Sunday, February 21, 2010


What Is the What

What a book. When you read "fictional autobiography" your ears should prick up in warning, and when the subject matter is a Lost Boy of Sudan, the danger of an author's journey to exploitative self-gratification goes to Def-Con 2. Dave Eggers' What Is The What manages the wobbly tightrope and works with the real-life subject of the fictionalized autobiography, Valantine Achak Deng, to write an incredible book.

As I understand it, Eggers was initially just going to help Deng write a book about his life, as a way to try to explain the conflicts in Sudan to a global audience. They met after he'd been in the States for a while and attempting to acclimate himself to the new environment and resolve the differential between his goals and what seemed possible. Somehow Deng and Eggers, after lots of work together, realized first that Deng wasn't up to writing a comprehensive book in English, and then that a straight-up biography or memoirs wouldn't be feasible. So they settled on an attempt to tell the story of his life through some fictional devices to streamline the narrative. I also imagine that the broader historical expository that was weaved into various conversations and internal ruminations was more for the reader's benefit than an actual part of his life. Somehow it works.

Valantino Achak Deng is a Dinka from Southern Sudan and experiences the second major civil war in Sudan starting at roughly age 7 or 8, when his village is destroyed and he's separated from his family. He eventually joins groups of other orphaned boys walking to Ethiopia, hundreds of miles west, through deserts, rivers, government soldiers, lions, local Islamic militias, hyenas, strafing helicopters, and rebel troops, all of which try to kill the orphaned boys. Making it to the refugee camp in Ethiopia of course does not solve their problems, and they have to flee to a refugee camp in Kenya, where he spends ten years growing up. He finally gets cleared to go to America as one of the famous Lost Boys of Sudan to settle in Atlanta, in 2001. He's sitting on his plane on the tarmac in Nairobi ready to fly to New York on Tuesday, September 11th. The plane doesn't take off for obvious reasons. He does make it to the States, and acclimating to a new environment, culture, and country isn't the only thing he has to deal with. The first sentence brings you to the present (of the book), and in the events of about two days, he doesn't tell his backstory through obvious flashback narration. Eggers uses what seems like a very authentic device - instead of "remembering" entire portions of his life, or telling people verbally what his life was like, Deng is shown to internally monologue (dialogue?) with people he's interacting with that don't fully seem to understand him. The man who robs him gets a detailed explanation of what insane things he went through just to stay alive in Sudan - at least he does inside of Deng's head. It jumps around a bit, but the narrative flows well and I think it works.

I like to think I read enough newspaper articles, blog posts, and books, and talk to enough people who know more about this conflict than I do that I have a small idea of what's happening in Sudan. But it's hard to meld recent updates (that often assume a lot of prior knowledge) and conversations into an understanding that makes sense in a narrative format. This book was invaluable for me to put a lot of the puzzle pieces together. It's not that it teaches you historical facts (though it does), it's that Deng's story personalizes the insane things that have happened and are happening in a desolate part of the world. I feel like now when I read a NYT story on Sudan now it fits into a more comprehensive framework.

Eggers also manages to either take his own sense of humor, or use Deng's sense of humor at the absurd to join intense occurrences with humorous interpretations. It goes beyond just the silliness of African-immigrant-figures-out-air-conditioning jokes, to provide some universal misunderstandings and hilarious mis-takes that let you laugh at the bizarre, and see Deng's deeply optimistic and hopeful view of his life. That is an accomplishment in and of itself.

PS - I read this on audiobook, and a character from the Wire narrates! He does a great job and had the accents down pat.

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