Loung Ung speaks volumes with “First They Killed My Father”

By Grace Bertrand

Cambodian author-activist Loung Ung’s personal narrative spoke for itself in a captivating hour-long discussion. Stirring up emotions in an auditorium full of college students and faculty, Ung recounted the gruesome retelling of her national bestselling book, “First They Killed My Father.” 

“Love does not torture. Love does not harm. Love does not kill. Love does not murder two million Cambodians out of a population of seven million,” Ung started off.

On March 28, The Julius and Dorothy Koppelman Holocaust/Genocide Resource Center of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion joined with the College of Education and Human Services to present Ung in the annual “Koppelman Scholars Showcase.”

As a survivor of the killing fields of Cambodia, Ung was stripped from her family at the crisp age of five when the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist movement in power at the time, invaded her home. Detailing every last piece of the memories she has from her childhood in Cambodia, she painted an incredibly vivid picture of the inhumanity she experienced at the hands of her family’s killers.  

Remembering her final moments with her father, Ung said, “When it was my turn, he picked me up and I had the instinct of heart to wrap my arms around my father, to remember how my feet felt dangling in the air as his arms tightened around me, to rest my face against the nape of his neck and to tell my father I loved him as he put me down and walked off into the sunset with the soldiers on either side of him.” 

Looking around, it was clear Ung’s words had filled most of the eyes in the auditorium with tears.   

Faculty fellow of the Julius and Dorothy Koppleman Holocaust/Genocide Resource Center Howard Joffe explained the idea of inviting Ung to the Scholars Showcase, saying, “It could not be better timed in my mind. We were so lacking in education on issues of this day.” 

Educating many aspiring storytellers in the audience, Ung also shared her personal experience with transitioning her words on a page to the big screen. 

In 2017, “First They Killed My Father” was made into a movie directed by Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie, with the screenplay written by Ung and Jolie in collaborative efforts.

 “Making the movie was a pain that I was not expecting,” Ung said. 

In preparation for filming, Ung had to travel back to her home over 40 years later to tape with over 20,000 extras, all of whom were survivors or descendants of survivors themselves. 

Admiring Ung’s strength of having to relive her past trauma whilst making this film, sophomore business major Alyssa Rodriguez, who attended the event, highlighted learning about topics she wished were taught in classes more. 

“We don’t realize how much those events impacted people personally. It happened so long ago and some people still have to live with the trauma and memories, but so many of us forget about those events all together,” Rodriguez said. 

Attending universities to share her story is not something new for Ung, although it does still invoke the same emotions it did when first writing her book. 

Grateful for the opportunity to present a book that’s so personal to her now as a career, Ung said, “I did not know it on that day, but 24 years later, it would go on to be in print and be taught in universities and colleges — a book that I submitted to my team of five publishers and received 24 rejections for.”

Per the CDI’s mission of fostering an understanding and appreciation for different cultures and ways of life, more events like this one are planned for the future, with the hopes of embracing and sharing new voices that deserve to be heard now more than ever. 

In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month, the CDI will be hosting a series of events all month long honoring the culture, history and traditions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.  

April is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month. Check out CDI’s website to see future events for this April.

Related Articles

Back to top button