Over the last four years, incoming
freshmen at CBU have arrived on campus on their first day of class with a
common experience: they’ve all read the same book during the summer before they
ever step foot inside a classroom together. This experience is part of CBU’s
Fresh Reads Program, a summer-long program for freshmen (in addition to some
upperclassmen and faculty members) that’s intended to force participants to
reflect on their own lives and the lives of those around them. During the
summer, participants read the same book and are given various opportunities throughout
the year to analyze and discuss it, with the ultimate goal of inspiring readers
to act, cause change and make a difference-but it doesn't end there. CBU’s
Fresh Reads program also inspired the creation of a city-wide book reading
program a few years ago called Memphis Reads.
Memphis Reads is a collaboration
between various partners like CBU, Memphis Public Library & Information
Center and others. During the fall, they host a city-wide reading program of a
single book and that culminates with a series of events related to the book
such as: panels, book discussion groups, book signings, an essay contest and a
multilevel talk by the author.
This year’s book is What is the What
by Dave Eggers (2006). What is the What is an biographical novel that tells the
story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the thousands of lost boys who were
forced to leave their homes during the Sudanese Civil War. Valentino's story is
one filled with hardship and danger as he protects himself from wild animals,
hunger and the militia while crossing across three countries to find safety.
Once he is settled in the U.S, Valentino starts a new life filled with
possibilities but also new challenges.
The activities for this year included
a kick-off press conference held at the Memphis Public Library, a film
screening of The Good Lie (which
also included a Q&A with lost boy Joseph Atem), a
conversation with lost boy Valentino Achak Deng, and the climactic talk with
author Dave Eggers on the last night.
The conversation with Valentino Achak Deng
and the readers who attended the event at Rhodes College was incredibly
interactive, comprised of a panel with three college students and three
professors, along with audience members who had the opportunity to listen and
ask questions of Valentino.
The conversation flowed naturally between all of
the participants and Valentino, who responded to the questions with great
detail and patience. He also showed
great strength while telling his story-not once did he allow himself to be mad
or sad when speaking about all that had happened to him, but rather displayed a
deep love and respect for humanity that he uses as motivation to be better each
has strengthened me. In my country when I was a boy I would have been sent to a
cattle camp where I would have learned to care for the cattle and when I turned
into a man I would have had lines carved into my forehead. Here in America, that
would have been seen as hardship but
there it was normal. It’s perception. From some points of view, what I’ve lived trough is easier.”
The final event was a talk with both
Valentino and author of What is the What, Dave Eggers. The conversation between
them flowed easily and revealed all of the work that it took to make this book
a reality. First they told the story of how they met. Then, they played a video
featuring a mutual friend named Mary Williams, who congratulated them on their
work and addressed the crowd. Afterwards, the conversation centered on
Valentino and his struggles to get to America, the culture shock he felt when
he first started living here, what his life was like while he lived in Marial
Bai and the struggles he experienced while fleeing from the war.
Later, the focus of the conversation
shifted to Eggers, who talked about meeting Valentino and the desire to tell
his story. Originally, he wanted to finish the book in one year so that
Valentino’s story was out in the world as soon as possible, but he wouldn’t
finish it until three years later because he couldn't find the best way to
write it. Afterwards, they both talked about all that happened after the book
was made and released, but paid special attention to the trip they took together
to South Sudan, specifically to Marial Bai.
Eggers said that during this trip,
Valentino didn't look like his usual self:
“… he looked like a burden had been
placed over his shoulders.”
Valentino explained that the reason for his change
in mood was that he felt like he had to do something for his old home. It was at
that time that they decided to build a school; little did they know that it
would grow to be one of the best schools in the whole country.
As someone who participated in the
Fresh Reads Program for the first time this year, I can say that I loved the
book and talk. The book itself forced me to view my own life from a new
perspective and the events were eye-opening and helped me better understand the
world around me and far beyond me. In short, it was a great experience that I
want to repeat and encourage others to participate in next year.
The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.