Americans first heard the name Achut Deng more than two years ago. The Sudanese refugee works at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., an early hot spot in the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2020, a New York Times immigration reporter recounted Deng and her coworkers’ experiences.
Deng’s particular story was also featured on the newspaper’s top-rated podcast. Her voice cracking, the single mother recounted the worst moment of her illness, when she refused to sleep for fear of succumbing to the virus. “If I died that night, my children would have no idea who I was,” Deng said the other day over Zoom. “They know this strong mother. But what’s behind that strong mom? What made her strong? They had no idea.”
A survivor of the Second Sudanese Civil War, Deng long sheltered her sons – now ages 15, 14, and 8 – from the worst of her past. The virus changed all that. With “Don’t Look Back” (Farrar Straus Giroux), she gives them her story in full.
Deng was approached by her publisher after the podcast appearance. But she isn’t a writer. Producing a memoir meant partnering with an experienced co-author, somebody with a sensitive touch around topics including gun deaths, sexual assault, and suicidal ideation. “I wanted someone to put those chapters out there in a very respectful way,” Deng said.
Deng interviewed three candidates and selected U.S.-born and -raised Keely Hutton, a former eighth-grade English teacher from Rochester, N.Y., who previously wrote the young adult novel “Soldier Boy” (2017) with Ugandan peace activist and former child soldier Ricky Richard Anywar. “Our main audience was Achut’s three boys,” Hutton said via Zoom.
Deng and Hutton started on the memoir in late 2020, with just three and a half months to complete a first draft. “The schedule was crazy,” according to Deng, who at the time kept middle-of-the-night hours as a Smithfield production manager (she now works days following a promotion). “I would get off work, sleep for a few hours, maybe two. And then I would get up, take my youngest son to school. Then come back, sleep for another one or two hours, and then we’d jump on the phone.”
Those conversations proved painful, but it helped to have a “hyper-organized” co-author in Hutton. This allowed the pair to tackle the memoir in chunks, skipping about the chronology as necessary. As Hutton explained: “We needed to give Achut time to process those emotionally heavy chapters.”
“Don’t Look Back” is available now. Recommended for ages 12 and up.
Christy DeSmith is a former Boston Globe assistant arts editor.