What Is the What is Dave Eggers' fictional memoir of the Sudanese refugee who he sponsored and befriended. The full title is What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, A Novel by Dave Eggers. Deng, a Sudanese man, one of the so-called "Lost Boys" - a ridiculous, demeaning identifier - told his story to Eggers in great detail, over the course of several years. Eggers researched the history of Sudan, the North American charity and resettlement groups that helped the Sudanese refugees (or tried to), and other relevant background. Out of this, he fashioned a first-person narrative.
In a New York Times book review, Francine Prose compared what this book does for the plight of the Sudanese people to what Huckleberry Finn does for slavery. It's a good comparison, but I'll one-up it: this book has more in common with learning about slavery through Beloved. Toni Morrison's masterpiece brings you closer to the brutality of human bondage than anything else I've read. So it is for What Is the What.
This is an important book, and at times a difficult one to read, as the nightmare that the Sudanese people suffered during the country's second civil war is often unbearable to contemplate. But Eggers uses a technique that makes it possible, cutting back and forth between Deng's present situation in the United States and his past. If the reader was asked to follow Deng through the butchery and atrocities of the war (not so much a war as an annihilation), then the trek of the barefoot, starving children over thousands of miles of danger and deprivation, in a linear fashion, without relief, I think the book would be unreadable. But the unrelenting horror of the past is broken up by snapshots of the present.
The present, too, has its brutalities. Sudanese refugees in North America, especially in the US, are exposed to violence and dislocation that few immigrants would experience, rocketed from an isolated, pastoral, village culture that has changed little in hundreds of years, to 21st century America, with its technology, its consumerism, and its violence. But while the present story is amazing - I mean that literally, it will amaze you - it is more familiar and not as otherworldly horrifying as Deng's past. The present story is sometimes comical, and is touched by hope and by love, and this soothes the reader, giving you a breather until the next installment of refugee horror.
The novel also reflects on certain contemporary phenomena - the business of celebrity-driven charity, how the media shapes narratives into easily digestable stories, and how charity, no matter how well meaning, is often inadequate to the task.
This book isn't only important and difficult. It's beautiful. The writing and the insights into human experience are very compelling. I highly recommend it.
Keeping Shit Real vs. Saying Yes
Incidental to Deng's story, What Is the What has changed my relationship with Dave Eggers' writing. I tried to read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and simply could not. I had an extreme revulsion to the introductory self-conscious snark, and couldn't get past it. I'm sure many people found the introduction clever and cute and maybe even brilliant and hilarious. I found it stupid and self-important. Other people told me if I got past the introductions, there was a great book, but Eggers lost me at hello.
I was already familiar with Eggers from the early days of McSweeney's Quarterly, which I also intensely disliked. I have an unfortunate reaction to literary hipness. I'm sure that reaction has prevented me from reading many good books, but I have no shortage of reading material, and if a book is truly good, it will still be good after its hip moment has come and gone. I put Dave Eggers in that "too hip to read" category, and that was that.
Much later, I read an interview with Eggers. I don't remember if this was an actual interview, or an essay in which Eggers answered questions that he is frequently asked. (My guess is the latter.) Either way, one question and response made a lasting impression on me.
A reader and fan asked if, now that Eggers had achieved mainstream notice and a measure of commercial success, was he worried about "keeping shit real". This is an age-old question about maintaining authenticity while enjoying commercial success - how to break in without selling out. I won't explore the ramifications here, but for anyone who creates and wants an audience, there are no easy answers.
Eggers replied (I paraphrase) that he was not worried about "keeping shit real," because he wanted to say yes. He said that saying yes to as many opportunities and projects that he could was more fulfilling, more interesting, more rewarding than worrying about questions of authenticity. (Eggers expands on this point here).
For me, these were the right words at the right time. Eggers had articulated part of my orientation towards life. I used to call myself "an experience junkie". I want to encounter and inhabit as diverse a range of experiences as I possibly can. What I'm saying yes to will be different than what Eggers says yes to, but that's not the point. The point is to be open to experience - to say yes to life.
When I read this, I had to put aside my dislike. Now, reading What Is the What, I see Eggers for the extremely talented writer and the compassionate person that he must be.
A Word From Deng
Along with What Is the What, I took out of the library one of the many memoirs written by a former child soldier and refugee. There are many to choose from; publishers swarmed over the "Lost Boy" experience and ones like it. I chose A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier by Ishmael Beah. It will be interesting to see how that first-person narrative compares to the first-person fictional narrative I'm reading.
This is the introduction to What Is the What, written by Valentino Achak Deng, the subject of Eggers' book.
This is the soulful account of my life: from the time I was separated from my family in Marial Bai to the thirteen years I spent in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps, to my encounters with vibrant Western cultures, in Atlanta and elsewhere.From the acknowledgements:
As you read this book, you will learn about the two and a half million people who have perished in Sudan's civil war. I was just a boy when the war began. As a helpless human, I survived by trekking across many punishing landscapes while being bombed by Sudanese air forces, while dodging land mines, while being preyed upon by wild beasts and human killers. I fed on unknown fruits, vegetables, leaves, animal carcasses and sometimes went with nothing for days. At certain points, the difficulty was unbearable. I hated myself and attempted to take my own life. Many of my friends, and thousands of my fellow countrymen, did not make it through these struggles alive.
This book was born out of the desire on the part of myself and the author to reach out to others to help them understand the atrocities many successive governments of Sudan committed before and during the civil war. To that end, over the course of many years, I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my own voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation. Because many of the passages are fictional, the result is called a novel. It should not be taken as a definitive history of the civil war in Sudan, or of the Sudanese people, nor even of my brethren, those known as the Lost Boys. This is simply one man's story, subjectively told. And though it is fictionalized, it should be noted that the world I have known is not so different from the one depicted with these pages. We live in a time when even the most horrific events in this book could occur, and in most cases did occur.
Even when my hours were darkest, I believed that some day I could share my experiences with readers, so as to prevent the same horrors from repeating themselves. This book is a form of struggle, and it keeps my spirit alive to struggle. To struggle is to strengthen my faith, my hope, and my belief in humanity. Thank you for reading this book, and I wish you a blessed day.
-- Valentino Achak Deng, Atlanta, 2006
In 2004, [Eggers] co-taught a class at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, out of which grew the Voice Of Witness series of books, designed to illuminate contemporary human crises through oral history. The first in the series, Surviving Justice: America's Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, was published in 2005. Voices from the Storm, about the residents of New Orleans who survived Hurricane Katrina, will appear in fall of 2006. The next in the series will give voice to former slaves in Sudan.Proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which supports access to education in South Sudan by building schools, libraries, teacher-training institutes, and community centres. Eggers also founded a network of nonprofit tutoring centres for youth: 826 Valencia. This man is clearly using his privilege and his prominence to do good.