I have a problem with narrative non-fiction about “serious” events. While they’re obviously important to personalize weighty and often complex situations, they also distract from the very significance of what they seek to emphasize. Loung Ung’s book, First They Killed My Father, is no exception. This is a particularly difficult problem given the age of Ung as narrator; she spends the vast majority of the work as a pre-pubescent girl with little macro-level understanding of the horrifying circumstances she and her family are trapped in. Her father functions in some meager way to fill in the gaps, but as the title gives away he is rather quickly eliminated, and the rest of the book she wanders on through a series of poorly-noticed and articulated atrocities. This isn’t to say that there is no documentation of the ongoing genocide – of course, there is. But the attempt to maintain the sincerity and purity of a child’s narrative voice means this is contextualized in the form of a few sporadic killings motivated by unfamiliar concepts and executed by shadowy, one-dimensional villains as the narrator wanders somewhat ambiguously. The end result is less The Diary of a Young Girl and more particularly disquieting adventure novel.
Even the bursts of introversion are seemingly shallow, surprising given how much of the time Ung had no ability to safely communicate with others about anything even vaguely personal. The natural result of this should likely have been a wealth of self-evaluation and an advanced understanding of Ung’s positioning in the moral space of the genocide. Instead, we’re left with throw-away concessions about her guilt over stealing food from her sister, or blasé confusion regarding the political teachings of her supervisors.
I’ll readily concede to being desensitized to the types of slaughter described by Ung, and those perpetuated during the Cambodian genocide more broadly. That is probably the expected starting point for a modern reader, though; the genre of personal narratives exploring atrocities is relevant precisely because it evades or undermines the reader’s defense mechanisms regarding violence to distant, unknown parties. First fails to accomplish that goal. The scene where the groups of refugees deliberate over a captured member of the Khmer Rouge and eventually execute him in rather graphic fashion should have elucidated the moral ambiguity of the rights of victims for revenge, and the monstrosity of what the victims have become: not just detached from place, community, or family, but also from their values. Instead, it read more like exhibition than exploration.
This is perhaps an unfair complaint, however; I can visualize a world in which the author expects the reader to install this dialogue himself, and as a result present Loung as a complicit, largely depthless vehicle for the audience’s moral examination. This conveniently preserves the child-Loung as a truthful narrator with incomplete perspective, which no doubt is attractive for its honesty. But I feel this type of work, perhaps more than any other genre, deserves a different, more important kind of honesty. It exists as a rare opportunity to take a first-hand account and layer upon it a sophisticated decision regarding the ethical and even political evolution of the process. Ung would have been better served narrating primarily in the past tense – in that case, she could have differentiated between her contemporary understanding and her past experience.
Too much of the book reads as a broken adult trying to occupy the emotions of a child she does not fully remember: a girl who misses her mother, loves her sisters. Instead it seem almost robotic, a process that dilutes the attempts at sincerity. Child-Loung, at least in the beginning, had not gone through the process of desensitization and should be represented as an invested emotional vessel. Disappointingly we have a girl who seems to be going through the motions, which borders on the implausible at times and distracts the reader. Perhaps the only relationship which seems honestly preserved from infancy to adulthood (or more properly, authorship) is Loung’s bond with her father. Given his rather premature disappearance/murder, the narrative seems to actively seek replacement relationships, none of which are especially compelling.
No person opening the book with awareness of the subject needs an education on the basic components. We are all aware that genocide, murder, starvation, rape, slavery, dislocation and generic unhappiness are bad. Identifying specific instances of bad things is not particularly helpful. What the reader needs instead is a new or at least upgraded framework for ordering and understanding these horrors. First They Killed My Father is a solid, even important work, but it is not a finished one. Imposing our own nuance over the experiences of Ung is unfair to both her suffering and our comprehension, a frustrating failure of the book. What should have produced empathy instead creates detachment and dispassion. Ung and her family deserve better.