What Is the What.
Separated from his family, Valentino Achak Deng becomes a refugee in war-ravaged southern Sudan. His travels bring him in contact with enemy soldiers, with liberation rebels, with hyenas and lions, with disease and starvation, and with deadly murahaleen (militias on horseback)—the same sort who currently terrorize Darfur. Based closely on actual experiences, What Is the What is heartrending and astonishing, filled with adventure, suspense, tragedy, and, finally, triumph.
New York Times Book Review
“The Lost Boy”
By Francine Prose
December 24, 2006
When I’m asked about the differences between fiction and nonfiction, I often find myself attempting to answer this simultaneously impossible and obvious question by rattling on about “Huckleberry Finn.” One distinction is that a masterpiece like Twain’s can make us feel exactly what it was like to live at another time, in another culture; it’s easier for the novel than for even the most incisive biography or historical study to make the reader experience the subject from the inside. The liberties and devices of fiction (dialogue, voice, characterization and so forth) enable the writer to take us into the mind and heart of a person not unlike ourselves who talks to us from a distant period and place, and so becomes our guide to its sights and sounds, its sorrows and satisfactions. One reason “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” remains so affecting and so profoundly threatening is that Huck shows us what it meant to grow up in a slave-holding society and learn to navigate its pathologies. Huck compels us to believe him, which means that we are obliged once again to acknowledge that we live in a country in which ordinary citizens actually bought and sold human beings like Jim.
Dave Eggers’s “What Is the What” is, like “Huckleberry Finn,” a picaresque novel of adolescence. But the injustices, horrors and follies that Huck encounters on his raft trip down the Mississippi would have seemed like glimpses of heaven to Eggers’s hero, whose odyssey from his village in the southern Sudan to temporary shelter in Ethiopia to a vast refugee camp in Kenya and finally to Atlanta is a nightmare of chaos and carnage punctuated by periods of relative peace lasting just long enough for him to catch his breath.
The novel’s subtitle, “The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng,” refers to a real-life Sudanese refugee who informs us in a brief preface that “over the course of many years, I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation.” We readers are the fortunate beneficiaries of this collaboration. Eggers’s generous spirit and seemingly inexhaustible energy—some of the qualities that made his memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” so popular—transform Valentino and the people he met on his journey into characters in a book with the imaginative sweep, the scope and, above all, the emotional power of an epic.
Intense, straightforward, lit by lightning flashes of humor, wisdom and charm, Valentino’s story—novel, autobiography, whatever—is an account of what it was like to be one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Ah, the Lost Boys of Sudan, we say. How sad. The phrase has instant name recognition for many Americans who, I suspect, might then need to pause to retrieve the details (if such a retrieval ever occurs) of how and why those boys got lost in the first place. In fact their diaspora began during the second Sudanese civil war, which lasted from 1983 to 2005 and displaced tens of thousand of children. Driven from their ruined villages, they wandered through a war zone to resettlement camps and, for the lucky ones, to safety. After having read “What Is the What,” you no longer need to hesitate and wonder. You know precisely who the boys were because you have experienced their mass migration and the mass murder that occasioned it through the eyes, and in the compelling voice, of Valentino Achak Deng. By the time the members of Eggers’s large and youthful fan base have repeatedly consulted the book’s map of East Africa, tracing the Lost Boys’ wanderings, they will be able to visualize the geographical positions of Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya with a clarity surpassing their possibly hazy recall of anything they might have memorized for a World Civilization class.
The book opens in Atlanta, where Valentino works at a health club and attends a community college—and where, in the first chapter, his apartment is broken into by thugs, thus confirming his growing awareness that violence is not an exclusively East African problem. Bound and gagged, held captive by a boy not much older than he was when his peregrinations began, he recalls his tranquil childhood among the Dinka tribe in the village of Marial Bal. There his most serious quandary involved the question of when to remove the plastic wrapping from a new bicycle, and there too his father, who owned a shop, used to tell the story that gives the novel its title. After God created men and women, according to local legend, he gave them cattle, the source of “milk and meat and prosperity of every kind.” But God offered mankind a choice: “You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What.”
The pacific Dinka wisely chose the cow. But others picked, and continue to seek, the mysterious, unnamable, destructive and possibly unattainable What. Soon the consequences of that mythic decision come crashing down on the unfortunate Dinka. Rebel soldiers arrive at the village and, while stealing sugar from the shop, severely beat our young hero’s father. Marial Bal becomes a battleground, fought over by government and rebel armies; the village is strafed by army helicopters, invaded, burned, occupied. And Achak (who will take the name Valentino only later in his tale) narrowly escapes: “I ran. But I was too loud. When I ran through the grass I seemed to be begging the world to notice me, to devour me. I tried to make my feet lighter but I could not see where I was placing them. It was black everywhere, there was no moon that night, and I had to run with my hands rigid in front of me.”
The lyricism, the detail and, most important, the absolute specificity of these sentences are what make “What Is the What” so persuasive. It’s a real high-wire act, yet Eggers manages to maintain this level of intensity throughout the book as Achak and the other Lost Boys encounter minefields and massacres, loneliness and fear, starvation, disease, predatory wild animals, the seemingly endless varieties of cruelty, the sustenance of fellowship and the surprising manifestations of instinctive human kindness. What’s remarkable is that, given its harrowing subject matter, the book isn’t simply horrifying or depressing. The considerable appeal of Valentino’s personality and the force of Eggers’s talent turn this eyewitness account of a terrible tragedy into a paradoxically pleasurable experience. As with any book we enjoy and admire, we keep turning the pages to find out if everything will turn out all right in the end. And just as in life—I don’t think I’m giving away any suspense-ruining plot points here—things do work out for some characters, if not, alas, for others.
Throughout, the narrative is sufficiently elastic to shift back and forth from present to past and sufficiently capacious to include a love story, a coming-of-age novel and Valentino’s unfailingly engaging musings on human nature, love and death, as well as the meaning of the eponymous and ominous “What.” There is also a good deal of African history, often ingeniously framed as dialogue or as a story shared by one of the boys, yet another effective deployment of fictional technique—in this case, to make us painlessly absorb a hefty dose of (in several senses of the word) hard information.
I suppose some merciless pruning could have reduced “What Is the What” by a few ounces, but by the time you reach its stunning and beautiful conclusion, you can’t help feeling that the resonant power of its last lines derives at least in part from the cumulative weight of every word that has gone before.
“Whatever I do,” Valentino assures us, “however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. … I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. … I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.”
Reading “What Is the What” does indeed make it impossible to pretend that Valentino Achak Deng and the other Lost Boys and all the men and women and children who have suffered, and continue to suffer, fates like his do not exist. Dave Eggers has made the outlines of the tragedy in East Africa—so vague to so many Americans—not only sharp and clear but indelible. An eloquent testimony to the power of storytelling, “What Is the What” is an extraordinary work of witness, and of art.
