When I recently met Loung Ung in person at one of her Washington, DC readings, we were the lone Asian women in the room. Yes, get ready with your “uh-oh.” Within minutes, a random stranger asked if Ung and I were sisters. Surprisingly, I behaved and politely answered with, “No, Loung and I just met.” To her credit, she did promise to put her glasses back on.
I didn’t embarrass my “sister,” but I did later share the incident, to which she replied, “I got one almost as good.” A would-be reader “asked me if I wrote the book or did I have help?” What Ung wanted to say was, “You think I no write English?” But being in a public setting (and having experienced far worse), Ung merely “got heated but stayed calm,” and graciously replied with, “Yes, I wrote the book… I wrote three books.”
Indeed, that third book is Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness, which was published in May, and completes Ung’s trilogy of powerful memoirs. Above all else, Ung is a survivor – a survivor who’s managed to keep her humanity (and humor) intact in spite of enduring unspeakable atrocity. After living the first five years of her life as a privileged, pampered second-to-last daughter – one of seven children – in a large Cambodian Chinese family in Phnom Penh, she spent the next five years trapped in tortuous horror, trying to outrun destruction, war, starvation, and death. During her most formative years, she experienced both the unconditional devotion and courage of her family, and witnessed the most atrociously evil acts of inhumanity.
The United States’ evacuation of Vietnam in April 1975 affected not only Vietnam but neighboring Cambodia and Laos where the so-called Vietnam War spread. With the U.S. troops out of the way, the Communist Khmer Rouge stormed into Cambodia’s capital and largest city Phnom Penh and dispersed its inhabitants; those who survived were sent to forced labor camps where many would die of starvation, disease, torture, and execution. Over the next four years, Pol Pot and his regime claimed 1.7 million lives – a quarter of Cambodia’s then-population.
Half of Ung’s immediate family somehow survived. Those horrific years – from ages 5 to 9 – eventually became her debut memoir, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, which quickly becoming a national bestseller after it was published in 2000. Five years later, she followed that success with the critically acclaimed Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind, in which she examines the parallel lives of her own American experiences with those of her one surviving sister who remained in Cambodia. Ung confronts her deep guilt of being the chosen one, the “lucky child,” and finds healing through love, family, and community.
In Lulu in the Sky, Ung is all grown up. Attending a small liberal arts college in Vermont, she begins to navigate her life as an adult, away from the “No dating, no boys” family rules she lived with from age 13. When she meets an easy-going, tall, handsome young man from Ohio, she thinks “Kismet! … I, a brown girl living in the whitest state in America, met the only Caucasian person on campus who had been to my part of the world.” How could she not fall in love with this happy Midwest boy who had spent a year in the Philippines teaching English in a refugee camp? Kismet indeed.
But falling in love – even having that love abundantly returned – is not enough to keep Ung’s fears, nightmares, and bouts of depression away. For 10 uncertain, peripatetic years, Ung will struggle to find peace in her soul and her place amidst her traditional family both near and far. Meanwhile, she needs to discover what fulfills her in the world, and how to reconcile the inhumanity she’s witnessed with the unconditional love she’s been offered.
In an essay at the end of Lulu, you write so poignantly, “If First was about getting lost, being lost, and losing, then Lucky Child was about being found, finding, and gaining.” How might you add Lulu into that description?
Lulu is my journey of going from surviving to thriving… about reconnecting, reclaiming, and rejoicing.
So what’s the backstory with Lulu? What made you write a part three?
Lulu is filled with stories about going back to Cambodia, not only as an activist but as a sister, an aunt, a daughter. I’m coming full circle from being a Chinese Cambodian, which I wrote about in First They Killed My Father; then becoming an American, which became Lucky Child; and now I’m writing about being an international citizen of the world. I’ve loved having all these roles.
Writing this book helped me learn so much about Cambodia on a spiritual and emotional level. It’s also very much about my mother. Lulu came into being one morning when I woke up and found myself crying and cleaning the floor – something I rarely do – and something I’ve never done together! It took me awhile to figure out why I did that: why I was crying when I have such a great life? What I finally realized then was that in one year I was going to outlive my mother; she died when she was 39. And in my mind, I’d always thought that as long as she was alive at this age, at my age, she could exist in another place, living out her life perhaps in a parallel universe. And in this way, we could still be connected, talk to each other, be in each other’s lives.
But what happens to this connection when her lifeline ends? As a daughter, I feared I would lose her all over again, so I began to dig into her story, to learn about her life not only as my mother, my father’s wife, but as a woman, a fully formed human person. The search for my mother really drove me to explore more about the role of who we are as women, who we are as part of the human race. It turned out to be a fun project that I really enjoyed. I think Lulu reflects this; so it’s a lighter story, more hopeful, and humorous. I went into it because of pain, a delayed separation anxiety about losing my mother again. I came out of this journey full of hope and gratitude for a mother’s love, the human heart, and the generosity of people to assist one another in our times of need. [… click here for more]
Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Loung Ung,” Bookslut.com, June 2012
Readers: Young Adult, Adult