Loung Ung, Writer, Activist
2012 Mid-Career Literature Prize
For someone who doesn’t consider herself a writer, Loung Ung has compiled rather impressive credentials as a bestselling author. Published in April, her third book, Lulu in the Sky, completes a trilogy about the totalitarian terrors Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge inflicted on her family and her country while ruling Cambodia in the mid-‘70s.
Loung was only 5 when the Khmer Rouge stormed her native city of Phnom Penh. Four years later, roughly 2 million out of 7 million Cambodians had died at the hands of the infamous dictator. She lost both her parents, two sisters and 20 other relatives.
In 1980, ten-year-old Loung and her older brother and sister-in-law escaped to Thailand. Eventually, they relocated to Vermont through sponsorship by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Holy Family Church parish.
Her trepidation about writing arises from the fact that English was her third language, so she was still learning how to read and write it for several years.
“Because I wasn’t good at conversational English back then, I wasn’t able to tell my story,” she says. “But I was able to stay sane by keeping a diary of all my stories.”
She graduated from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont with a BA in Political Science in 1993, then moved to Portland, Maine, to work for the Coalition Against Violence Against Women.
In 1997, she moved to Washington DC to work with the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World to raise awareness of landmines that were still maiming and killing people. She chose to write a book, she explains, to create a reason for people to listen to her.
“I decided to get my story published so that I would have a larger vehicle to talk about landmines, wars, child soldiers, and the causes I was fighting for,” Loung says.
She began the trilogy with First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2000), which finally gave voice to the little girl who had survived the Cambodian genocide, a tragedy that was widely written off as a sideshow to the Vietnam War by many Western writers. In 2002, she married Mark Priemer, whom she met in college, and moved to his hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio.
In May of 2003, seeing President George Bush speak to the sailors on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln while standing in front of a giant “Mission Accomplished” sign inspired her to write her second book. “I felt all of these mixed emotions of rage, anger, sadness, and confusion, as well as this desire to tell the story of what it takes to survive a peace,” she says.
Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind was published to glowing acclaim in 2005. But there was more to be told. Lulu in the Sky follows her life in America and struggles to survive Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, cope with the nightmares that still haunt her, and find a healthy, happy, productive life as much as possible. The trilogy disproves any doubts about her writing abilities, as Loung’s books render her compelling stories and observations in poetic, elegant and exemplary English prose.
Today, she continues to educate the world through her work with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Of the roughly 45,000 Cambodians estimated to be amputees because of landmines, the organization has outfitted more than 18,000 with prosthetics and wheelchairs, if necessary. She also enjoys owning three Cleveland restaurants – Bar Cento, Bier Market, and Market Garden – with her husband and their friend Sam McNulty.
“She’s passionate about all that she does as a writer, an activist, and restaurateur,” says her friend and fellow author Sarah Willis (CAP 2000). “She still longs to do more and to push herself further and further as a writer.”
Fortunately, Loung’s life is no longer entirely about running from her heart-wrenching childhood experiences. “I don’t always feel like I have to run or work or do something,” she reveals, laughing. “I can actually sit still and meditate, be grateful and let joy come.”