Author Loung Ung visits Honors College

Loung Ung discusses her memoir “First They Killed My Father,” a memoir about her experiences during the Cambodian genocide.

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The entire audience stood as Loung Ung, author of the memoir “First They Killed My Father,” took the stage at the Missouri Theatre on Aug. 16. Immediately, her hands came to her face and tears welled in her eyes. As soon as the audience took their seats again, she launched into a speech about her memoir, which detailed her experience as a survivor of the Cambodian genocide in all its horrors.

“First They Killed My Father” was this year’s required Honors College One Read book. Past books have included Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House,” Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” and G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s “Ms. Marvel: No Normal” Volume 1. According to J.D. Bowers, Honors College director, there are a number of characteristics the honors board looks for when selecting each year’s book.

“We choose a book that we feel will have great resonance with our incoming students,” Bowers said. “We are looking for a book that has a compelling story/narrative, that has a broad collection of themes, that is of great contemporary relevance and one for which having the author appear on campus can be a valuable part of our engagement.”

According to a review from Publishers Weekly, this memoir is an excellent choice for any reader due to its attention to detail and account of a gruesome time in Cambodian history.

“Skillfully constructed, this account…stands as an eyewitness history of the period because as a child, Ung was so aware of her surroundings, and because as an adult writer, she adds details to clarify the family's moves and separations,” Publishers Weekly wrote. “Twenty-five years after the rise of the Khmer Rouge, this powerful account is a triumph.”

In her speech, Ung discussed the process behind her writing of the memoir, including 100 plus interviews of family members and neighbors in order to get every single detail as correct as possible, since the events in the book occurred when she was ages 5 to 10. Honors College freshman Eleanor McCrary believed the speech was incredibly moving, especially after reading about all the tragedies Ung endured.

“I loved listening to Mrs. Loung Ung talk about her experiences because it really made me realize how close those events actually were, that she was living proof that things like genocide are not too far into our past,” McCrary said. “I felt like I got to see the person I was able to intimately connect with through reading the memoir.”

Bowers believes this connection is important for students as it can open their eyes to the atrocities happening in the world and cause them to take action.

“We hoped that [the memoir] would resonate with our students based on [Ung’s] age when she went through the genocide, the fact that while we sat through her speech, more children were transformed as she [went] through ongoing genocides and mass atrocities and that we can no longer just sit by as we have mostly done and condone through silence or inaction these kinds of events,” Bowers said. “If students learned more about Cambodia, its genocide, its links to other genocides and what victims suffer, then our goals were met.”

Loung Ung’s memoir and other books, as well as more information about her life and the movie adaptation of it made by Angelina Jolie, are available on her website loungung.com (http://www.loungung.com/).

Edited by Alexandra Sharp | asharp@themaneater.com

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