“Fact or Fiction, Eggers’ ‘What’ Lends Humanity, Insight to African Conflict”
By Deirdre Donahue
December 7, 2006
Hands down, Dave Eggers’ What Is the What stands as the single most thought-provoking, unusual and moving book I have read all year.
It deserves a wide audience for two reasons. First, it is beautifully written and explores all the deepest aspects of human life: grief, the existence of God, alienation, good and evil, love, friendship.
The second reason people should read What Is the What involves a world bigger than book publishing.
Eggers puts a human face on what is happening in Africa today, specifically in Sudan and the conflict between the Muslim North and the Christian South. (What is not specifically about Darfur, but it helps the reader understand the roots of that conflict.)
In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, his 2000 memoir about rearing his little brother after the death of their parents, Eggers established that he is the most interesting young writer working today.
What Is the What confirms and enhances his reputation within the literary world.
Without being a political diatribe, What makes comprehensible the jumble of news stories and TV reports about refugee camps, orphans and boy soldiers. It also examines in detail the complicated and often unnerving experience of being an immigrant to the USA in the 21st century.
The unusual element is contained in the title, subtitle and author credit: What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, “a novel by Dave Eggers.” Eggers has written a novel that draws heavily upon the autobiography of a real person, a Sudanese man who was relocated in 2001 from a Kenyan refugee camp to Atlanta.
Eggers and Deng met in 2003. In the preface, Deng explains how the book came together.
Trust me. As weird as this hybrid novel/autobiography sounds, it works. It’s not some James Frey-esque truthiness scam. Taking on a role way beyond ghostwriter, Eggers uses his enormous gifts to tell Deng’s extraordinary story, adding fictional passages.
Born in a village in southern Sudan, Deng was the cherished son of a comfortable storekeeper from the Dinka tribe. Around 1987, 7-year-old Deng’s small, content world was shattered when government helicopters attacked and killed 30 villagers. The village was being punished for the activities of Sudanese rebels.
Deng is soon separated from his family, becoming one of the estimated 17,000 “lost boys of Sudan.” Starving, frightened and under attack from raiders and animals, these boys walked first to Ethiopia and later to a refugee camp in Kenya where Deng spent 13 years before being settled in Atlanta. Two and a half million people have died during the Sudanese civil war, but it is the individual deaths of Deng’s small friends, little boys carefully described and thus remembered, that give the book its power.
“Eggers’ Heartbreaking New Novel Has Clarity of a Documentary”
By Michael Upchurch
December 1, 2006
There is something distinctive about the voice, something that catches you a little off-guard, in the book’s very first sentence: “I have no reason not to open the door so I open the door.”
The doors both actual and imaginative that spring open in Dave Eggers’ “What Is the What” lead into territory few American readers will be familiar with. And the voice of the book is a revelation, too.
It is decidedly not the voice of novelist-memoirist Eggers (“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”). Instead, it belongs to a southern Sudanese boy, forced to flee his village when only 6 or 7 years old, after his people, the Christian Dinka, are attacked by soldiers of the Islamist government of Khartoum and its tribal allies.
Separated from his parents in the confusion of battle, the boy wanders alone until he joins a band of youngsters fleeing to Ethiopia—one of many bands of “Lost Boys” who, in the early 1980s, crossed hundreds of miles of hostile territory, seeking some kind of safety and sanctuary.
Achak Nyibek Arou Deng (he picked up the “Valentino” later, along with several other nicknames) grew up parentless in refugee camps in Ethiopia and northern Kenya over the next 15 years. Through a U.N. program he was brought to the U.S. when in his early 20s (like many of the Lost Boys, he’s uncertain of his exact age).
In Atlanta, he tried to pursue his dream of getting a college education, with the idea of eventually bringing some of the benefit of his luck back to Sudan with him.
But his luck ran bad as often as it ran good. When he opens that door in the book’s opening chapter, for instance, he lets himself in for a brutal robbery by an African-American couple who have the nerve to call him “brother” and to advise him: “Don’t you know you shouldn’t open your door to strangers?”
Yet what option does he have but to open it, when for years the only mode of survival he has known has been leap after leap into the dark, into the unknown?
“What Is the What” is the product of a years-long collaboration between Eggers and Deng, in which Deng gave an oral account of his life to Eggers and Eggers “concocted” a novel from it. As Deng writes in his brief preface to the book, the novel uses the basic events of his life as its “foundation” but also draws on other research Eggers did, including the stories of other refugees.
Eggers may be using docu-drama methods here, but the book sings like a novel—a novel in which every phrase falls with exquisite, revealing precision and the themes of the story play out as satisfyingly as in a large-scale symphony.
The narrative shifts back and forth between the present-day Atlanta robbery and Deng’s past ordeals, with the personal blow and setback of the robbery getting almost equal weight with the horrors of the Lost Boys’ trek out of Sudan.
On that trek, Deng and his friends are the prey not just of soldiers but of lions and crocodiles (“we boys were food”). In the U.S., it’s the near-collapse of hope that is the killer. “I am tired of this country,” Deng admits early on. “I am thankful for it, yes, I have cherished many aspects of it … but I am tired of the promises.”
To his surprise, he finds himself homesick for Africa: “I miss Sudan, I miss the howling grey desert of northern Kenya. I miss the yellow nothing of Ethiopia.”
That last phrase alone suggests why “What Is the What”—the title comes from a Dinka creation myth in which God offers mankind a choice between a known quantity (cattle) and an unknown possibility—is more than just a horror show or dirge. It is, on Eggers’ part, an extraordinary act of empathy and poetic imagination.
We’ve all seen images of refugee camps, those limbos where the victims of war and famine wind up. What few of us have seen or felt is what it’s like to grow up in such a place, to see it change over the years, to know its “neighborhoods,” to find warmth and camaraderie there as well as deprivation and threat. (“There is a perception in the West,” Deng says with biting understatement, “that refugee camps are temporary.”)
Throughout the book, a tension is at play between Deng’s sense of wonder at all he sees and the numbing losses he suffers. A note of gallows humor about his ordeal (“Yeah, but you’re used to it” becomes a shared catch phrase between him and a Japanese aid worker who befriends him) adds an unexpected tonic note to his powerful tale.
Deng, with Eggers as his channeler, clearly intended the telling of his story to be a prompt to action. All proceeds from the novel are going to The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, dedicated to helping Sudanese refugees in America, rebuilding villages in southern Sudan and funding humanitarian aid in Darfur (with some going to the college education Deng is still pursuing).
But for all its informativeness about Sudanese history and the Lost Boys’ experiences in both Africa and America (including, peripherally, Seattle), “What Is the What” is equally a work of literary fiction. With its perfect blend of epic sweep and small, intimate moments, it stands worthily alongside the best work of Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola and Ben Okri.
