The year that Loung Ung turned 40, she chose her birthday as Dec. 30, just to prolong the inevitable. You get to do that when you flee a Cambodian war zone as a child.
"In Cambodia," says Ung, "we don't have a culture of knowing your birthday." Forced to choose at the gates of a refugee camp, her brother picked April 17 for her, the date the Khmer Rouge took over their homeland. "You can imagine how difficult it was to be joyful," she says, "to be cheerful, in remembrance of 2 million lives lost." Once she turned 18, she started listing new birthdays on her driver's license.
For fans of Ung, heart-wrenching stories like this one are the cost of admission into her memoirs, First They Killed My Father and Lucky Child. The 42-year-old anti-landmine activist and author wrote movingly about her brutal childhood and subsequent move to the United States in her first two books. Her third, Lulu In the Sky (Harper Perennial, $15.99), tackles the aftermath. If her debut was about surviving war, she says, and her second about surviving peacetime, this final chapter is about thriving after war and trauma.
"From the letters I get, people often wonder, How do you put your heart back together again once you've suffered so much," says Ung. "Lulu in the Sky is part how-to, how I've done it — and part inspirational, that it is possible."
Lulu traces Ung's course through college (where her nickname was Lulu) and into the arms of the Clevelander who would eventually become her husband .
"It's a journey of not only finding love with a partner," she notes, "but love with your country, love with yourself." The idea sprung the morning she woke up on her 38th birthday feeling sad and haunted.
"It really came out of left field for me," she says. "I came to realize that part of me was in touch with the fact that my mother died when she was 39. I went through this fear of, What does that mean? Does that mean I'll no longer be here when I'm 39?"
For those who've lost parents at a young age, she explains, there's a fear of having the same plight.
"I came to realize that it's all a bonus," she says. "I've outlived my mother. I've let go of that fear. It will happen however it will happen, and I just have to live the life I have now, as it is, because it's here."