Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why "First They Killed my Father"?

One of my main criteria for my 52-countries challenge was to read as many novels from native-born authors as possible. In several countries, particularly in South East Asia, finding a work available in English proved to be surprisingly difficult. Actually, after reading Edith Grossman's treatise on the American publishing market's indifference to books not originally written in English, I'm not exactly surprised, but I am still disappointed that Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma/Myanmar had almost no translated novels that I could find, and that the few translated novels I could find from Khmer were only offered in French. I have no idea how robust the publishing market is in Cambodia; or indeed how strong a non-oral tradition of literature existed in many areas of South East Asia before the modern era. The author I've selected from Thailand has some interesting opinions on that topic, but that's another country, and I will save his remarks for later. It seems obvious to me that being under a repressive regime, or attempting to recover economically from an epoch of instability and war aren't usually conducive to producing literature, though it doesn't always  have to be so. In any case, I drew a complete blank when picking a novel from Cambodia.

I thought about reading "The King's Last Song" by Geoff Ryman, and even bought a copy as I was intrigued by its dual story lines set in modern day Cambodia and twelfth-century Angor Wat, but again, it's written by a Brit, and I am still recovering from the synthetic experience offered by Holthe's "When the Elephants Dance", which I found false on virtually every level. So a memoir it had to be. I was wavering between "When Broken Glass Floats" by Chanrithy Him and "First They Killed my Father" by Loung Ung, which came out the same time, and was leaning toward the former, which has a far more poetic title and hinted, perhaps, at a more subtle writing style. Luong Ung's book, however, was a much bigger seller, and was transferred to an audio book addition, which I picked up when I was searching for something to read for a long drive.

Loung Ung was five years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh. Her family lived a comfortable life in the capitol until the takeover; her father was a high-ranking policeman until he took his family and fled from the city in search of a safe haven. After more than a half a decade, during which her family was moved from camp to camp, and during which the various members were separated from Loung or were murdered, she was finally able to immigrate to the United States with one of her surviving siblings. She now works as a human rights spokeswoman.

I thought, once I gave up on finding Khmer literature, that reading a first-hand witness account of the genocide under Pol Pot would be straightforward. Wrong again. Much like my experience at the start of this challenge and reading about the Scott team expedition, there's quite a bit of controversy relating to Loung Ung's memoir--there's even entire websites devoted to debunking her recollections in favor of Chanrithy Him's account (which in turn has come under some fire as well). As an outsider, I can only suppose that class and ethnic clashes (Loung Ung is of mixed Khmer/Chinese heritage) might have something to do with the fierce criticisms her book has received in some quarters. I'll know more after I finish listening to the book.

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