“A Heartbreaking Work of Fiction: In a New Novel, Dave Eggers Tells Sudanese Victim’s True Story”
By Bob Thompson
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Here are a few things we can say for sure about Dave Eggers’s latest book:
It’s not a satire of political correctness in the English department of an elite liberal arts college. No publisher is betting that it will be “the next ‘Da Vinci Code.’” Judith Regan had nothing to do with it.
Oh, and it’s a safe bet that Eggers didn’t consult any marketing types about the title.
He called it “What Is the What.”
Well, maybe we should save that for later. Because right now the writer best known for his arrestingly titled memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” is sitting in a newspaper conference room with Valentino Achak Deng, the Sudanese “Lost Boy” whose life story he’s undertaken to tell. And he’s talking about one thing readers of “What Is the What” can’t say for sure: How much is fact and how much is fiction.
Why the line-blurring? The explanation goes like this: Introduced to Deng in early 2003 and deeply engaged by his story, Eggers set out to write a conventional biography. But he kept getting stuck.
“I didn’t know how to do it,” he says. “I didn’t want my own voice in there.”
Despairing, he was ready to give the whole thing up. Then it occurred to him that “all the books that we remember about war and about the biggest events of the 20th century are novels.” Think of “The Naked and the Dead,” “Catch-22” and “all Hemingway’s stuff.”
More important, think of the ways fictionalizing Deng’s story could solve narrative problems. By labeling the book a novel, Eggers says, he freed himself to re-create conversations, streamline complex relationships, add relevant detail and manipulate time and space in helpful ways—all while maintaining the essential truthfulness of the storytelling.
There was only one hitch.
“I was so afraid to ask Valentino,” Eggers says.
Author and subject grin at the memory. Eggers, in a white shirt and a sport coat that’s seen better days, is the shorter and more intense-looking of the two. Deng, in a black shirt and jeans, is tall—as the Dinka people tend to be—with a warm, gap-toothed smile.
They call each other “Dave” and “Val,” but Eggers, who’s 36, has had the luxury of keeping the same name all his life. Deng, who’s a decade or so younger, has been known as “Achak” (the name his parents gave him), “Valentino” (a baptismal name), “Dominic” (from a teacher in a refugee camp), “Gone Far” (a nickname alluding to his long trek out of war-wracked Sudan) and, most poetically, "Sleeper"—bestowed by a girl who found him lying in the road one day, half-blind and longing for death.
Here’s how Eggers, in Deng’s voice, describes the moment:
“I conjured my mother as best I could. I pictured her in yellow, yellow like an evening sun, walking down the path. … When she came up to me I told her I was too tired to continue, that I would suffer again, and would watch others suffer. … Then I washed her from my mind. It seemed to me that to die I needed to clear my mind of all thoughts, all visions, and concentrate on passing on.”
You look like my dead brother, the girl said. She lifted him up and got him walking again.
Lost Boys is a name attached to thousands of young refugees from the civil war in southern Sudan, which broke out in the mid-1980s and continued until peace was finally negotiated in 2005. “It is not a nickname appreciated by many in our ranks,” as Deng the book character puts it, “but it is apt enough.”
These days, Deng and the roughly 4,000 other Lost Boys who were resettled in the United States often find themselves confused with victims of more recent savagery in Darfur. But while the atrocities committed by government-backed militiamen have been similar—"the difference is just the name they’re using to describe the militia," he says—Darfur is in western Sudan. Marial Bai, the home town from which Deng was driven in fear of his life, is farther south.
His journey began in the mid-‘80s, when, as a 6-year-old, he was still young enough "to be weak and melt into his mother’s arms." Trouble had been brewing between the African peoples of southern Sudan and the Arab-dominated government in the north. But the boy knew nothing of the complex history behind the conflict.
“I couldn’t understand,” he says. “There was me in my town, my father was doing well—why do we want to go to war? No reason.”
Reason or no, war came.
Arab militiamen on horseback overran Marial Bai. Deng saw his home town burned, his friends and neighbors killed or abducted. Not knowing his parents’ fate, he fell in with a group of similarly displaced boys. An adult leader set them walking toward Ethiopia, where they were told they would find a haven, despite having no idea what “an Ethiopia” was.
The horrors of that walk cannot be easily summarized.
In “What Is the What” there are scenes of famished boys ripping the flesh off a dead elephant; of a boy dragging a stick as he walked, “making a line in the dirt so he would know his way home”; of land mines, ravening lions and exhausted, starving “sleepers” who gave up and died along the way.
Once across the border, a refugee camp became a recruiting ground. Rebel leaders told the boys, many destined to become child soldiers, that they were “the seeds of a new Sudan.” Driven out, eventually, by the Ethiopians, the boys escaped across the Gilo River in a hail of gunfire—except for those who got shot or were intercepted by crocodiles.
Reaching safety in Kenya, they found themselves trapped in a bleak refugee camp called Kakuma for—in Deng’s case—10 years.
How he finally got to the United States is an epic in itself. Being scheduled to fly on Sept. 11, 2001, did not help. Plunked down in Atlanta, he got to know the founder of a nonprofit called the Lost Boys Foundation. Her name was Mary Williams and she came to view him as an especially articulate spokesman for his Lost Boy peers.
One day, he says, Williams asked about his long-term goals. “I would like to be able to document my story,” he told her, “in a written form that generations will have access to.”
Okay, she said, she’d find somebody to help.
Mary Williams didn’t know Dave Eggers, but she’d happened to pick up his memoir once when she needed airplane reading.
“The title was just hilarious,” she says.
“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” is the saga of how, when Eggers was in college, his parents contrived to die of cancer within five weeks of each other, leaving Dave and his sister to raise their 7-year-old brother. The memoir’s out-of-nowhere success left Eggers with enough cash to fund a variety of literary and philanthropic projects, among them the tiny independent publishing house McSweeney’s and a literary magazine, the Believer, as well as a writing workshop and tutoring center in San Francisco.
Williams read up on Eggers and was impressed. He’s “kind of like a Lost Boy himself,” she says. So she wrote and asked if he’d like to get involved.
The idea was a long shot at best. How many name-brand authors would drop everything to tell a Lost Boy’s story? But Eggers, as it happened, was already intrigued by the long march of the Sudanese refugees.
So he flew to Atlanta to check things out.
He bonded with Deng right away and began taping interviews. Later, they wangled their way onto a plane delivering aid to Sudan—"we sat in the cargo hold with the grain and the bicycles and stuff," Eggers says—to do a little firsthand research. In all, they spent thousands of hours together. It took him that long, he says, “to be able to see through Valentino’s eyes.”
As for the fiction decision: When Eggers raised the idea, he feared that Deng would angrily reject any re-imagining of his real story. But “right away he was like: What? Do whatever! Do anything you want!”
“Dave is an artist,” Deng says. “I’m not only about myself in the book.” The idea was to tell the most accessible story possible about the devastation so many had endured.
Back and forth they go, deferring to each other, holding forth on their shared narrative.
