For many years, Achut Deng’s survival required her to focus, not on the multiple tragedies and near-death experiences that she had endured before reaching the age of 10, but on the safety and stability that she was precariously striving toward. So when she had children of her own, eventually building a middle-class life in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she decided to protect their innocence—an innocence she herself was never afforded—and keep her story to herself. Or, at least, she tried.
Mere days after Deng brought her eldest son home from the hospital in 2007, her past began tearing through the facade she had built. Lying in bed with the baby one night, she pulled a blanket over herself and the boy. As if dropped into a slingshot, she flew back to the moment when her grandmother Koko was killed protecting her; Koko had used her own body, wrapped in an embroidered Sudanese sheet called a milaya, to shield Deng from a spray of bullets barraging the hut where they were hiding. Deng told her doctor about the flashback, and he diagnosed her with PTSD and postpartum depression. After that, she stayed silent about the experience, and the flashbacks that followed.
Soon, it was the children themselves—Deng’s family grew to include a second and a third son—who tested the boundaries of what she was willing to share. Until recently, she had only told them that she’d grown up in Sudan and come to the United States as a refugee. One afternoon, after she and her eldest, who was 11 at the time, watched a Minions movie together, he brought up a film he had seen in school that depicted malnourished children in Africa, and asked, “Mom, was that real?”
“I didn’t think they were ready to know,” Deng told me in a recent interview. “I felt like, What good is it going to do to them? I wasn’t thinking of anything positive.”
“The truth is,” she added, “I haven’t seen those videos, but for all I know, I could be one of the children in them. That was literally me.”
Deng is now in the midst of a dramatic about-face in parenting style following yet another near-death experience, this time with the coronavirus—which made her realize she could die before her children knew who she was. She had made sure that their childhoods were comfortable and devoid of hardship. But in concealing her early experiences, she realized, she had been giving her boys the false impression that life—even a stable one—can exist without suffering.
Her new memoir for young readers, Don’t Look Back, was written with her boys in mind, but she also wanted to offer other young people the vital lesson that extreme hardship can be the source of great resilience, and something from which it is possible to move on. The book spans her personal history from age 6 to 25, a decade after she arrived in the United States. It begins with Deng’s vivid memories of her youth on a family farm in what is now South Sudan, surrounded by loving, mostly female relatives. Many of the men, including her father, had been required to join the army before she was born and fight in the second Sudanese civil war; most never returned home once they were conscripted.
As Deng grew up and the fighting continued, younger and younger relatives were called to take up arms, including her 7-year-old uncle. Her perspective as a narrator evolves in the book as she ages, but her observations are astute even in her earlier years. In gripping scenes packed with the kind of granular detail to which a child would be especially attuned, she recounts the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, Dinka and Nuer—which had previously been allied—turning against each other. Soon, almost everyone Deng knew had left to fight, been killed, or gone missing. “My legs were too small and my strides too short. I tripped over exposed roots and thick clumps of grass,” she recalls of the night when she, her grandmother, and their neighbors first fled their homes following a violent ambush. Racing through a forest full of dangerous predators, she overhears a dog barking to protect its owner from the approaching rebel forces. Deng’s mind wanders to her own dog, Panyliap, who she silently prays is safe at home waiting for her. Then two gunshots ring out, and the stranger’s dog goes silent. Fearing the worst, she pleads to herself, “Please bark … please bark.”
Effectively orphaned at the age of 6, Deng was taken in by Adual, her mother’s best friend, a widow without any children and one of the book’s most memorable characters. Adual often carried Deng during a thousand-mile journey on foot to what was the largest refugee camp in the world, located in the Kenyan town of Kakuma (Swahili for “nowhere”). She made shoes for Deng out of wood and leaves to protect her tiny, blistered feet; she lanced boils on Deng’s body caused by guinea worms, whose larvae she ingested through the puddle water they sometimes had to drink. In Kakuma, where food was scarce, Adual skipped meals so that Deng and other children could have more to eat.
I first heard Deng’s story while reporting on how the coronavirus pandemic was affecting immigrants. When I learned that Smithfield, the South Dakota meat plant where she worked, had the largest single-source outbreak in the country, I asked the head of the union there to connect me with sick workers. He told me about a single mother of three sons who had nearly died from the virus.
