ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
They're called the lost boys of southern Sudan. Tens of thousands of children who fled the civil war of the 1980s when Arab militias attacked their villages. They walked on a terrifying journey towards safety, hundreds of miles. Many children died from starvation and disease and further attacks. Those who survived made it to refugee camps in Ethiopia.
One of those children was Valentino Achak Deng. When his village was burned, he couldn't find his parents. He was about six years old.
Mr. VALENTINO ACHAK DENG: Early on when I left, I thought that the journey would end for two weeks. And two weeks was a month. And month was another month. And I grew tired then. And I thought about my family and the fear grew. How would I spend the night not knowing where the sun will rise tomorrow? And when the sun rise, I get confused.
BLOCK: Valentino Achak Deng is 25 now. He's a student at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. And his story is the basis of a novel written by Dave Eggers. It's a blend of fact and imagination called What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng.
Deng and Eggers came by our studio to talk about their collaboration and about the many traumas the lost boys of Sudan endured.
Mr. DENG: We found people that had been eaten by wild animal. We find hands. We find heads and legs somewhere - something that I could not comprehend. I remember one of the eldest pulling me and showing me a dead person and say you must have hope, you must have faith that you will go through this. If you don't have that hope, if you lose that faith, you'll be like this person.
And then from there, I said I don't want to die so I must do something to keep on going all this.
BLOCK: Dave Eggers, when you write about this march of these lost boys, there's a point at which hope is disappearing fast. And I wonder if you could read one of these sections.
Mr. DAVE EGGERS (Author, What is the What?): Sure.
“In the group, there were many boys who became strange. One boy would not sleep at night or during the day. He refused to sleep for many days because he wanted always to see what was coming, to see any threats that might befall us. Eventually, he was left in the village in the care of a woman who held him in her lap, and within minutes he was asleep.
“There was another boy who dragged a stick behind him, making a line in the dirt so he would know his way home. He did this for two days until one of the older boys took his stick and broke it over his head.”
BLOCK: Dave Eggers, when you were writing that, was that drawn from stories that you'd heard from Valentino? This is an autobiography, but it's also a novel. Maybe you can explain how that collaboration worked.
Mr. EGGERS: Yeah. It was - we set out to write a purely nonfictional book but it was really restricting because for one thing, Valentino was very, very young when this all began, six or seven years old, and there were big gaps in what he could remember of a given day or a given period. And so to fill in some of these things and in some of the days or periods that - like a time like that - that's based on my imagining and other reports, and maybe a human rights reporter, another lost boy's account and a mixture of things. And then I would call Valentino and say well, does this sound about right? And the freedom to be able to do that enabled the book to get finished.
BLOCK: Valentino, does that passage ring true to you of those things that you remember?
Mr. DENG: It does. It resonates with the event that took place. This is a journey that involved children and many of us couldn't bear with the situation. And many of those who could not bear with the situation didn't make it.
BLOCK: There are descriptions in the book of several of the boys that you became very close to - one of whom was from your village - of them dying and you're watching them die.
Mr. DENG: This was a friend of mine. And his name was Denkt. Very smart, you know. And we get closer toward Ethiopia, he started complaining a lot about his mother and brothers and sisters. And now, he stopped eating. And one night, we went to bed and we woke up in the morning and Denkt wasn't alive, but I didn't know that Denkt was dead, you know? I tried to wake him up and he was stiff.
And what was so unusual, too, and horrific was that we could not bury him because we had to leave. There were some news that Sudan group is to attack us. So Denkt was moved into the bush and as a tradition, we all were asked to drop leaves on him. And we get leaves of trees and placed it on him and left him there.
BLOCK: There's a stunning moment in this book where, Dave, as you write what Valentino's thinking, it's that he could easily imagine that he had only been born in these tall grasses on this walk knowing nothing but fear, never having a notion of what it would be like to go to bed and feel safe.
Mr. EGGERS: Yeah. I think that was based pretty closely on a conversation that we had because, as a kid, he'd become accustomed to it. They're malleable in that way, for better or for worse, and they can adjust in the most horrific context. And I know that Valentino at a certain point, it became harder and harder to imagine.
Now, who was I before this and, you know, was there a time when I slept in the same bed everyday and I would, you know, sit in my mother's lap or eat food that was cooked by her and play. And there was that point where, that limbo point where you didn't know if it would ever happen again or if it would just be walking for the rest of his life. It seemed just as plausible as going back after a while. It was the way that they were living.
BLOCK: Valentino, you spent how many years total in the refugee camps?
Mr. DENG: I spent maybe 11 years.
BLOCK: And you came to this country in 2001.
Mr. DENG: Yeah.
BLOCK: And in the book, a lot of the book is told from your perspective here in the United States and there's a fair amount of disillusionment that things don't happen as quickly as you had thought they would, that there was this expectation of great promise and great fulfillment. And that that didn't necessarily work out the way you had thought it would.
Mr. DENG: It didn't. We didn't think that life could be challenging. So when we come here, it was a cultural shock, you know?
Mr. EGGERS: I think we were both - right when we met, I expected that Valentino would be in college within six months. And why not, you know? He's brilliant and why wouldn't any college want him immediately, and then it slowly dawned at us that they required X amount of, you know, his transcript from Kakuma Refugee Camp was not acceptable for college admission and he needed community college credits and had to prove himself there. And on and on and, you know, five years on, Valentino just started college this fall.
And that was like, you know, quite a lot of struggle and work and dedication on was part, but it was not easy. And he's in the minority of these thousands of lost boys that were resettled. So the promise has been dimmed a little bit for a lot of them in terms of what their expectations were. Not that their lives are uniformly bleak, they certainly aren't, but there's definitely a gap between some of your expectations in what he ended up being.
BLOCK: Dave Eggers's book, based on Valentino Achak Deng's story, is titled What is the What?
When he was in the refugee camps, Valentino found out that his parents did survive the war. They're still in their village, Marial Bai, in southern Sudan. You could hear him talk about going back to visit them and you can read an excerpt from the book at NPR.org.