Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Power of Hate  

Although love binds the Ung family together, First They Killed My Father is a book about hate. From the policies of the Khmer Rouge to Luong’s overpowering desire for revenge, the memoir examines the effects of hate on societies and people alike. Hate is fundamental to the Khmer Rouge, whom Pa describes as “destroyers.” Luong experiences the regime’s hatred on a personal level, and constantly asks why the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot hate her family. It also presents a personal challenge for Luong, who like many children her age is sometimes carried away by anger, even before the fall of Phnom Penh. Fighting with her siblings and frustrated with her mother for punishments that feel arbitrary, Luong struggles to be the obedient and docile daughter that her culture expects.  

As the violence done to her family mounts, hate threatens to overwhelm and destroy Luong. The memoir repeatedly returns to her desire to kill Khmer Rouge soldiers and Pol Pot, as she imagines the pleasure that revenge might bring. She throws herself into her military training, violently stabbing a dummy while screaming, “Die! Die!” Yet, when blood splatters on her when Cambodian villagers execute a Khmer Rouge soldier, she realizes that his death has not filled the vacuum created by the deaths of her parents and sisters. When Luong finds a corpse while gathering firewood, she feels satisfied to believe that it is a Khmer Rouge soldier, although she is not certain. In this moment she recognizes that her hatred for the Khmer Rouge made it possible for her to manage everyday reality, but it takes time for her to realize that she needs to contain her hateful feelings. One of her foster mothers tells her that looking at dirty things has a negative effect on a person. This is a lesson that Luong had already started to learn in the Killing Fields. 

Strength and Modes of Survival 

There are multiple ways to survive in First They Killed My Father, and each requires a different type of strength. Luong relies on her physical and emotional strength as she fights to survive. She sees raging against the regime as the only path and she judges her more passive family members harshly. But, for Chou, Luong’s strategies are impossible. Where Luong fights, Chou endures, drawing on a different kind of strength, one that arises from hope. As Luong thinks constantly about the wrongs committed against the family, Chou looks forward to the day when her experience under the Khmer Rouge regime will be in the past. For each sister, survival requires different perspectives and actions. Luong and Chou draw on different types of strength, which lead them down divergent paths, but ultimately, they both survive.  

Other characters demonstrate strength by adopting different strategies. For example, Pa feigns submission to hide his identity and protect his family. When he first bows his shoulders to the Khmer Rouge soldiers, Luong is surprised to see her strong father pretend to be weak. This survival strategy is a paradox because Pa strengthens his family’s ability to survive by making himself look weak. However, when the soldiers come for him, Pa realizes that he will be killed. When appearing weak no longer gives him any advantage, he puts his strength on display. He stands up straight and interacts directly with the soldiers and his family, suggesting that self-respect and dignity may sometimes matter more than mere survival. In his final moments with his family, he appears strong, which eases their suffering. A person draws strength from their spirit and character, which are keys to survival in First They Killed My Father

History Through a Child’s Eyes 

Luong’s narrative is important both as a record of her own experience and as a historical account of the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Most histories are told from the perspectives of adults, so Ung’s decision to write the memoir in the present tense from the vantage of her childhood self provides a compelling vision of history. As a result, the narrative focuses on deeply important personal experiences and their implications rather than on questions of politics or ideology, which are typically beyond the interest or comprehension  of young children.  Rather than reading about events in the wide scope of history, Luong describes what it feels like to lose one’s home, family, city, and country on an immediate and personal level.  

We see the value of this decision in the depiction of the Khmer Rouge soldiers. Luong does not mention their weapons, their beliefs, or that they were fighting a civil war. She sees them as parts of a group rather than individuals. Their clothes and hair are the same, as are their barking orders and cruel faces. By introducing the soldiers in this way she conveys the fact that they are a violent force that is powerful and exists seemingly everywhere. Her description communicates this without the explanations that an adult might include, but readers still understand the seriousness of this new situation. Luong’s view becomes more nuanced, however, near the end of the memoir when a soldier is executed in a field. He is killed by Cambodian villagers enacting revenge. Although this soldier is alone, he is not described as an individual but rather part of a larger and weakening force of terror.