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Valentino Achak Deng

February 9, 2007

Valentino Achak DengThat’s the name of my newest hero. I’m reading What is the What, Dave Egger’s fictionalized autobiography of Achak’s life as one of the Lost Boys in Sudan.

Achak came to Portland last month to speak at Reading Frenzy, but the place was so small and cramped I couldn’t hear his soft voice talking about his experiences with surviving an unfathomable journey across Sudan as a 10 year old boy in the late 80s to Ethiopia during the civil war that ravaged Southern Sudan, and which continues today in the Darfur region of Africa’s largest country. I didn’t stay the entire time, but I did get to say hello to the tall and thin man as he made his way through the crowd.

What is the WhatThis book, What is the What, is perhaps the only book I’ll enthusiastically recommend to everyone this year. You simply must read it. It removes the boundaries of language, difference, distance, and uncommon experience by bringing Achak’s voice directly into sight through “fictionalized” storytelling. It’s remarkable. Here’s a little taste of the book – this is the moment he arrives in Ethiopia with thousands of other refugees, after four months of walking:

We were in Ethiopia and there were too many of us. Within days there were thousands of boys and soon after the boys arrived, there were adults and families and babies and the land was crowded with Sudanese. A city of refugees rose up within weeks. It is something to see, people simply sitting, surrounded by rebels and Ethiopian soldiers, waiting to be fed. This became the Pinyudo refugee camp.

Because so many had lost or bartered their clothing along the way, only half of us wore any garments at all. There sprung up a class system, whereby the boys who had shirts and pants and shoes were considered the wealthiest, and next were those who had two of the three. I was lucky to be considered upper-middle-class, with one shirt and two shoes and a pair of shorts. But too many boys were naked, and this was problematic. There was no protection from anything.

You can listen to an interview with Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng here. Valentino’s website is here, where there are some great photos of his home town Marial Bai. All proceeds of the book benefit his Foundation, which seeks to aid Sudanese refugees and restore his home area in Southern Sudan.

It’s simply a perfect read, a book that changes you.

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