First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers Imagery

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers Imagery


Throughout the memoir, the imagery associated with color becomes critical. First, Ung uses it to relay the wild energy and diversity that Cambodia once flaunted when she describes “children in colorful T-shirts and shorts kick[ing] soccer balls on sidewalks” (1). Later, she describes the Khmer Rouge as they enter the city, mentioning the “green, gray, [and] black” cargo trucks that carried men wearing “faded black long pants and long-sleeve black shirts, with red sashes cinched tightly around their wastes and red scarves tied around their foreheads” (17). Here, Ung uses imagery to convey the nature of the men belonging to the invading reign. The contrast between the black and red attire evokes a sense of mystery and concern towards the new regime, and red specifically can elicit a relation to blood and evil. Ung makes note of the green, grey, and black, which can be used to create camouflage. By including this imagery, the author could suggest that the breaching establishment may have something to hide - or possibly morphs situationally into a spurious state in order to manipulate those around them.

The Time of Day

The manner in which Ung incorporates the time of the day into the text evolves into a critical recurrence of imagery. She mentions “cool morning[s],” the midday when “temperatures climb to over a hundred degrees,” and the evening when “the stars are candles in the sky.” The imagery used to characterize each new day contributes substantially to the themes of the novel. In one instance, Ung remembers that when she awoke in the morning, her siblings were already up, as they were awakened by gunshots fired into the distant sky by the Khmer Rouge. It can be understood that the imagery which decorates each phase of the day contributes to an understanding of the wide range of emotion and hardship that the victims of this wicked period experience. Mornings are commonly intense and cold as a full day of fear and suffering is faced ahead. Afternoons consist of extreme heat, confusion and blurred thoughts, as well as physical and mental fatigue/weakness. Finally, the nighttime often bears relief, gratitude, and hope, as Loung tells Chou that “every evening, the angels come out and light [the candles] for us, so if we lose our way, we can still see” (26).

Heating and Cooling

The imagery wrapped around heating and cooling is prevalent within the text; a constant contrast between the blaring sun and refreshing water. They way in which characters utilize these elements speaks to the meaning of the work. Loung often mentions the effects of the afternoon sun: confusion, dizziness, nausea, and haziness. At times, water became a scarce, and more of a privilege than anything else. Yet even so, there is an instance in chapter sixteen when Loung drinks only a fraction of her water, and pours the rest over her feet to clean and alleviate them - despite being dizzy to the point in which she almost loses her balance. The imagery reveals a brutality and desperation that the Khmer Rouge exuded onto the Cambodian population, as victims sacrifice their mental health and stability to remain physically robust so they may have the strength to walk from village to village, work in a labor camp, or other any other variance that may help them survive.


Beginning with the first sentence of the work, Ung artistically sets the stage for readers by describing her home, the capital city of Cambodia: “Phnom Penh city wakes early to take advantage of the cool morning breeze before the sun breaks through the haze and invades the country with sweltering heat” (1). She uses memorable, energetic verbs such as “swing,” “greet,” “rushing,” and “bumping” to illuminate the liveliness and productivity of the city. Later, when describing the arrival of the Khmer Rouge into her city, she utilizes diction such as “spitting,” “thunder,” “smoke,” and “greasy.” This contradiction in imagery is extremely relevant because it presents a stark contrast of life before and after the Khmer Rouge is introduced.

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