How author Dave Eggers helped a 'Lost Boy' change Sudan

“Books," Dave Eggers says, "can effect real, three-dimensional change in the world."

Eggers has seen it happen. In 2006, he published What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel, the harrowing and inspiring story of one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan.

The book went straight to the bestseller lists, and the money and support it generated allowed Deng to return to his hometown in Sudan to build a secondary school. It's one of a handful of secondary schools in the country.

Eggers and Deng will appear at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg on Thursday to talk about their collaboration and its results as part of the college's yearlong initiative called "The Plight and Promise of Africa."

What Is the What was assigned as summer reading for Eckerd students. Speaking by phone from San Francisco, where he lives, Eggers says, "The hope is that by using a story like Valentino's, the history of south Sudan's civil war seen through his eyes might make an incredibly complicated conflict more comprehensible."

Deng experienced the war, which raged from 1983 to 2005, as one of the so-called Lost Boys. As a child, he and many others were driven from the Dinka village of Marial Bai, in southern Sudan, by Arab militiamen called murahaleen. He and hundreds of other children, often pursued by the murahaleen, trekked across Sudan to Ethiopia, then to Kenya in search of refuge. Deng finally came to the United States in 2001 and enrolled in college in Atlanta.

The collaboration between Deng, now 29, and Eggers might have seemed unlikely. Eggers, 40, is an acclaimed memoirist, novelist and nonfiction writer. His publishing company, McSweeney's, publishes books, magazines and films. He is also an activist for human rights and literacy — his 826 Valencia project, which offers writing workshops and other support for students ages 6 to 18, has chapters in eight cities.

Eggers said he and Deng met in early 2003. "I was recruited by Valentino and Mary Williams, who founded the Lost Boys Foundation," for which Deng had become a spokesman. They were looking for a way to tell Deng's story to a wider audience than those he was addressing in personal appearances.

"Mary had read my first book, and she thought we would be a good match," Eggers says. That book was his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which despite its tongue-in-cheek title is the genuinely moving account of how he took on the job of raising his 8-year-old brother when both their parents died while Eggers was in college.

"It's a stretch," Eggers says, to compare his experiences to Deng's. But Williams "considered us both lost boys."

Eggers was moved by Deng's story. "It took four years to write the book, but it was many months before I really committed to doing it. I had to really think about whether or not I could pull it off."

One problem he struggled with was whether to present the story as fact or fiction — a dilemma reflected in the book's two subtitles.

"I went to journalism school at the University of Illinois," Eggers says. "I was trained in hard news, in the old-school kind of standards. With Valentino's story, there were a lot of aspects we couldn't prove." Because the book's events took place amid the chaos of war, and because Deng was so young when some events occurred, some dates, names and other details simply couldn't be verified.

"If I wanted to breathe life into that story, to fill in the larger truth of Valentino's life, I would have to compromise," Eggers says. The book could have been presented as nonfiction "if it had been about me interviewing the narrator. But I wanted to disappear as the narrator," to let Deng's voice take the foreground. So although What Is the What is based solidly on interviews gathered over several years, Eggers published it as a novel.

He didn't encounter those problems with his latest book, Zeitoun, a nonfiction account of the title character's heroic and frightening experiences in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina. "I started a year after the storm, and there were any number of thousands of news agencies covering it. There was a lot more I could prove."

With the fifth anniversary of Katrina and the paperback release of Zeitoun, Eggers has been busy touring. On Tuesday, Zeitoun was announced as one of the works short-listed for this year's Dayton Peace Prize. The author said Wednesday, "I just heard about that myself about four minutes ago. I love everything that they stand for."

Eggers is working on several projects, including a novel. "I'm really enjoying that freedom. For the last seven years I've spent so much time working with actual people. There's a great responsibility that comes with that."

Eggers says he likes "doing a lot of gear-shifting" as a way of keeping balance in his life, as when he and his wife, novelist Vendela Vida (The Lovers), wrote the screenplay for the 2009 romantic comedy Away We Go. "It was a lark, a way to make each other laugh, when we had been working on serious stuff, both of us."

Eggers also continues to be involved in the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. "All the money from the book went to the foundation," he says, and Deng's efforts have impressed him.

"I thought I knew him pretty well, but I've discovered he's an absolutely brilliant tactician, school administrator, contractor, all kinds of things. He built a 14-structure education complex in less than a year."

The school has already enrolled 250 students; it is one of only about 10 secondary schools in a nation of 8 million people. "He has a pretty strong girls' enrollment in a place where only about 1 percent of girls go to any kind of education beyond primary school."

The school, Eggers says, is an example of how a book can have an impact on the world. Through events like Eckerd's reading of What Is the What, readers "participate in the future of Sudan."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.

If you go

What Is the What: An Evening with Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers, moderated by Times book editor Colette Bancroft, takes place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at McArthur Gymnasium at Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Tickets are free but must be picked up in advance at Upham Administration Building on the Eckerd campus. For more information: (727) 864-7979, events@eckerd.edu or www.eckerd.edu/africa.

For an excerpt from What Is the What, see Page 8 in today's Latitudes section.

How author Dave Eggers helped a 'Lost Boy' change Sudan 09/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 3, 2010 4:52pm]

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