics, like the passages in “Keav.” The interlude about Pa’s death differs from the one describing Keav’s final day in that Luong imagines herself at the scene of his execution. The Keav narrative is framed by what Luong imagines based on her understanding of labor camps, starvation, and Keav’s personality. Here, Luong relies on a story Pa told her about the ability of some monks to travel great distances outside of their bodies. She imagines that she has this power and, in an emotional first-person passage, describes what she sees in the Killing Field where Pa died. Luong imagines that Pa, like Keav, thinks of the family as he stoically awaits death, too proud to beg for his life. Where Pa is silent, Luong’s spirit screams in a vain attempt to protect him. However, she cannot witness the moment of his death, which perhaps allows Pa’s spirit to continue to visit her across the rest of the memoir. 

Pa’s death affects Luong profoundly and makes the family’s survival less likely. It serves as a catalyst for many of the subsequent changes in their lives, including Luong’s training as a child soldier and the way rage increasingly defines her relationship to the world. Reconsidering the book’s title, it is possible that presenting Pa’s death as first may have less to do with the sequence of events for the family and more to do with the way the Khmer Rouge regime shaped Luong’s personal narrative.