They talk about how the original idea was to tell just the African part of Deng’s life, until Eggers realized that his subject’s struggle to adapt to the United States—and the numerous disasters he has experienced here—had to be part of the story.
They talk about their plan to use profits from the book to fund Deng’s education, aid other Sudanese refugees, help rebuild Marial Bai and promote peace and justice in Darfur.
What does the future hold for Deng? Will he stay in his adopted homeland, where he is attending Allegheny College?
“I would like to bring up my kids here,” he says. “But then I also, at the same time, want to make differences in Sudan.”
“What Is the What” was published by McSweeney’s, which allowed Eggers the total freedom he likes but means there’s no marketing machine behind the book. Nonetheless, it’s picked up some terrific reviews and made it to No. 25 on the New York Times’ extended bestseller list this week.
As for that mysterious title: It’s taken from a creation story Deng remembers hearing as a child.
God, it seems, made the first Dinka man tall and strong and the first Dinka woman beautiful. When he was done, he offered his creations a gift. “You can either have these cattle,” he told them, “or you can have the What.”
“What is the What?” they asked. But God refused to answer. The choice was a test. The Dinka could go for the cattle, which they knew would allow them to live well, or they could take a chance on the unknown. They chose the cattle, which, as the story’s moral had it, proved the wise thing to do.
The stable, solid universe in which that decision made sense is gone. And in the Lost Boy world of strife and stress and endless change that has replaced it, embracing the unknown—as Valentino Achak Deng can tell us better than anyone—looks like the only choice there is.
Time Out Chicago
By Jonathan Messinger
Issue: November 9–November 15, 2006
At the opening of this fictionalized memoir, Valentino Achak Deng lies on his living-room floor, bloodied and beaten. A man and a woman are robbing him blind, and though his pistol-whipped head is cloudy, one thought persists: This is not the worst of my suffering.
Deng is a flesh-and-blood Lost Boy of Sudan, one of the thousands of refugees who fled the African country after years of civil strife, walking through desert and jungle and eventually landing across the globe. Over the course of several years, Eggers interviewed Deng about his escape and his life in America, and the result is this odd hybrid of the real and unreal. The book is a novel, but it hews closely to real events in Deng’s life. In essence, Eggers channels Deng and the horrors suffered by the Lost Boys for 400 pages.
Of course, readers will bring their own caveats to this book. Eggers has built a reputation—for better or for worse—as a good-hearted literary experimentalist. Messing with form and taking the unreliable narrator trope beyond its logical extremes, Eggers has often been accused of masking the truth in his work behind various tricks, or at the worst, puffing up smokescreens to hide the fact that there isn’t much there at all. Whether previous criticisms are justified or not (for the record, we think they’re not), the power of this new book is undeniable. Taking on the voice of Deng, Eggers has built a stubbornly humane history of the Sudanese tragedy, one that neither shies from nor exploits brutality.
Why is it a novel and not a biography? The benefits come when Eggers’s formidable creative talents take control, presumably not misrepresenting Deng’s story, but not even warping it as he finds the right tone for Deng’s variegated tragedies. When Deng regrets losing a friend, Eggers writes, “But everyone disappears, no matter who loves them.” The novel is full of these succinct mournings. Eggers is as empathic as authors come, and has a way of writing single sentences that feel like entire books.
By Hephzibah Anderson
November 14, 2006
A Sudanese refugee faces famine, lions and horseback militiamen in Dave Eggers’s “What Is the What.” Framed as a novel, the book is based on the true story of how Valentino Achak Deng fled the war-torn south, trekked across East Africa and eventually found sanctuary in the U.S.
When we first meet Valentino, he is being robbed and beaten at gunpoint by two thugs in his home in Atlanta. As his ordeal plays out, he thinks back on all that he’s suffered to reach America, and he imagines he’s telling his story to his assailants, a bored cop, weary hospital staff and members of a gym where he works as a receptionist.
Valentino’s odyssey begins in a peaceful Dinka village. When civil war erupts in 1983, soldiers and militiamen massacre villagers. During the onslaught, six-year-old Valentino becomes separated from his family and takes to the road. He joins a procession of parentless children known as the Lost Boys, who spent months crossing deserts and wetlands on foot to reach a refugee camp inside Ethiopia.
Men and beasts attack them. Disease and starvation thin their ranks daily. They hear tales of children sold into slavery, murder, madness and rape. They leave the ill to walk alone, as no boy wants to get too close, either physically or emotionally.
“We did not want his voice in our heads,” Valentino says.
After 13 years in camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, Valentino is among 4,000 Sudanese granted sanctuary in the U.S., arriving in late 2001. Inevitably, America is not the Promised Land Valentino dreamed of, yet he finds hope and even humor in his situation.
Eggers pieced the book together from hours of interviews with Valentino and others. Fictionalizing the story may seem odd, yet the author succeeds in creating a suspenseful narrative that pays tribute to the redemptive power of storytelling. “I will tell these stories,” Valentino says, “because to do anything else would be something less than human.”
“What Is the What” is published by McSweeney’s in the U.S. and Hamish Hamilton in the U.K. (475 pages, $26, 17.99 pounds).
By Erik Henriksen
Issue: November 9–November 15, 2006
When I talk about Dave Eggers with people—friends, family members, strangers in bars—this is usually what happens: These people say they only liked half of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, or that they didn’t like any of You Shall Know Our Velocity, or that they didn’t even know about the collection of short stories How We Are Hungry. Sometimes they’re more to the point, expressing a disdain for how big Eggers’ lit journal/publishing house, McSweeney’s, has become, or they’re even more to the point, expressing a disdain for how big Eggers has become. When this happens—at home, in pubs, on street corners—I want to stand in front of these people, place my hands on their shoulders, and begin a whiplash-inducing shaking. “Eggers is one of the best we have,” I want to tell/shake them. “He is writing important things, and he is writing them well.” I hold myself back, mostly because I’m chickenshit; instead, I sheepishly nod and say something limp, like, “Well, yeah, not everybody likes him as much as I do.” But oh, how I picture the shaking.
Which, yes, is a skewed way of thinking about this sort of thing. Thankfully, the Erik-doesn’t-know-how-to-meaningfully-interact-with-those-who-don’t-share-his-opinions-regarding-the-writings-of-Dave-Eggers era might be at an end, thanks to What Is the What, Eggers’ latest—a book that, frankly, I can’t picture anyone with even half a soul being disdainful of. Simultaneously a novel and an autobiography—the subject being not Eggers, but Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan—What Is the What retraces Deng’s life from Deng’s own memories.
