Loung Ung 


When award-winning writers describe themselves, it's best to step aside and listen.

"I'm tiny," says Loung Ung. "On a good day with short heels, I'm 5-foot-2, and after a lot of beers I come in at a buck-fifteen, so it's really hard to make an impression among the people in Washington, D.C. I only have a B.A. in political science — not a Ph.D. or double Ph.D. — but what I had was passion and a desire to work and speak about the big issues of war and peace."

In 1998, Ung was working in the campaign for a Landmine Free World in Washington and senators weren't exactly flinging open their chunky wooden doors to meet with her. So she hatched a plan to turn diaries and journals about her childhood into a book that could serve as a sort of calling card.

"I started the book with the hope that maybe if I could get 15 minutes — or even five minutes — with a senator, at least I would have something to leave behind so they hopefully remember me."

That book — and Ung's face — soon appeared on the cover of USA Today, and suddenly every door in town opened to greet her. That book is "First They Killed My Father," which recounts Ung's experiences as a child surviving the Cambodian genocide. Later this year, the film version of that book will be released on Netflix. It is directed by Angelina Jolie-Pitt from a script that she and Ung adapted and co-wrote.

The book became the first in a trilogy of memoirs, each with a unique story to tell, stories that address big issues like war and peace, deprivation and survival, adaptation and fulfilment.

"The first book is my desire to tell the story of what it takes to survive a war. That's not as easy as saying I survived, but what does it take as a family, as an individual. It actually takes a lot of work to survive a war. For the second, the activist in me wanted to tell the story of what it takes to survive the peace after it's declared over and the press stops writing about it. And Lulu in the Sky tells the story of what it takes to go from surviving to thriving after you've survived the war and landed in a peaceful place."

Spoiler alert: Ung landed in Cleveland, where she lives with husband (and college sweetheart) Mark Priemer. On top of Ung's roles as best-selling author, human rights activist, world traveler and polyglot, she is a business owner, founding with her husband and others the Market Garden family of bars, restaurants and breweries. When she isn't drinking beer and practicing yoga, Ung is savoring life in Cleveland.

"I've lived in Burlington, Vermont; Portland, Maine; and Washington, D.C.; and I've traveled to Nepal, Paris, Germany and Asia," Ung explains. "Cleveland is a great place. We have great museums, theaters and orchestras, and I can do it all without having to wait in three-hour lines and pay twice as much money."

Ung also appreciates the long, deep history that many families ­— including her husband's — enjoy here in the Midwest.

"Where I came from, having to leave my country and family, it's nice to have family roots. As a former refugee, I really enjoy seeing that and being in that environment."

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