Loung Ung talks justice, activism
The author and Cambodian genocide survivor Loung Ung specifically credits her time as a political science major at Saint Michael’s College for kick-starting her role as an activist.
Among the hundreds of alumni who gathered at Saint Michael’s College to celebrate reunion this weekend was Ung from the class of 1993. Her memoir First They Killed My Father, A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, which depicts the death of her sisters and parents under the Khmer Rouge regime and her own struggle to survive genocide, served as the first-year common text for the class of 2020 and was recently adapted into a Netflix original film directed by Angelina Jolie. Her other books deal with her life as a child growing up in Vermont after arriving as a refugee, and transformative experiences of love and healing during her early adulthood.
Ung’s harrowing recollections of a family and home country torn apart by war have been met with global acclaim. On Saturday, back among fellow graduates of her alma mater, Ung provided commentary on her work in a more intimate setting; the Farrell Room in Saint Edmund’s hall. In a question and answer session moderated by First Year Seminar Director Peter Vantine, alumni and staff sat riveted, eager to take part in the conversation.
The first question by Professor Vantine addressed the origin of Ung’s self-identification as a “Daughter of Cambodia,” a phrase found in the subtitles of all three of her books. Ung sees it as an act of defiance against Khmer Rouge Leader Pol Pot’s claims before his death that he’d committed all of his atrocities in the name of love. “I wanted to negate that policy and tell the world that love does not a genocide make. Love does not, in four years, within the span of a college career, commit a mass murder of 1.7 to 2 million Cambodians,” Ung said. “So I wanted to write a story of what true love looks like in terms of families and brothers and from a father to a daughter… I wanted to write it as a daughter and not as a writer, not as a journalist. Not even as an activist. My heart and my soul— much of it will always belong in Cambodia.”
As a child, Ung left Cambodia with her brother, fleeing to Thailand as a refugee before being sponsored by the Holy Family Church in Essex Junction to come to Vermont. The very first thing Ung did before the discussion began was express her gratitude toward Martin Lucenti (Class of 68’) and Candy Lucenti of the Holy Family Church, asking them to rise and accept applause for their role in bringing her family to America.
Cambodia, in some measure, is still her home. “I was there for the first eight years of my life and I haven’t lived there since, but everything that I took out of it were all my firsts; my image and my vision of family love will always be in Cambodia with my parents,” Ung said. She’s visited Cambodia dozens of times since her initial departure. She still assists Cambodian recovery through efforts such as campaigns to clear the landmines still littering the country today. But while the influence of Cambodia in her early years was monumental, Ung’s adolescence in Vermont is responsible for much of who she is today.
During the talk, Ung recalled her budding political activism during her college career in the ‘90s, when she campaigned for Bernie Sanders, participated in the Martin Luther King Jr. Society, and even protested Walmart corporation’s expansion into Vermont.
“Even back then, pretty much if there was anything to protest I was there,” she offered as a tongue-in-cheek political justification. The room was filled with laughter at the expense of her youthful enthusiasm, but Ung also stressed the value of that early passion in empowering her to make change. “Passion is great. And passion is what you can use and cultivate when you’re at this age and you don’t have to worry about bills and jobs and car insurance and house insurance and you have staff and teachers who will help you cultivate those skills.”
Among those skills required to make a difference, Ung ironically told her amused audience, was public speaking. “I had a fear of public speaking when I was here at Saint Michael’s. Professor Grover and Professor Wilson and all of the political science classes had projects where we would have to get in front of the class and present. I hated those. English is my fourth language and I often think that my English is very broken,” she said. “I remember one day being so sick of being afraid.” Her solution? Leading a dance on stage at the Mr. Saint Michael’s competition. “I made myself lead this group of guys in this horrible dance just because I was so afraid to do it. And I failed miserably. But then I got off stage and I was like, ‘ all right, that’s done.’”
Ung’s vision of activism and personal fulfillment is fundamentally humble. “As special as you are (and your parents should teach you that you’re special), you’re not that special… There are the Nelson Mandelas of the world and there are the [Mother] Teresas, but most of us are just average, normal human beings trying to do the best we can. And how we do the best we can is by educating ourselves and by learning, or evolving, or culturally developing ourselves.”
Ung, who begins every day with an NPR-listening session, spoke enthusiastically about seeking out real knowledge and facts, developing a global perspective, and inspiring passion in young adults and high school students through the spread of information; she suggested simply being aware of the world outside oneself and doing what’s right is enough. “By working in the social service field,” she said, “you can do fun things and travel to different places, but everywhere you go you know that things are always bigger than you… so you don’t have to be stuck in yourself… 25 years later I can go to bed and be okay with who I am, be okay with the person that I’ve become. And I’m proudest of that”
The discussion shifted to focus on power. Ung believes that we all have it, and that Saint Michael’s students are uniquely poised to wield it. “Saint Michael’s is a special school where we weren’t just taught to be critical thinkers and to be leaders and to be professionals in whichever field we wanted to go into, but we were encouraged to be the best of who we want to be in the world.” The ability of the individual to understand their influence and use it to support the right causes is essential to Ung. She discussed the Me Too Movement, boycotting abusers in the film industry, and supporting local, ethical business. “You can vote with your dollars, you can vote with your presence, you can vote with your words, you can vote with your stories.”
Finding that empowerment as a woman can present unique challenges. Ung highlighted how her education enabled her to cleave to her feminist ideals when she received another film offer before being approached by Angelina Jolie. She described a Sony producer’s idea for a romance based on Ung’s real life relationship with her husband, Mark Premier (‘93), beginning with the proposed description of the characters. “He’s 6’2’’: tall, handsome American boy. They get together, they get in a fight, and then he makes some kind of ultimatum where he says ‘we can’t be together until you heal your scarred heart.’” Ung said that she refused the film deal, refusing to tell a story “where a man’s ultimatum is the impetus for a woman to go and change herself.” Her education played an essential role in her ability to stay true to her beliefs, she said. “Having an education and knowing that I’m employable has allowed me not to make decisions based on desperation. If the movie gets made, fine. If it doesn’t get made, fine.”
The session ended a few minutes early so that Ung could move on with her fellow graduates to the Alumni Award reception. She was honored with the Col. Donald G. Cook Distinguished Citizen Award, for which she received a standing ovation.