Holding on to Hope: An Interview with Achut Deng

Published on April 02, 2024

Achut Deng smiles at the camera, wearing a colorful African-print top.

By Leah T.

Achut Deng embodies strength and resilience. She fought for her life to begin a new life in America, facing fear, violence, and loss along the way. Her memoir, Don’t Look Back, is the 2024 One Book Siouxland title. I had the privilege of exchanging emails with her to hear more of her story.

1. You were forced to leave when your village was under attack. You were only six years old. What motivated you to keep moving forward amidst the fear, the violence, and the unknown?

My Koko’s (grandmother’s) phrase “Don’t Look Back” became my mantra, which helped me to keep going during tough times. Adual (a family friend), along with the strong women who carried me during my younger years, instilled hope in my heart with their encouraging words. Their voices of hope spoke to me during my darkest moments, and the phrase "Don't look back" helped me endure and gave me hope for the future. Despite the terrible journey to stay alive, I had to focus on surviving the present moment while holding on to hope for what was yet to come.

2. When you had to make your case for why you should be allowed to the United States, you replied with three words, “I want life.” Do you have the life you hoped for?

I am grateful to say that I am living the life that I had hoped for twenty-four years ago. Despite facing various challenges, I kept pushing forward with hope. Being an American citizen, I feel proud to contribute to the growth of this great nation. I have overcome many obstacles and successfully rebuilt a new life for myself and my sons. As a parent, I strive to be a protector, provider, and loving human being. My sons are receiving a good education, which will enable them to build a better future for themselves. I live my life through my children and aim to make this world a better place. I am a living example of the American Dream.

3. What encouraged you to speak up and share your story?

After decades of avoiding my past, I realized that to heal the traumatized little girl who still resided within me, I needed to look back. Not only for myself but also for my sons who were unaware of their mother's story. By sharing my experiences with the world, I hoped to bring comfort to those who are facing similar struggles, letting them know that they are not alone in their pain.

4. Your book is co-authored with Keely Hutton. What was it like revisiting your story in great detail with her?

Keely Hutton and I teamed up to write my story, and I am immensely grateful for her time and expertise. Building trust between us was crucial before I could open up about my experiences. Keely was the first person I shared my story with, which helped me revisit a path I had long ignored. While we were writing the book, I also saw a therapist, and Keely's exceptional writing skills made it easier for me to share my story. She was always mindful that my well-being came first, and not just the project. Keely is truly amazing!

Achut Deng and Keely Hutton smile warmly for the camera. 

5. How did you choose the book cover design? What does the image symbolize for you?

The book cover design was created by Macmillan. The image on the cover symbolizes a lot to me. The blue sky with stars reminds me of the countless nights I spent gazing up at the sky, waiting for the night to be over while never losing hope. The eyes on the cover remind me of how strong I am, and that I have the strength to fight for my life. This cover represents everything that I hold dear: love, strength, hope, forgiveness, resilience, and faith.

Book cover that reads

6. What support do you wish every refugee would receive upon arriving to America?

It is crucial to provide English language education to refugees and educate them about the importance of mental health. Raising awareness about PTSD and providing rehab facilities to those who are already struggling with alcohol abuse is also essential. Since mental and emotional health resources are often unavailable in their home countries, it is important to prioritize these services upon their arrival, rather than immediately focusing on finding them jobs. Additionally, connecting refugees with a community member who can offer support and guidance is important.

Childcare is a major concern for refugees when they arrive in a new country. It is my dream to create a safe space where children from preschool to high school can get help with their homework, reading, and other academic activities throughout the year, including summer break. Many refugee children have difficulties in this area due to language barriers and their parents' work schedules, making it hard for them to receive the necessary assistance.


Achut Deng will be giving an author talk on April 27 at the Multicultural Center. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to hear her speak in person! Register here.  

For more events and information on this year’s One Book Siouxland, click here

Achut.jpgAchut Deng and her three sons stand before a background that reads

Achut Deng and her three sons pose on a couch, smiling. Achut and two of the sons are each holding a copy of Don't Look Back.