Monday, August 25, 2008

What is the What

Dave Eggers. What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2006. (In paperback by Vintage Books, 2007).

Submitted by R. Stuhr

This much talked about book is the result of a collaboration between Eggers and Deng. Deng is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. At the age of seven, he ran from his village after being separated from his mother as it was being attacked by a Sudanese government sanctioned group called the Murahaleen. Deng eventually merged with a small group of boys who were led by a teacher from his village. This group grew in size and they made their way to Ethiopia. On their way the boys passed through other burnt out villages, were attacked by government helicopters, government and rebel soldiers and eaten by lions. They watched their friends and fellow travelers die by the side of the road, and traveled themselves with very little hope, and without clothes or food. Once Deng and his group made it to Ethiopia they became part of a large refugee group numbering in the thousands. They lived in relative peace here until the Ethiopian government fell and the new government forced them out of the country. Thousands were killed as they escaped back into Sudan and the survivors made their way to new refugee camps. Deng spent ten years in a UN run camp in Kenya before being one of the last Lost Boys to be sent to the United States. By that time, he was aware that his parents were still alive.

The novel starts as Deng is being robbed in his Atlanta apartment. He is tied up and beaten and as he lies there he begins to narrate his story from the time of his peaceful and happy childhood through the destruction of his village and his years of wandering and life as a refugee. His life in the Kenyan refugee camp is relatively stable compared to his entry into the United States. He describes the hundreds of young men, dropped into different cities in the country without any idea about how to live in an urban industrialized environment and no idea of how to relate to or interact with Americans. They arrived with high expectations to attend college and thrive. Some do and many others continue to struggle. They remain closely connected to each other through email and cell phones--a now scattered by tightly knit extended family.

Eggers' and Deng's collaboration is a beautifully written, heart breaking, and enlightening story. Eggers is founder and editor of McSweeney's, an innovative and fascinating publishing enterprise. See the Blog entry on the The Believer Magazine. Deng has founded the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation and all proceeds from the sales of What is the What go to this foundation. The foundation's goal is to provide educational opportunities for those affected by the conflicts in Sudan.

Burling First Floor Smith Memorial PS3605.G48 W43 2006

For other books by Dave Eggers

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