While Achut Deng’s journey to the U.S. began almost three decades earlier, the author of the forthcoming YA memoir Don’t Look Back first shared her story with an American audience in May 2020, at the height of the pandemic.
“Do you want me to go from South Sudan to Ethiopia to Kenya and to America?” Deng asked New York Times immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson, who’d asked the then-35-year-old single mother of three how she had come to work at South Dakota’s Smithfield meat processing plant—the site of one of the nation’s largest coronavirus outbreaks.
Listeners of the Times’s Daily podcast then heard Deng start at the very beginning: in 1990, during the second Sudanese Civil War, a terrorist attack on the then six-year-old’s village separated her from her parents, forcing her and her grandmother down a dirt road, too afraid for their lives to take a last glance at all they’d left behind.
Almost unspeakable violence, loss, and trauma would follow this seemingly endless night on the run, as Deng joined tens of thousands of other refugees crossing war-torn South Sudan on foot into Kenya. There, in camps where food and fresh water were scarce, the few people she knew succumbed to violence or illness. Later, she found passage to the U.S.—one of few girls relocated along with four thousand so-called “Lost Boys”—where her hopes for the future were all but destroyed by further threats.
The Daily podcast had become, for Molly B. Ellis, executive director of publicity for Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, a part of her pandemic routine. “I put [Deng’s episode] on in the background, but as soon as she started speaking, I stopped what I was doing and raptly listened,” Ellis told PW.
She heard Deng describe her job processing pork and her initial reaction to news about the Covid outbreak: “[I thought] if it’s going to be like malaria, I can go through it,” Deng said to Dickerson. “It’s just going to be like any other thing I’ve been through.”
Then, describing how the virus took hold of her lungs, Deng said that as she struggled for breath, fearing death, she deeply regretted withholding from her sons the truth about her past: “[I thought] I haven’t even had a chance to tell them that they don’t know their mom.”
When the episode ended, Ellis immediately shared it with Joy Peskin, executive editorial director for FSG’s Books for Young Readers. “I have never, in this regard, pitched a book,” Ellis said. “Joy was someone that I would trust to handle a really harrowing and sensitive topic with the thoroughness and sensitivity it deserved.”
Equally captivated by Deng’s story and her desire to share it, Peskin reached out to Dickerson, who connected them; she began a conversation with Deng about a possible memoir suitable for her sons and other young adults. “As an editor, all I ever want to do is help someone tell a story to one person—in this case, it was three people,” Peskin said. “And then, if that can affect the larger community as well, even better.”
Peskin’s top priority, she said, was to give Deng “the experience that she deserves to tell her story.” She presented several potential processes and collaborators, and Deng ultimately chose to work with Keely Hutton, author of Soldier Boy.
Pandemic restrictions, Deng’s long hours at Smithfield, and the demands of parenting led to an entirely remote collaboration—often at odd hours. When the subject matter became too difficult, the co-authors took a break. “It was a lot of chocolate-chip cookies,” Deng said with a laugh, “but it worked.”
In one of the book’s most harrowing scenes, six-year-old Deng hides inside her grandmother’s traditional, hand-embroidered wrap under a hail of gunfire from rebel soldiers. There among other frozen, terrified women and children, Deng waited for hours, first for silence and then for daybreak, not understanding that her grandmother and most of the others had been killed in the attack—and that she was all alone.
Recounting this experience in vivid detail, while difficult, felt essential, both for Deng and for the publishing team who supported her through the process. Deng remembered reading over the scene in the middle of the night and feeling as though she were back in the boarded-up hut. “I went back to that moment,” Deng remembers. “I didn’t know that I was in my house anymore.” She said she called Hutton at 2 a.m.: “Her phone was always on, and so she was able to pick it up and guide me through it.”
“A wrenching, wrenching, wrenching scene” is how Peskin describes that passage. “That hasn’t happened to [many of us], but I think we can connect—we can imagine what that feels like,” she said. “If anything, in this political climate, I hope the book helps us to feel empathy.”
Emphasizing the need for “books that do hard things,” Ellis said that Deng will appear both in-person and virtually in the weeks following Don’t Look Back’s October 11 launch. She added that she envisions a “long-tail game” that includes collaboration with librarians and educators, “to create a lasting foundation.”
Deng has shared the finished book with her sons, who are now 15, 14, and 8. As they continue to discuss its contents, she said they’ve expressed a new understanding of certain behaviors, such as their mother’s emphasis on “cleaning their plates” at home and at restaurants.
“My youngest said, ‘Mom, now we understand that refugee girl—that little girl who was going to sleep starving—is still in you,” Deng said, adding that his reassurance that “when we say we are full, we are full,” brought her to tears.
Deng hopes that readers of her book can find a way to be open to life—to feel their pain and then let it go. “If you are going through a tough time in high school, you can say, well, if she managed to get out of that situation, I can too.”
“It’s the only way for me,” she continued. “If I kept looking back, I would be busy doing just that. My future would just fade away.”
Don’t Look Back: A Memoir of War, Survival and My Journey by Achut Deng and Keely Hutton. FSG, $18.99 Oct. 11 ISBN 978-0-374-38972-7