Accessibility links

Yesterday I was talking to RSA Arts & Ecology Centre contributor/writer Caleb Klaces and we both started raving about Dave Eggers' book What Is The What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. It's a supreme piece of narrative non-fiction writing in which Eggers tells the extraordinary life of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the 27,000 so-called “Lost Boys” of the Southern Sudan. One of the lucky ones who survived.

jalblogYesterday I was talking to RSA Arts & Ecology Centre contributor/writer Caleb Klaces and we both started raving about Dave Eggers' book What Is The What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. It's a supreme piece of narrative non-fiction writing in which Eggers tells the extraordinary life of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the 27,000 so-called “Lost Boys” of the Southern Sudan. One of the lucky ones who survived.

The “Lost Boys” were displaced in the Civil War that started in 1983, after the northern Arab population attempted to impose Sharia law on the Christian/anamist south. It was generally portrayed as an ethnic war, the Arabs against the Nuer and Dinka; it is more accurately described as a resource war. The northerners wanted the oil reserves that lay in the south. It should also be put down as one of the first major global warming wars; two million died in a conflict that was largely unnoticed in the west. The drought that brought Live Aid into existence created huge population movements in Ethiopia and Sudan..

Egger's subtitle The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng reflects the unease of the author creating an “as told to book”.  Eggers' title foregrounds the whole difficulty of the relationship between western-educated writer and a subject who grew up with little or no education, in the most crushing circumstances, but who has come through with a burning need to have their story told. I met both of them last year when I hosted a talk by them both as part of the Brighton Festival; after years working together, they had reached a point where the story they now shared had become too complex to tell outside of the book. The burden of repeating the horror again and again  was beginning to tell on Deng.

Emmanuel Jal is another “Lost Boy”. His story is in many ways much tougher, much more brutal than Achak Deng's, if it's possible to create any heirarchy out of the horror that they both suffered. Like Deng, Jal is compelled by a need to repeat it, to tell the world about what he and his relatives and friends – a huge number of whom perished – endured. Initially he told his story as a rapper. Hip hop remains the principal narrative non-fiction form by which the world's downtrodden tell their story. But he's also written an as-told-to book Warchild. It is not for the fainthearted. At around eight years old, Jal became a child soldier. The honesty with which he tells of the atrocities – and took part in - he witnessed is phenomenal. I've met former child soldiers before on a couple occasions, notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The ones I had met there were utterly broken by their experience, unable to function as normal members of society, and largely despised by the communities and families they had been born into. Against that, Jal is a truly remarkable exception. Escaping to Nairobi he started a self-help association for other destitute former child-soldiers who had made it into Kenya and funded it through his rapping. Now he lives in England, raising money to build a school in Southern Sudan. Not that he is unscathed; he is still pursued by terrible nightmares, as anyone who saw as much brutality as he has would.

I'm doing an “in conversation” with him tonight at 7pm in the Brunel Gallery at SOAS, in London. He's an electrifying speaker and presence, so come if you can.

Comments

Be the first to write a comment

Please login to post a comment or reply.

Don't have an account? Click here to register.