“This book is the soulful account of my life: from the time I was separated from my family in Marial Bai to the 13 years I spent in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps, to my encounters with vibrant Western cultures, in Atlanta and elsewhere,” Deng writes in the novel’s preface, setting the stage for Eggers to follow Deng from the moment his village is burned, to his march across vicious deserts, to his arrival in America, a place more bounteous and treacherous than Deng imagined. Approximating Deng’s stilted English, Eggers captures the spirit of Deng’s journey—though, even at 475 pages, it feels rushed; the feeling one has upon finishing What Is the What is the same exhausted but still fascinated sensation that accompanies the final pages of another great work of journalistic fiction, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. “How could I possibly put everything down on paper?” Deng wonders, as he’s asked to do just that at one of the camps. “It seemed impossible. No matter what, the majority of my life would be left out of this story, this sliver of a version of the life I’d known. But I tried anyway…. I worked on it for weeks more, thinking of every last thing I had seen, every path and tree and pair of yellowed eyes, every body I buried.”
There are a lot of bodies in What Is the What; like grisly mile markers along Deng’s passage, they rot alone and in piles, they slouch against trees and lose the strength to rise, they stride through grass until they’re clamped in lions’ jaws, they scream in fervor and fright at the sermons of charismatic warlords. But terrifying people is easy, and depressing them even more so. The most striking thing about What Is the What, then, isn’t Deng’s horrendous childhood, but his supernatural endurance. Deng is not some cartoonish Pollyanna, nor is he oblivious to the myriad injustices imposed upon him: Deng tries to die, Deng loses his faith, Deng is worn down. But Deng also survives, and Eggers turns out to be the perfect writer to convey his mix of luck and strength. Eschewing his usual self-centeredness and postmodern playfulness, here Eggers is single-mindedly intent on conveying Deng’s voice, and capturing his life’s striking, sometimes contradictory themes: great loss paired with greater pain; unyielding realities tinged with hope; and a cynical pragmatism that Eggers and Deng both, perhaps futilely, rail against. (Indeed, for a book that’s so frequently horrifying, it’s astonishing how funny and sanguine What Is the What ultimately proves.) In paring another’s life down to its stark, hard bones, Eggers has created a novel full of horrible, beautiful, life-changing stuff. I know how melodramatic that sounds, how adulatory, how it has all the subtlety of me grabbing your shoulders and shaking you. But I can’t figure out how else to say it, how else to impress this upon you: Read this book.
New York Times
“Lost Boy of Sudan Searching for a Land of Milk and Honey”
By Michiko Kakutani
November 7, 2006
As his remarkable 2000 book, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” so flamboyantly illustrated, Dave Eggers is a writer torn between two warring proclivities: a taste for the latest postmodern, self-conscious literary games and an ability to write genuinely moving, heartfelt narratives about real people and their very real lives.
In “Staggering Genius,” the tension between those two impulses enabled Mr. Eggers to recount the story of his own life—how his mother and father died within weeks of each other, and how he suddenly became a surrogate parent to his 8-year-old brother—with stunning tenderness and passion. Part emotional defense, part canny narrative strategy, the high-tech literary devices provided an unsentimental frame for the terrible events in the Eggers family’s lives, while enabling the author to earnestly excavate his most painful memories.
After two mannered books (“You Shall Know Our Velocity” and “How We Are Hungry”) in which cleverness and literary gimmickry seemed to get the upper hand, Mr. Eggers has produced “What Is the What,” a startling act of literary ventriloquism that recounts the harrowing story of a Sudanese refugee named Valentino Achak Deng, while reminding us just how eloquently the author can write about loss and mortality and sorrow.
A devastating and humane account of one man’s survival against terrible odds, the book is flawed by an odd decision on Mr. Eggers’s part to fictionalize Mr. Deng’s story—a curious choice, especially in the wake of the uproar over James Frey’s fictionalized memoir earlier this year. But while we start out wondering what is real and what is not, it is a testament to the power of Mr. Deng’s experiences and Mr. Eggers’s ability to convey their essence in visceral terms that we gradually forget these schematics of composition.
One of the so-called “Lost Boys” of Sudan, Valentino fled his home village, which had become caught in the crossfire between rebel soldiers and the country’s Islamic government, and walked hundreds of miles east to Ethiopia and eventually to Kenya in search of safety. He is one of hundreds of children who had become separated from their families: some had seen their parents coldbloodedly slaughtered; others never learn the fates of their mothers and fathers and siblings.
During their trek, Valentino and his comrades are set upon by government soldiers, rebel soldiers, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, vultures, crocodiles and lions. They dodge bombs and mines, and face starvation, dehydration and illness. Some of Valentino’s friends go mad. One trades all his clothes for a handful of food. (“He would remain naked for six months” until the refugee camp he reaches receives its first shipment of used clothes.) Probably half of the children die along the way.
“If a boy became sick he walked alone,” says Valentino. “The others were afraid to catch what he had, and did not want to know him too well for he would surely die soon. We did not want his voice in our heads.” When his boyhood friend William K dies, Valentino digs him a shallow grave, nearly collapsing from exhaustion in the process.
“When I was finished,” he recalls, “I told William K that I was sorry. I was sorry that I had not known how sick he was. That I had not found a way to keep him alive. That I was the last person he saw on this earth. That he could not say goodbye to his mother and father, that only I would know where his body lay. It was a broken world, I knew then, that would allow a boy such as me to bury a boy such as William K.”
What keeps the boys walking is the fraternity of shared suffering, the kindness of an occasional stranger and the dream of safety and peace in Ethiopia, a magical land that has grown in their imaginations into a kind of paradise.
“We would have chairs in Ethiopia,” Valentino thinks. “I would sit on a chair, and I would listen to the radio, because in Ethiopia there would be radios under all the trees. Milk and eggs—there would be plenty of these foods, and plenty of meat, and nuts and stew. There would be clean water where we could bathe, and there would be wells for each home, each full of cool water to drink. Such cool water! We would have to wait before drinking it, because of its coolness. I would have a new family in Ethiopia, with a mother and father who would bring me close and call me son.”
Ethiopia, needless to say, falls short of their expectations, and so does Kenya. Instead of the dreamed-for new life, there is a succession of refugee camps: Valentino lives in one for nearly three years, a second for almost a year and the last, Kakuma, for an entire decade.
From time to time, Valentino thinks of trying to return home to find his parents, but realizes that the odds of surviving another trek across the war-ravaged wastes of Sudan are slim. To him and his fellow refugees, America becomes the new promised land.
“I would arrive and immediately enroll in college,” he thinks. “I would work at night and study during the day. I would not sleep until I had entered a four-year college, and I was sure I would have my degree in short order, and would then move on to an advanced degree in international studies, a job in Washington. I would meet a Sudanese girl there, and she would be a student in America, too, and we would court and marry and form a family, a simple family of three children and unconditional love.”
In time, Valentino does make it to America. His arrival is delayed by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which transpire on the very day he is to depart, but the simple dream of an ordinary life continues to elude him: he becomes a crime victim, and his girlfriend is brutally murdered. Yet as told by Mr. Eggers, Valentino Achak Deng’s story remains a testament to the triumph of hope over experience, human resilience over tragedy and disaster.