True to her mostly private inclinations, during our first interview, Deng walked me through her experience with COVID-19, only occasionally sprinkling in details that piqued my interest in her backstory. She mentioned that her wages at Smithfield helped support nine family members living in three different countries, and that at her sickest point, when she felt like she had a boulder on her chest that allowed in only the shallowest of breaths, she’d planted herself on the living-room couch, refusing to fall asleep because she feared she wouldn’t wake up. She was not going to let her children grow up as orphans the way that she had, she told me. Two engrossing interviews that were each more than three hours long yielded an article and a podcast that combined Deng’s pandemic experience with a truncated version of her immigration story.
During the course of my reporting, Deng confided in me that for some time, she had privately wondered if her story might inspire other people going through difficult times. The answer came when Joy Peskin, the executive editorial editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers, reached out about commissioning a memoir from Deng that would expand on her youth even further. Initially, Deng was torn about the offer. She thought that single parents would benefit most from her story, based on the many who had told her, in response to my coverage, that they considered her a role model. But Peskin sold Deng on the idea of, at least in her first book, speaking directly to readers of the same age she was when her life was first upended.
The book was co-written by Keely Hutton, the author of Soldier Boy and Secret Soldiers, two books about children and conflict set amid the Ugandan Civil War and in Europe during World War I. When the collaboration began, Deng was working overnight shifts at the meat plant, so she and Hutton mapped out a strict schedule, aiming to draft one chapter a week. Deng would get off work at around three in the morning; go home to nap for a couple of hours; take her youngest son, Mayom, to school (the others were old enough to take themselves); and then sleep a bit more. Then she and Hutton would work on the book until it was time for Deng to return to Smithfield. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Deng would write down what she remembered for that particular chapter—“stream of consciousness, no punctuation,” she told me. On Tuesdays, Deng and Hutton would speak on the phone for hours, filling in missing details and establishing a structure. On Wednesdays, Hutton would write and then send Deng a draft, which she would read to her sons, now 15, 14, and 8, at the dinner table on Sundays. “I knew I had very strong boys on my hands” based on their early reactions, Deng recalled. The boys were shocked, occasionally to the point of tears—but they weren’t shaken in the way she had expected, or to a degree that concerned her.
On a video call during a rare night off from basketball practice, the boys told me that hearing their mother’s story made them admire her more. It also helped them understand some of Deng’s tics, such as her obsessive stocking of the refrigerator, to the point that food was often spoiling. They assured her that they had never gone to bed hungry, as Deng had during childhood, and that she could cut back a bit.
Though Deng’s story sometimes feels impossibly painful to take in, she also recounts how, as a child, she conjured the strength to persevere through malaria, a near-fatal snake bite, and exhaustion that made her want to stop walking even if it meant she would die. The story is also flecked with Deng’s sense of humor—there is her first ride down an escalator, straddling three steps and begging for God’s mercy, and an early trip to an American grocery store, where she and a friend discover, to their bewilderment, a special section for food prepared just for dogs.
The book may also offer young readers an introduction to the mass migrations under way now: the millions of Ukrainians who have fled invading Russian forces this year, the exodus of Venezuelans escaping political turmoil and a severe financial crisis. These incidents will affect the displaced for the rest of their life—even those who, like Deng, hope to build anew. In a scene reminiscent of reunifications between children and parents separated at the southern border during the Trump administration, Deng watches, confused, as a young friend’s body goes rigid and her face remains expressionless when she finds her mother again after years of forced separation. Only later does Deng come to understand that her friend was so traumatized by the separation from her mother that she went into shock and was initially unable to process her emotions when they were finally reunited.
At a time when many parents are debating whether and how to share the seemingly ceaseless and overwhelming bad news of the day with their children, Don’t Look Back reminds us why stories about confronting extreme human challenges can have a profoundly positive and even lifesaving impact. This was true even for Deng herself during her hardest moments. “It is my hope that just as I drew strength and faith from Koko, Adual, and every person who helped carry me, my story will help carry you,” Deng writes in the acknowledgments. “I pray it provides you some light when the nights are too long, and the darkness is too heavy. You are strong. Don’t let go. Never forget who you are.”