First things first: Let’s try to clear up some of the oxymoronic labels. Although this title is classified as a novel written by Dave Eggers (he of bad boy-genius fame for his debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and, of course, the mini-empire that is McSweeney’s), it’s also got “Autobiography” in the title. Yes, Valentino Achak Deng is a real person. And all the proceeds from this book go to Deng’s eponymously-named foundation, established in 2006 to improve the lives of Sudanese in Sudan and elsewhere. Yes, it’s written by Eggers in first person, that is, in Deng’s voice. The book opens with an important preface, signed by Deng in 2006, in Atlanta: “This book is the soulful account of my life …” But he also explains, “… over the course of many years, I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my own voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation. Because many of the passages are fictional, the result is called a novel … though it is fictionalized, it should be noted that the world I have known is not so different from the one depicted within these pages.” [An expanded preface, written a year later by Deng, is available online here.]
Given some of the recent memorably-outed memoirs (James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces probably being the most high-profile, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea being the most devastating), perhaps Eggers wanted to be especially careful. His own Staggering Genius had some hiccups in spite of catapulting him into literary stardom: his sister Beth’s public comments about accuracy (and then her sort-of retraction, followed by her shocking, tragic suicide), and the fact that later editions added a lengthy pre-book of multiple sections including a preface that begins, “For all the author’s bluster elsewhere, this is not, actually a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, various purposes.” Which is all reason enough why this Autobiography gets classified as a novel; it even garnered a “fiction finalist” honor for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Awards. So we’re all clear now, right?
With the labels figured out, readers may well wish this was fiction, given the horrific nature of Deng’s experiences, and even more so the inhumanity as we humans prey upon one another, again and again and again.
“I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door,” the novel beings. There Deng finds an African American woman, asking to use his phone because her car broke down. His Good Samaritan trust will get him robbed, beaten, gagged, and bound for many hours. He’ll sit through a careless interview with the distracted police. He’ll be kept waiting for hours in an empty emergency room. He’ll walk the many miles to his early morning job at a health club where he will be lectured for getting into a fight by his boss. All during this ordeal, he will recount his wrenching life story in bits and pieces, speaking silently to the too-many uncaring strangers he encounters.
Deng is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. He escaped widespread death and destruction in his small village in Sudan, spent 13 years wandering then surviving the refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, and arrived in the U.S. as a refugee with virtually nothing. For most of his young life, Deng did not know the fate of his family. He watched his friends just sit down and die. He witnessed unspeakable violence. He experienced deprivation and suffering for which words cannot suffice. And yet in the midst of the neverending nightmares, he also recalls laughing with his friends, falling in love, being part of a caring makeshift family-of-circumstance, and is blessed with an especially nurturing bond with a Japanese aid worker in the Kenyan camp who keeps extending his African stay until he can see Deng safely on his way to the U.S. Even as he finally escapes, Deng’s new American life is hardly easy (crime and even murder doesn’t disappear), and yet he manages to hold on to hope … and, as always, survives.
“Even when my hours were darkest, I believed that some day I would share my experiences with readers, so as to prevent the same horrors from repeating themselves,” Deng concludes. “This book is a form of struggle, and it keeps my spirit alive to struggle. To struggle is to strengthen my faith, my hope, and my belief in humanity.” Readers: take note … that word again – humanity. Share the story, grab this book, reclaim humanity.