“‘I See Him in Me’: A world-famous writer and a refugee from Sudan collaborate on one of the year’s most moving novels”
By Lev Grossman
Issue: November 6, 2006
The tall, quiet man sitting across from me in the diner has several names. These days he goes by Valentino Achak Deng, but in the African refugee camps he grew up in he was called Gone Far, for the hundreds of miles he walked when he fled the violence of Sudan’s civil war. One girl nicknamed him Sleeper, for the time he was so exhausted he lay down in the middle of the road and tried to die. The other guy sitting across from me, next to Valentino/Gone Far/Sleeper, has just one name: Dave Eggers.
Eggers is, of course, a famous writer: he is the author of the bestselling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It’s odd that the two men even know each other, but a few years ago Deng was looking for someone to help him write his life story, and a charitable foundation for Sudanese refugees helped him reach out to Eggers. Intrigued, Eggers agreed to a meeting, and the two became friends. Now they’ve collaborated on a moving, frightening, improbably beautiful book, a lightly fictionalized version of Deng’s life titled What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (McSweeney’s; 475 pages).
Sudan is really two countries: the north is predominantly Muslim, and the south is inhabited mostly by tribal peoples like the Dinka, of whom Deng is one. War broke out between north and south when Deng was about 6. His village was destroyed by horsemen, and many of his friends and relatives were killed or enslaved. He escaped. Along with many other boys—the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan—Deng walked hundreds of miles overland to a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
Some of the Lost Boys died of starvation and disease. Some were shot. Some were eaten by lions and crocodiles. Some went insane. War is always horrifying, but there’s something uniquely awful about a child’s experience of it. What Is the What has the same sick, surreal intensity as Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. Once Deng was fleeing enemy soldiers with three other boys when a strange woman called out to them. “Don’t fear me,” she says in the book. “I am just a woman! I am a mother trying to help you boys.” When two of the boys approached her, “the woman turned, lifting a gun from the grass, and with her eyes full of white, she shot the taller boy through the heart.”
Eggers and Deng worked on What Is the What for three years, recording 100 hours of interviews and visiting Sudan together. What could have been an awkward literary three-legged race became instead a synergistic collaboration. In person there’s an obvious and rather touchingly empathic bond between the two: Eggers is the confident, gregarious one, while Deng speaks in quiet, melodious, not-quite-grammatical English. “Dave would listen to me,” he says, “and he would write and send me a chapter, and I see him in me. And I ask him sometimes, ‘How are you able to put yourself in me?’”
In places What Is the What is surprisingly funny. Eggers explains that he didn’t want the book to read like “a human-rights report.” “We were trying to reflect the whole life, the complete life,” he says, “not just disaster after disaster.” After all, Deng spent 13 years in refugee camps. He grew up in them. He joked around with friends. He flirted with girls. “The horror was so overwhelming that for many years I never thought that I had this fun,” he says. “But there are moments when I no longer recall missing my family. That was the time when I had fun.”
From the day his village was destroyed, Deng never stopped looking for a safe, peaceful home. He finally made it to the U.S.—the promised land for many Sudanese—but in America he found new and confusing challenges: menial jobs, discrimination, endless seriocomic misunderstandings. In his first apartment he didn’t realize he could turn off the air conditioning and spent a week sleeping with all his clothes on. The loudness and lewdness of the preshow festivities at an NBA game seemed to him “perfectly designed to drive people insane.” The book is framed by Deng’s experience of being robbed and beaten in his apartment in Atlanta.
After five years in America, Deng has finally managed to matriculate at Allegheny College in western Pennsylvania, where he’s designing his major: international diplomacy. He hopes to use his share of the proceeds from What Is the What to fund an educational center in his hometown in Sudan. But his isn’t a simple story of suffering and redemption, of a Lost Boy who was finally found. It’s more of a long walk that doesn’t end. Deng has gone far, but he still has far to go.
By Jonathan Durbin
Issue: November 6, 2006
McSweeney’s magazine founder and literary gadfly Eggers has crafted a second novel that is as much an absolute classic as it is difficult to classify. What Is the What is the enormously affecting life story of Valentino Achak Deng, 25, who is one of the famous Sudanese Lost Boys. Eggers relates the saga of his struggle for survival in an embellished as-told-to style: As Deng explains in the preface, “Over the course of many years, I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation … And though it is fictionalized, it should be noted that the world I have known is not so different than the one depicted within these pages.” The existence that Eggers describes is incredibly brutal, from Deng’s separation from his family and his trek across southern Sudan to Ethiopia—fleeing from the murderous Arabic horsemen of Khartoum—to the 13 years he lived in squalor in refugee camps and his anticlimactic arrival in the United States. Deng’s faith is constantly tested, which makes his redemption—when it finally arrives—transcendent. With this, his fourth book, Eggers proves himself a master of narrative, both for what he has written here and for his choice of subject, which is compelling, important and vital to the understanding of the politics and emotional consequences of oppression.
By Keir Graff
In Atlanta, too-trusting Valentino Achak Deng opens his door to strangers and is beaten and robbed at gunpoint. Lying on the floor, tied up with telephone cord, he begins to silently tell his life story to one of his captors. Through the rest of his miserable ordeal, he continues these internal monologues: to the indifferent police officer who answers his call for help; to the jaded functionary at the hospital where he waits for treatment; to the affluent patrons who arrive at the health club where he must return to work. Deng is a Sudanese “Lost Boy,” and his story is one of unimaginable suffering. Forced to flee his village by the murahaleen (Muslim militias armed by the government in Khartoum), he survives marathon walks, starvation, disease, soldiers, bandits, land mines, lions, and refugee camps before winning the right to immigrate to the U.S.—a move he sees as nothing short of salvation. Deng is a real person, and this story, told in his voice, is mostly true. It can be difficult to separate the book from its circumstances: readers may weigh Eggers’ right to tell the story or wonder what parts have been changed—or even which observations are Deng’s and which are Eggers’ observations of Deng. But here a novel is the best solution to the problems of memoir. Reworking this powerful tale with both deep feeling and subtlety, Eggers finds humanity and even humor, creating something much greater than a litany of woes or a script for political outrage. What Is the What does what a novel does best, which is to make us understand the deeper truths of another human being’s experience.
By David Amsden
Issue: October 30, 2006
Dave Eggers’s new novel is best introduced with a list of what it does not contain. There are no charts, no pages left intentionally blank, no cartwheeling paragraphs that stand out for their high concentration of whimsical exclamation points. No footnotes, no apologia, no marginalia, and not a single grieving white male of high education and questionable maturity. In short, there are exactly zero indicators alerting us that we are in the midst of an Eggers production; yet one finishes this wrenching and remarkable book with the impression that it’s precisely what the author’s past work—his foot-stomping memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the quieter fiction that followed, the expansive literary subculture he’s created through McSweeney’s—has been building up to.
