Reviewed by Ian Lipke
From Vintage Books, an arm of Penguin Random House Australia, comes the story of a Sudanese man Ayik Chut Deng, a former child soldier, who found his way to Australia and settled in Toowoomba, Queensland. Bearing resemblances to Songs of a War Boy by Deng Thiak Adut (Hachette Australia, 2016), that was reviewed in this publication in February 2017, this current book recreates the unspeakable violence that characterised the lives of young boys turned soldiers by the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA). Having volunteered to join this organisation as a pre-teen, Ayik soon realised his mistake and underwent continued forms of barbarous torture during his numerous attempts to escape. Responsible for many of these episodes was an older boy, called Anyang, who re-appears in vastly different circumstances, later in Ayik’s life. At age nineteen Ayik escapes the conflict and emigrates to Australia. His experiences are not rare in the Sudan, but he uses them as a palette, a contextual map, on which to depict the events of his subsequent colourful life in Australia. This is what the publisher brings to Ayik’s readers.
Stories of deep privation and unspeakable hardship among the Sudanese and other African peoples are not difficult to find but not all make it into print. The fingerprints of Ray Martin are all over this volume. His television program and subsequent interest in Ayik’s story have equipped readers in Australia with insights into mental traumas that go unnoticed or are incorrectly diagnosed. In Ayik’s case, a mis-diagnosis of schizophrenia by an incompetent psychiatrist led to a life of dependence on drugs and a life of drug running with its inevitable outcome, a spell in an Australian prison.
Ayik does not gloss over this part of his life. He identifies three reasons for writing this memoir. First, he wants to tell his story of living on the wrong side of the law and to point to the fact that cases of post-traumatic stress disorder have gone unrecognised by medical practitioners for many years. Second, he wants to bring to us an understanding of the devastating consequences that mis-diagnoses have wrought. Third, is the importance of forgiveness, a human capacity made much of in a television series best forgotten.
Ayik’s story is presented in a way that first, gains the readers’ sympathies for the life of poverty that so many people, adults and children, suffer daily while the rest of the world continues in ignorant bliss. Ayik’s story brings to the surface of our consciousness that, while there is poverty in many parts of the world, in some places there is a severity of poverty that eats into the very soul so that slaking hunger by feeding on grass and drinking one’s own urine become a means of survival. This is Ayik’s form of poverty. Information about the man’s childhood of deprivation and his stricken existence as a man inserted into Australia are revealed through the good offices of Craig Henderson, whose name appears on the front cover but whose labours are dismissed in a solitary acknowledgment, sandwiched between a couple of staffers at Penguin Random House and a woman responsible for dressing the author in African attire. The reference to Craig Henderson is an insult to the man himself through the location of the reference and its low-key wording:
Craig Henderson, for his humour during long days of interview and for helping me breathe life into the book. A true friend (266).
Surely hours of transcription from oral to literary production were involved here as well. Even the acknowledgment as it stands would have sufficed if given the prominence that Ray Martin’s Foreword achieved. When thinking of that Foreword one must ask, “Whose was the more significant contribution?” Craig Henderson acknowledged on page 266…no!
The book, an uncorrected proof copy, is a professional production. It is not some slick, anonymous piece but shows that a great deal of thought was expended on the cover and in the production of a book from which readers may draw comfort. Ayik turned disaster into triumph. Readers will not feel intimidated, but, rather, welcomed. The horror stories of Ayik’s childhood are confronting but not so as to cause a reader to recoil. One reads through the text with growing interest in a foreign way of life and hopefully, spends time thinking about, and acting in, ways that make the lives of the Sudanese people that much more comfortable. The book does not ask for pity but for understanding.
Well worth a read.
By Ayik Chut Deng (Craig Henderson)