A “lost boy” of Sudan and a California housewife forge a bond in this compelling dual memoir.
Deng and Bernstein (co-authors: They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan, 2005) met in San Diego just a few weeks before 9/11, brought together by the International Rescue Committee. They each experienced a process of acclimatization: Deng wrestled with what it meant to live in America, while Bernstein struggled with assumptions of her own. The book is written as a back-and-forth text, interspersing chapters in both voices to create a sense of conversation. It’s an effective strategy that helps readers understand on a visceral level the gap between these two very different sensibilities and the accommodations required on every side. Bernstein, for her part, can be funny; early in the book, she describes a humorous scene in which her son, Cliff, introduced Deng and two fellow refugees to the soda machine at a fast food restaurant. It’s a small moment, but it highlights a major issue: the difficulty of adapting, or moving, between two vastly different worlds. For Deng and his fellow refugees, America was the land of opportunity. “The poorest man in America is like the richest in Africa,” he was told. Beset by parasites, trying to adjust to working in a supermarket, he was confounded at nearly every turn. For Bernstein, the challenges were different: to see and interact with Deng, on his own terms. “They needed an advocate,” she writes. “A huge learning curve lay ahead for all of us.” The narrative traces the arc of that collective shift. Although it occasionally gets bogged down in the detritus of daily life, it is an important reminder of all we share as human beings. “Being a refugee,” Deng writes, “can feel like an invasion of another nation’s economy, resources, culture and space….I understand those feelings because as a refugee I am a person whose own way of life was violated in my native land.”
This book represents the beginning—or a necessary reset—of an essential dialogue.