What Is the What tells the story of a refugee from the second Sudanese civil war (1983–2005), one of the 20,000 so-called Lost Boys who walked thousands of miles from their decimated villages (their homes burned by Arab militiamen, most of the adults slaughtered) to relative safety in Ethiopia and later Kenya. In a region with no shortage of unimaginable horrors—the ongoing genocide in Darfur has taken some 300,000 lives with no signs of abating—the particulars of the Lost Boys have long stood out as a crushing reminder of the primitive cruelty of African warfare. Few were older than 10 when they were displaced, and many died during their journey, some of starvation and dehydration, others at the mercy of lions and armed forces. It is a tragedy related by the extraordinarily clear-eyed Valentino Achak Deng, one of 4,000 refugees offered sanctuary in the U.S. in 2001, who is reflecting back while trying to survive an altogether different struggle: assimilation into a culture defined by its short-term memory and chronic indifference to the world beyond its borders.
Billed as a novel, What Is the What is more a work of imaginary journalism: Valentino is an actual refugee, whom Eggers spent years interviewing. “This book is a soulful account of my life,” states Valentino in a preface, explaining that Eggers wrote the book by “approximating my own voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation.” The story opens with Valentino living in Atlanta, attending college, working at a health club, and having doubts about life in America—a state that’s compounded when his apartment is robbed and he’s beaten by two (black) Americans. This saga is juxtaposed with the brutal epic of his past. “When I first came to this country, I would tell silent stories,” Eggers writes. “I would tell them to people who had wronged me. If someone cut in front of me in line, ignored me, bumped me, or pushed me, I would glare at them, staring, silently hissing a story to them. You do not understand, I would tell them. You would not add to my suffering if you knew what I have seen.” And so while silently addressing his assailants, a disinterested cop, an ineffectual hospital staff, and so forth, Valentino describes in riveting detail his prewar village life, his devastating journey, his refugee-camp adolescence, and his early experiences in America, which include being adopted by generous Christians, befriending a Hollywood producer, and having a troubled reunion with the woman he loved in Sudan.
That Eggers gravitated toward this subject is fitting: He is, famously, a lost boy himself. His phenomenally successful memoir chronicled how, at 21, both of Eggers’s parents died of cancer within weeks of each other, leaving him to raise his kid brother. In radiant prose, Eggers told an original, funny, life-affirming story of death and the orphan experience: the anger, the alienation, the premature loss of innocence, the bipolar urge to create community (Please understand me!) only to reject it (You’ll never understand!). Then there was the book’s sub-narrative, its overzealous need to operate as a metacommentary on itself and twentysomething solipsism in general. But if A.H.W.O.S.G. sometimes failed to transcend the precocious navel-gazing it critiqued, its shortcomings highlighted a noble impulse in the author: Eggers was eager to shift his focus outward, and the incidental theme of his career since has been his attempts to figure out how to pull this off.
Look at McSweeney’s. At first, the quarterly was an extension of the memoir’s self-referential, outsider aesthetic; now the writing is more varied, and there’s a book imprint, tutoring centers, a monthly magazine (The Believer), and a DVD magazine showcasing short films (Wholphin). Eggers’s own writing (You Shall Know Our Velocity!, a novel; How We Are Hungry, stories) has centered on thirtyish Americans (he’s 36) trying to get out of their own skin, away from their own grief, often by traveling abroad and immersing themselves in cultures plagued by more than existential concerns. Then, in 2004, excerpts of what promised to be Eggers’s forthcoming biography of Valentino (then using the name Dominic Arou) were published in The Believer—the product, it appeared, of his own such travels. As dispatches they were excellent, but one had trouble imagining them coalescing into an entire book. Eggers was writing in the first person (“In all the times I’ve traveled with or otherwise spent time with Dominic”), which inevitably made him part of the story.
To be your own most famous and enduring character is the fate of any talented memoirist; to escape it is how you prove yourself as a novelist. Whether this prompted Eggers’s decision to rework the material as fiction is something only he can answer—whatever the reason, the results are stunning. What Is the What is a portrait of a character that forces us to examine our world and ourselves, and how our struggle for identity is more of a collective battle than we’re often willing to admit. For all the bleak territory covered, the novel is also a reminder that remembering is both a form of sacrifice and salvation. To forget, Valentino says, “would be something less than human.”
Wall Street Journal
Over the past several weeks, the author Dave Eggers has been promoting his new novel in scattered appearances and interviews. In each instance, he’s taken along an unusual guest: his narrator.
“What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng” tells the story of one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” refugees who trekked hundreds of miles to escape the brutal, decades-long civil war in the southern half of their country. But while Mr. Eggers calls the book a “novel” and wrote it in the first person, the story he’s telling is largely true, according to the real-life Mr. Deng, who proposed the book and worked with Mr. Eggers on it for more than three years. (Mr. Deng now lives in the U.S., where he began attending Allegheny College this fall.)
The result, which has received strong early reviews, is akin to a historical novel set in the very recent past. Some characters are composites, but many other episodes actually happened, including a brutal attack Mr. Deng endured in Atlanta, once his ordeal was supposedly over. Although Mr. Eggers, who wrote “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and founded the literary journal McSweeney’s, initially set out to write a nonfiction account, he says he eventually turned to a first-person narrative so he could “disappear” from the story.
The Lost Boys, a term coined by relief workers, have been the subject of several nonfiction books and films in recent years. A Nicole Kidman-narrated documentary, “God Grew Tired of Us,” is slated to come out in January.
Valentino Achak Deng, real-life hero of this engrossing epic, was a refugee from the Sudanese civil war—the bloodbath before the current Darfur bloodbath—of the 1980s and ‘90s. In this fictionalized memoir, Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) makes him an icon of globalization. Separated from his family when Arab militia destroy his village, Valentino joins thousands of other ’Lost Boys,’ beset by starvation, thirst and man-eating lions on their march to squalid refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where Valentino pieces together a new life. He eventually reaches America, but finds his quest for safety, community and fulfillment in many ways even more difficult there than in the camps: he recalls, for instance, being robbed, beaten and held captive in his Atlanta apartment. Eggers’s limpid prose gives Valentino an unaffected, compelling voice and makes his narrative by turns harrowing, funny, bleak and lyrical. The result is a horrific account of the Sudanese tragedy, but also an emblematic saga of modernity—of the search for home and self in a world of unending upheaval.
“I cannot recall the last time I was this moved by a novel. What Is the What is that rare book that truly deserves the overused and scarcely warranted moniker of ‘sprawling epic.’ Told with humor, humanity, and bottomless compassion for his subject, one Valentino Achak Deng, Eggers shows us the hardships, disillusions, and hopes of the long-suffering people of southern Sudan. This is the story of one boy’s astonishing capacity to endure atrocity after atrocity, and yet refuse to abandon decency, kindness, and hope for home and acceptance. It is impossible to read this book and not be humbled, enlightened, transformed. I believe I will never forget Valentino Achak Deng.”
—Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner
“What Is the What is a novel that possesses the best qualities of a documentary film: the conviction of truthfulness, and the constant reminder of the arbitrariness of fate, for worse and for better. By setting his story of African annihilation and survival as a story of American immigration, Eggers insures that it belongs to us all, as it must.”
—Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda
“Dave Eggers has done something remarkable with this book. He has managed to cross many barriers both real and artificial to tell the story of one man’s tragedy and triumph in a way that emphasizes his simple humanity above the drama of his terrible situation. It is a book that shows there is no reason why geographical and cultural divides should prevent us from attempting to understand each other as citizens of this world.”
—Uzodinma Iweala, author of Beasts of No Nation
“I have been interacting with the Lost Boys since the late 1980s, from the time they were first displaced in Sudan to their arrival in the United States. I thought I had heard and seen it all. But reading Valentino’s story has touched emotions in me I didn’t even know I had. Dave Eggers tells the story of Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, but he also elucidates the best and worst of our common humanity.”
—John Prendergast, Senior Adviser for Africa, International Crisis Group
“Read this book, a true tale beautifully told by Dave Eggers, who works magic with words and does stunning justice to a story about the stunning injustice that rules Africa’s largest country and the lives of its people. If you want to know more about Sudan, you’ll find more depth and insight here than in any news report or policy paper. And if you want a good read, What Is the What will captivate, shock, entertain and move you as it connects the dots between our “normal” lives here in America and the inexplicable lives of the Lost Boys on the other side of the world."
—Gayle E. Smith, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress, and former Senior Director for African Affairs, National Security Council
A Conversation With
Valentino Achak Deng
and Dave Eggers.
How did the two of you meet?
Dave Eggers: We met in Atlanta through the Lost Boys Foundation. I got a letter in the mail one day from Mary Williams, the founder of the organization, wanting to know if I wanted to meet some of the Lost Boys who were living in Atlanta. I had read a few articles about the Lost Boys, so I thought it would be interesting to meet them and see what the foundation was doing. Mary had a few ideas about how I might be able to get involved, and one of them was in helping Valentino to write his autobiography.
Valentino Achak Deng: We became friends that first weekend, and we started interviews right away. For a while, I thought we would finish the book within a few months. I was very wrong about that.
Can you describe the process of writing the book?
DE: It was slow. It took three years of pretty steady work.
VAD: We started with interviews. Many interviews in person and over the phone.
DE: The first thing we did was just get through the basic story. So that was about 12 hours of tape. Then I spent some time transcribing and reviewing the story, to see what exactly to do with it. At that point, we really hadn’t decided whether I was just helping Valentino write his own book, or if I was writing a book about him.
VAD: I thought I might want to write my own book, but I learned that I was not ready to do this. I was still taking classes in basic writing at Georgia Perimeter College.
DE: For a long while there, we continued doing interviews, and I gathered the material. But all along, I really didn’t know exactly what form it would finally take—whether it would be first person or third, whether it would be fiction or nonfiction. After about 18 months of struggle with it, we settled on a fictionalized autobiography, in Valentino’s voice.
Why was this the choice you two made?
DE: The main reason was that Valentino’s voice is so distinct and unforgettable that any other authorial voice would pale by comparison. Very early on, when the book was in a more straightforward authorial voice, I missed the voice I was hearing on the tapes. So writing in Val’s voice solved both problems: I could disappear completely, and the reader would have the benefit of his very distinct voice.
Why is the book called a novel if it’s based on Valentino’s life? Why not nonfiction?
VAD: It is very close to the truth, but many things in the book are somewhat different than what happened in life. Some characters have been combined. Some time is compressed. They are minor things, but they were necessary. For one thing, I was very young when the book begins, so I could not remember conversations and small details from my early childhood in Marial Bai. It was necessary to reconstruct the chronology, and that is what Dave did. He took the basic facts and then created the story from there.
DE: Valentino put it very well in his introduction, that though not everything happened in the exact order described in the book, it all very well might have happened. All of the events in the book have historical basis. But it really is a novel. I made up many scenes that were necessary to describe the whole sweep of those 20 or so years that the book covers. Sometimes I’d read a human rights report about a certain incident during the civil war, and would ask Val if he knew someone who had experienced that incident, or something like it. Sometimes he did know someone, and we could go from there, but other times I had to imagine it on my own. Some of these scenes were necessary to include, even if Val didn’t have personal experience with them.
VAD: It is important to say that the parts of the book that seem most incredible are those that are most true.
DE: Right. That is the case.
VAD: A few of my friends have been confused by the process. They think I spoke the book into a tape recorder. This is not how it has happened. In most cases, I would describe a certain scene for perhaps 20 minutes, and then Dave would return some months later with the scene written, though in a fictional form. It was not until six months ago that I saw the book in the form of a whole book. It was very strange how he envisioned events through my eyes. Because we had spent so much time together by that time, it is not surprising that he could guess my thoughts.
DE: It’s important to note, too, that we’ve toned down the story somewhat, too. The odd thing about all this is that once you say a book is fiction, you have a harder time convincing a reader that certain things are possible. Valentino, for example, was scheduled for resettlement on September 11, 2001. He actually was on a plane, leaving Nairobi and going to New York, on 9/11. The plane never left Nairobi, of course. He and 40 or so other Sudanese deplaned and waited a few more weeks—and they thought they’d never make it to the U.S. That is a true story, but it seems too incredible to be true, especially considering the life Valentino’s led before and since.
Do you feel this is representative of the experience of the Sudanese refugees in the United States?
VAD: I want to tell you that this is my story and not the story of the thousands of Lost Boys in America. There are many experiences in the story that we all shared. We all struggled while walking to Ethiopia. We all had encounters with the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army], and those of us who survived those early years of travel and deprivation made it to Kakuma [refugee camp in Kenya]. But my life is different in many ways. This is a story of my life, not everyone’s life. We are all different people.
DE: The book did start out with the aim of being a more general history of the young men like Valentino—the so-called Lost Boys—with Valentino being just the main character. But it evolved into a very specific story about Valentino’s life only. It also evolved from being strictly a history of boys like Valentino was, would-be child soldiers caught in the middle of the civil war, and into more than that. In a way, it’s as much about the immigrant experience in America. This hasn’t been an easy five years for Valentino, even with the material comforts he’s had here. The stories we’ve read about the Lost Boys are usually very heartwarming, though in many cases the reality of their lives has been shaded with a good deal of struggle and frustration.
What do you hope to happen in the wake of the book?
VAD: I hope that it will help people understand Sudan, and why the conflicts continue there. Perhaps people will read this and understand more about Darfur. And the proceeds from the book will do great things in southern Sudan. I have many plans for my home village. There will be a library there. And a youth center. And a women’s center. Many things that are needed there. We will begin very soon.