Saturday May 26, 2007
In October 2002, I received a letter from a woman named Mary Williams, who introduced herself as the founder of an Atlanta-based organisation called the Lost Boys Foundation. In the letter, in surprisingly short order, she asked me to drop whatever I was doing and help a refugee from Sudan tell the story of his life. It was a pretty unusual letter.
I had heard of the Lost Boys. There had been a slew of articles about them in the American media that year, and I read about the group with the same fascination as anyone else. I knew that 3,800 young Sudanese men - called Lost Boys because they had been unaccompanied minors for much of their 13 years in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps - had recently been resettled in cities across the United States, in groups numbering from 20 to 400. I knew that the young men, as boys, had fled their villages in southern Sudan as the civil war raged in the mid-1980s, and that none had returned home since. They'd been placed in cities such as Jacksonville and Fargo and San Jose, areas chosen not for their similarity to Sudan, but for their affordability and positive attitude towards international immigrants. There were 180 Lost Boys in Atlanta, and the Lost Boys Foundation was active in helping them find jobs, mentors and educational opportunities.
And they needed a lot of help. In almost all cases, the young men had never had jobs, had never seen refrigeration (let alone ice), had never driven a car or been in a grocery store. The US government, which had done a very good thing by admitting thousands of penniless young Sudanese men into the country, had perhaps underestimated the difficulties they would experience in adjusting to life in America. The refugees were given three months of financial support - about $800 - and thereafter were more or less on their own.
In that first letter and in subsequent phone calls, Mary (whose own story - born the daughter of Black Panthers and eventually adopted by Jane Fonda - would make a fine book) told me that she had got to know one young man, Valentino Deng, better than any other. He had moved to Atlanta in 2001 - his flight from Nairobi had originally been scheduled for 9/11 - and he was already well known as a captivating public speaker and spokesman for the Lost Boys in Atlanta. When she had asked him about his goals, beyond the hopes he shared with virtually all the other Lost Boys - go to college, get a good job, send money back to Sudan, build a family - he had said that he wanted his story told. He wanted his story to serve as the specific that might illuminate the universal - the lives of the 20,000 or so young Sudanese who had also seen what he had seen of the war. Valentino was not proficient enough in written English at that point to write the book himself, but nevertheless he felt that what had happened in the civil war in southern Sudan, still raging in 2002, needed to be documented. If his story was told and told well, he thought, it might convey to the world the realities of the conflict and its effect on the people there.
A few months later, in January 2003, I met Valentino at a birthday celebration for about 200 Lost Boys living in Atlanta and in nearby cities. When processed as refugee children, the young Sudanese had all been given the same birthday, New Year's Day - a common practice for young refugees who don't know their exact date of birth - and now the young men in the US had established a tradition of marking their fictional birthdays together.
After the party, Valentino and I spent the rest of the weekend at his small apartment on the outskirts of the city. There, we began the process of recording his story, from the first days of the war to the present. It's hard to explain how or why, but we both knew, from those first days together, that the project was real, and that we would see it through. I promised I would write his story, and he promised to cooperate in every way he could. We both agreed that I would not be paid for the work, and that any and all proceeds from the book would be his to use or distribute however he saw fit. He knew immediately that he would send most of the funds home to his village of Marial Bai, to build a school, a library, a community centre, and any number of other facilities. Then, that first weekend, I did a stupid thing: I promised Valentino that I would finish writing the story within one year. We both felt strongly that there was no time to waste. One year, tops, I told him.
It was one of the major mistakes of our early days together. The other great misconception we shared was that we were writing a story about the past. A ceasefire was in place in Sudan when we met, and there was hope that peace was at hand. So when we sat down to work on the book, we believed that the violence and incalculable suffering of the Sudanese people were at an end. Neither of us knew that the killing in Darfur was about to begin.
Valentino and I met up in Atlanta and San Francisco, spending days and weeks together, recording his story. We talked for hundreds of hours on the phone and sent thousands of emails back and forth. Though our rapport was easy, and we never argued over content or method, it's impossible to say that the process of writing the book was an enjoyable one. We were dealing with material that was very difficult for him to dredge up, and difficult for me to hear. On top of this was a central struggle for me - I had yet to figure out just how to write the book.
I had been working on a book of oral histories from the lives of public school teachers in the US, and had studied different methods of storytelling. So I assumed I would simply interview Valentino, straighten the narrative out a bit, ask some follow-up questions, and then assemble the book from his words. I even imagined for a while - much of our first year together - that I would simply be the editor of the book, not its author.