Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Deng Thiak Adut is a remarkable man. His biography lays it all out before us as though, by committing it to paper, he will finds a means of coping with his elder brother’s death. It is a complex story that unfolds at several levels.
Deng was six years old when he was captured by marauding natives in Southern Sudan. He was conscripted into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and taught to kill his enemy. Beaten and starved, staying alive became his only end in life. Thus began five years of killing and dodging bullets until Deng’s brother John rescues him and smuggles him into a Kenyan refugee camp. There, with the aid of an Australian couple and the United Nations he is selected to become a refugee in Australia. Largely left to his own devices Deng teaches himself to read and from that platform to undertake study to become a lawyer specialising in refugee advocacy.
The story is told with the services of an established writer Ben McKelvey. Any reader must give due respect to the man that Deng has become as well as to the patience of McKelvey. Deng gives instances when western mores conflicted with those of the revolutionary soldier, the most outstanding of which was his head to head disagreement with Dr Michael Head over the extraction of information from an enemy by torture (196). Deng was beginning to believe in the universal rights of man but the way of the warrior/terrorist held sway in his mind at this point.
The book portrays Deng as a visionary whose mind is unfolding as the pages turn. His advocacy of marriage, his very real distress as a young man when his girlfriend falls pregnant but his acceptance that he was as much at fault as his partner, his stance that the law was to be followed without equivocation, are all examples of the developing adult that the book portrays.
Deng Thiak Adut’s story has struck a chord with the Australian people, who shudder at the life Deng lived as a boy, who are appalled by it, and consequently cheer when the life lived then is forsaken for a ‘civilised’ life in Australia. But that chord is in a minor key. Focusing on his life allows people to think less about their own. His triumphs become theirs and they feel good because they made him welcome. If we’re all honest, (for we are part of the they), those racist remarks that Deng faced when he reached our shores divert our thinking towards specific instances of glaring inappropriateness but away from the shortcomings of our own society. This is a key lesson from the book. In being driven by necessity into evaluating his life and the lives of people around him Deng provides the opportunity and the challenge for his readers to do likewise.
Evaluating a way of life is something Australians do poorly. Deng’s story raises the issue of refugee status. The difficulties Deng’s brother John faced in getting them both to Australia are shown clearly in the story, but are more than just episodes in a tale that ended well. That thousands upon thousands like Deng cling onto life, or lose it, and people at large ignore their suffering, are slurs on humankind that are blacker than Deng’s skin, but we isolate those sufferings from our minds and hide behind government policies, because it’s more comfortable that way. Deng says that all people, including refugees, should be recognised as the people that they are. “Perhaps the songs of my life have had a different tone and cadence to yours, but they are about love and hope and yearning and sadness, just like yours” (288).Find things to believe in, and then dedicate your life to serving that belief is the message of the book.
How well does the book do this may well be asked? Does it impact upon its readers, does it stir them to do something about the refugee crises across the world, does it cause readers to identify their own beliefs and then do something positive to effect them? I suspect not. We admire the man, we feel for his sorrows, but do readers turn back to their hot breakfasts and the comfort of living while deriding the latest terrorist attack on the established values of a civilised people? I suspect they do.
This is a very approachable book. Its beautifully illustrated cover with its magnificent photograph of the ‘war boy’ is the usual high standard of this particular publisher. But it is first the boy and later the man who remains the focus of interest throughout. It is the boy with the story happening around him. He shows us the hopelessness of diverting the direction his civilization has decided will be his. Just like any six year old he wants to be back in familiar surroundings until a time arrives when the surroundings become his. He is ready and primed to kill.
As we know, his environment changes. He resents the restrictions placed on him but conforms and adapts. He views the world in a more comprehensive way as his standards now are able to be placed against a set of criteria of a very different order. He stumbles on his way to a set of behaviours with which both he and his acquaintances can live.
The Songs of a War Boy can be enjoyed for its human interest; it can also be read for its provocative understory. A very worthy buy.
By Deng Thiak Adut (with Ben McKelvey)