Author, refugee discuss Sudan

Author Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng, the subject of Eggers’s latest book “What is the What,” discussed the crisis in Sudan and the lengthy process of writing the novel before a packed audience in Sudler Hall on Tuesday night.

Deng connected with Eggers in 2002 after Deng expressed interest in writing a book of his own about his experiences in Sudan. “What is the What” grew out of a series of interviews Eggers conducted with Deng. While some students said they enjoyed the format of the discussion and learning about Deng’s story, others said they would have preferred to hear more about the personal experiences of Eggers, best known for his 2000 memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”

Author Dave Eggers (R) and Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee from Sudan, discuss Eggers’ novel based on Deng’s life, “What is the What.”
June Torbati
Author Dave Eggers (R) and Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee from Sudan, discuss Eggers’ novel based on Deng’s life, “What is the What.”

As a young boy, Deng fled his home in southern Sudan when civil war broke out and wiped out his village. After spending time in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, Deng came to live in the United States in 2001 and began giving speeches and talks about his experiences as a refugee.

Deng said Americans typically lack knowledge about Sudan and its history, which initially moved him to tell his story.

“I had experienced atrocities committed by the successive governments of Sudan,” Deng said. “I wanted to be able to tell the world. That is what inspired me.”

Deng said that after revisiting his village in 2003, he decided to commit his life to helping to rebuild the area.

“The area was no longer populated,” he said. “I was so upset at myself for not being able to help. I looked at myself as someone who did not suffer for no reason, but for a reason.”

Eggers said the process of compiling Deng’s story was not as easy as he initially expected it to be, because he was completely unfamiliar with the experience of being a refugee. Eggers said he originally expected the process to take a single year, instead of the four years it actually took.

“Months went by, years went by and I couldn’t figure it out,” he said. “It takes quite a long time to start from scratch and gain that fluency. In the end, we think it was worth all that time.”

The novel was published in October 2006.

Eggers said all the proceeds from sales of the book, which is subtitled “The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng,” will go to Deng, who plans use the money to build schools and community centers in Sudan.

The nature of the discussion, during which Eggers read only one or two pages of his book and instead focused on Sudan’s political problems, surprised many students who attended the event. While some were pleased with the format, others said they would have preferred to learn more about Eggers’ writing process.

Max Porter ’09 said he thinks most students were anticipating hearing more from Eggers’ perspective.

“I was expecting a little more about just Dave Eggers’ experiences as a writer and hearing some more biographical things about him, so in that sense it was a little disappointing,” he said.

But Jasper Frank ’10 said he appreciated the chance to get to know the source behind much of the book’s content.

“I thought it was a lot better than just a normal reading would have been,” he said. “You got to hear the impetus for creating the book and you got to listen to the stories as told, so that later when you pick up the book you can hear the voice.”

Eggers was the third and final John Christophe Schlesinger Visiting Writer of the year. He also gave a Master’s Tea in Jonathan Edwards College on Tuesday afternoon.

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