“Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you.”
– Aldous Huxley
Occasionally a book gets under your skin, turns you inside out, renders everything else irrelevant until the last page is reached. ‘What is the what?’ is such a book, a fictionalised autobiography about the life of Valentino Achek Deng, as written by Dave Eggers. It’s a novel based on a true story yes, but as Valentino explains, the book is faithful to the world he perceived as a six year old in Sudan, through to his later immigration to the United States. The significant string of unbelievable events Valentino pushes through, these are true. Eggers added a few connecting stories to join the dots, based on a long series of interviews and historical research, and carved out childhood dialogue in a way that was true to Valentino’s voice. That his experiences happened throughout the 90s and through the early 21st century, makes them simultaneously all the more resonant and incredible.
Backtracking To San Fran
Dave is no stranger to overcoming adversity, his first book, and autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, documenting his teenage struggles to raise his younger brother after family tragedies. He has gone on however, to write several acclaimed novels and hasn’t stopped : later founding the McSweeney’s Journal ( of regularly published short stories ), and then co-founding 826 Valencia, a non-profit group that gives 1-1 writing tuition to underprivileged children in many stateside cities ( take a few minutes to watch this video about the very cool and unorthodox ways he has gone about this). And of course, there’s more: he also founded Voice of Witness, a non-profit book series that aims to depict human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men and women who experience them. Even with all of the above accomplished though, it must’ve been just as humbling for Dave, as it is for the reader, to encounter Valentino’s story of suffering and resiliance. And by extension, the thousands and tens of thousands of connected stories and lives impacted.
Sudanese History 101
Sudan’s wikipedia page details it’s historic complexity, independence from Britain in 1956, it’s civil wars and internal conflict over Islamic laws, land and oil. Most recently, the Sudanese region of Darfur has seen hundreds of thousands killed. In the book, this history unfolds as seen from the eyes of a six year old, Valentino finding his village being attacked, and scampering away onto a path for survival. Teaming up with other ‘Lost Boys‘, it is a long and heartbreaking path of decades, a palette of incomprehensible horrors whose roots are slowly revealed to the boy as he gets older. That Valentino as a refugee, manages to make it to the United States after all that is incredible. Even more incredible, is that there was further suffering awaiting him there. And even more incredible again? That still he persevered, founded the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, and currently juggles speaking tours of the States, with school building in Sudan.
The Foundation website details its work, includes links to his story and a sample book chapter, and hosts a worthy donate button:
# $9 provides one student with a backpack full of school supplies for a year
# $30 provides one student with a full set of textbooks
# $75 provides one laboratory set of science equipment
# $150 provides the school with meals for one week
# $500 provides the school with one energy-efficient laptop computer
# $1,500 builds a teacher’s house at the teacher-training college
# $5,000 pays a teacher’s salary for one year