Author and His Muse Talk Darfur

Bestselling author Dave Eggers, whose most recent book is a fictionalized memoir of a Sudanese refugee, and Valentino Achak Deng, the refugee who inspired the novel, emphasized the power of the written word in educating the public about genocide in Darfur in a conversation at Memorial Church yesterday.

The two men fielded questions about how they wrote the book, titled “What is the What,” and Eggers’ choice to relate Valentino’s story through a novel rather than through a traditional nonfiction medium.

Such a decision, Eggers explained, came after prolonged frustration and feeling as if he “had hit a wall.”

Three hours after giving up on the project altogether, Eggers said, he realized he would only be able to “achieve something great, make an impact” by telling Valentino’s story in the form of a novel.

“That sense of duty that you have to a person—telling it well was everything. Just telling it wasn’t good enough,” Eggers said.

Valentino explained his motivation in seeking someone out to help him write his autobiography and detail his experiences as a refugee.

“This is a story of the war that affected an entire nation. It’s a story about genocide and I wanted to bring that to people so that they could know about events that were taking place far, far away from us,” he said.

Samantha Power, the moderator and formerly the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights, which co-sponsored the event, said that a “leadership vacuum” existed in Washington that made books like Eggers’ even more vital to spurring action.

She said that “What is the What” was ideal for informing people about the horrors of the genocide in Darfur, whereas her own 2002 book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” was geared more toward those who were already passionate enough to get involved.

“Anybody who reads Dave’s book will probably have a more vivid experience of what it’s like to suffer these atrocities because they live it prospectively with Valentino,” she said.

She added that rousing public interest was the only way to bring about political action.

“Government doesn’t take on issues like this naturally. The only time that changes is when domestic constituencies team up in order to make it politically costly to look away,” she said. “The Sudanese issue got on the map when evangelical students, the lost boys, and legislators teamed up to put it on the map.”

Students said they were inspired after hearing Eggers and Valentino speak.

“That Valentino had such a commitment to being open, to friendship, that he reacted to disaster in that way, that was instructive,” said Chris J. Dowdy, a student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “It was so compelling.”

Audience members who had packed the pews of Memorial Church stood in line for over half an hour after the event ended to get copies of the book signed.

—Staff writer Brenda C. Maldonado can be reached at bmaldon@fas.harvard.edu.