(For anyone unfamiliar with Deng’s story, he was, at just seven years old, forcefully conscripted from his family and his remote village in South Sudan to fight a civil war about which he had little to no understanding. Deng subsequently spent years undergoing cruel training compounded by malnutrition, disease, very little medical treatment, and no formal education.
Some fortunate circumstances saw him rescued from his dire situation by one of his older brothers. Together they sought refuge in a Kenyan refugee camp before Australia eventually offered them a home. Through his brother’s encouragement and through Deng’s own fierce determination, Deng has gone from a child soldier who knew no English to an accomplished lawyer with his own law practice in Western Sydney. He is also, no biggie, an Archibald Prize featuree (that’s a technical term).)
In the Songs of a War Boy’s foreword, Journalist Hugh Riminton writes that ‘it is impossible, on meeting Deng now, not to be in awe of him. And that is before you know where he has been. This book tells that story […] It would be unbelievable, were it not true.’
Those unbelievable elements include how much trauma Deng has experienced in his short life and how many near misses he has had with death. Seriously, there are so many moments it’s almost incomprehensible how he survived any much less all of them. But as he outlines, that trauma haunts him—mostly at night while he’s trying to sleep.
Co-written with Ben McKelvey, Songs of a War Boy is accessible and inspiring. The way Deng describes his experiences so eloquently and so matter-of-factly is startling. And far from gratuitous or graphic—I’m squeamish as all get-up and I coped. In fact, it’s arguably the most human description I’ve yet read of what it was like to be a child soldier.
Songs are hugely important to the Dinka people from which he comes, Deng explains in the book’s opening pages. Songs are, as Deng describes them, their ‘avatars’, ‘biographies’, and how Dinka morality, culture, and laws are passed on.
But Deng doesn’t have any songs—they’re reserved for those who have undergone manhood initiation ceremonies. Ceremonies Deng missed out on because he was taken to be a boy soldier. He observes: ‘It is a strange fact, though, that war could make one less of a man.’
This book is, as the title suggests, Deng’s song (or songs). It also shows his life beyond being what could have been an all-defining role as a conscripted child soldier. As a byproduct, both the book and the speaking engagements Deng now regularly completes also go some way to changing peoples’ perceptions of refugees.
As Deng writes of his speeches: ‘I knew that people came to hear about war and sadness and a past that was so unusual for them, but I also knew that they left thinking about how normal my present was—and how much I was like them … If you can relate to me—a reformed child soldier coming from one of the most isolated and disadvantaged nations on earth—then there are few refugees in Australia that you can’t relate to.’
Without getting overtly political, at a time when it seems as though the Australian government is doing all it can to ensure we don’t relate to people seeking asylum, it’s arguably more important than ever to read books like Deng’s. And Songs of a War Child makes this far from a chore. I read it in three sittings and I finished it wanting more. My hope is that Deng writes a follow-up.