The Lost Boys Come Home-A Recap of Memphis' Largest Book Club

By: Gabriela Morales

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. 

Valentino Achak Deng at Rhodes College

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 day.

“Hardship 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.

Gabriela Morales is a Freshman studying Creative Writing at Christian Brothers University and a staff writer at the Galleon
Posted by Josh Colfer at 12:05 PM

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.

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