Child soldier turned lawyer: Deng Thiak Adut shares his remarkable story

How can I write a review that is worthy of Deng Thiak Adut‘s story?

Even now when I have finished reading, left my review for another day and had time to reflect, my eyes are welling with tears. No, I did not shed a tear in the reading of his book, at least not until I read Deng’s Australia Day speech of 2016 toward the end of the book. This made me feel very humble and it would have been an honour to be physically there to hear his words and see his face. (This was a speech he did not want to give). It is powerful prose that every Australian should read.

One does not usually start a review at the end of a book but this is where I have landed. Songs of a War Boy: My Story will not end as indicated by Deng’s ‘After Chapter’, that is, after his story is completed. There really is no closure to his story and it will and should go on.

Songs of a War Boy

Of the chapters in his book Deng says they are, “the verses of my songs, the songs of Deng Thiak Adut, the songs of a war boy.”

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His story, which begins with his family and life in Sudan when he is just a boy, is agonisingly riveting. It is distressing, disgusting, with wars that are destructive and dysfunctional. Dreadful is a word not strong enough to describe his removal from his family, aged seven, to become a ‘war boy’ and first holding a gun at nine years of age.

Deng’s story is so consuming that I did not think about Deng’s prowess with words until later. The images he paints (for example, a ‘ribbon of boys’) are so vivid that almost half way through his story I did not want to read any more gore, cruelty in the extreme and blind destruction of life and the land. It is a strange war where disease is as much a killer as the machinations of war and where there are civil wars within civil wars.

Half way through came the chapter, “Welcome to Australia”. I had an immense feeling of relief that the war was left behind, at least for his brother John Mac and family and Deng himself. But not so, we are returned to the atrocities of Sudan again and again, mostly through his brother’s need to return to Sudan. Deng’s concern for his mother is another link. His one reunion with her after 20 years is both joyous and heart-wrenching. (I loved the photos he included). We are also given an objective and thought provoking account of refugee life in his new country, Australia. The indomitable spirit of Deng shines through.

In Deng’s new life in Australia, the touch of humour around the use of the microwave is heart-rending, as is his first train ride. However, it is no surprise that his nightmares continue and I was naive to think the civil and tribal wars could be left behind.

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Deng does not dwell on his own achievements and his is such an open and honest account of the path he took, mistakes included. Nothing could be more accurate than, Hugh Riminton’s words in the ‘Forward’, “That Deng has become the man he is to-day is a miracle but one of his own making.”

Songs of a War Boy by Deng Thiak Adut (with Ben McKelvey) is published by Hachette Australia and available now from Dymocks. Click here to learn more.