What is the What by Dave Eggers
The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng
Vintage Books 2007 (2006)
When the civil war between the north and the south of Sudan reaches Achak’s far western Dinka village of Marial Bai, he is a child of about seven years old who still spends most of his time with his mother, or playing on the floor of his father’s general store. He did sometimes go out with the others boys, including his friends William K and Moses, to watch the cattle, but he is with his mother the day the government helicopters come, killing indiscriminately, which was only the beginning. When the villagers didn’t leave, the government-backed murahaleen – Arabs on horses – come sweeping in to finish the job. It is the last time Achak sees his mother, and he has no idea what fate has befallen any of his siblings or stepmothers. He can only flee, running as far as he can.
He finally comes upon a large group of boys like him being led by his old teacher, a young man called Dut Majok, who has a tendency to lead them in circles but never stops looking out for the boys and sees them, after months of walking and encounters with lions, crocodiles and hostile villagers, to Ethiopia and the refugee camp called Pinyudo on the Gilo River. When a change in government comes to Ethiopia – otherwise known as a military coup – the refugees are violently driven out, many killed by soldiers and many others lost the river they are forced to cross, or the crocodiles that live there. It takes a year for the survivors – including thousands of “Lost Boys” like Achak, to reach Kenya, where a new refugee camp is constructed at Kakuma, which basically means nowhere – a hot, dry, dusty desert land that no one wants, no one except the local tribespeople that is.
There Achak spends many years until, finally, towards the end of 2001 his name if finally called to be one of thousands of Lost Boys and Girls being relocated to the United States. A new beginning and many hopes and dreams that he has barely dared to entertain before suddenly seem possible. After all this time of dodging bullets and starvation, Achak is sitting on the plane in Nairobi, along with a group of other young men like him, when the news comes through: no planes will be leaving. New York has been attacked, the Twin Towers are burning, get off the plane. If you can think of anything that could go wrong for Deng, it happened. But he does finally make it to the city of Atlanta where he meets his sponsors and starts working on his goal of getting a degree – which turns out to be much harder and more complicated (and costly) than he ever thought possible.
This is the first book by Eggers that I have read, even though I have three others already (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Zeitoun and A Hologram for the King), so I was able to read this purely as Deng’s story, in Deng’s voice. Deng is a strong, vivid character, and his personal story comes truly alive in the creative hands of Eggers. Not being able to tell where Eggers’ voice and writing style intrudes on what is, essentially, someone else’s story, it read smoothly and convincingly. Full of details, historical context, explanations skilfully woven in, as well as philosophical, moral and ethical ponderings, and an intense emotional engagement and humour. This is a man – one of many – who was shat on by life and circumstance, who questioned his belief in his god many times, but who persevered and struggled on. For the Sudanese, his is just one story of thousands like it, indistinguishable most of the time, and certainly nothing special, but for us, it is a hero’s story, and a bold, honest, brutal one at that.
It begins in the present day and is told in present tense, and introduces us to Valentino Achak Deng as he answers his door to a couple of black Americans who proceed to rob him at gunpoint. It is no coincidence that Eggers chose to start here and have Achak tell his story over the course of 24 hours as flashbacks to the past: contrasting the violence he experiences in America to that of Sudan is very telling. As the African part of the story unfolds, it casts a harsher and brighter light on the working poor and the criminally-minded of America, a critical eye and a disgusted shake of the head.
A recurring theme in the story of his past is one of inflated hope and disappointed expectations. The Lost Boys come from primitive villages and they know nothing about the world outside of Dinka land. They can’t even conceptualise what Ethiopia is, the idea of another country, but they build up grand expectations in their heads, which are based on nothing more than wishful thinking in the face of extreme privation. Moving to America, the refugees are possessed of even more fanciful imaginings, the kind that are limited to your scope of experience but also take them to the heights: servants, bowls of oranges, palaces and so forth. It’s not their fault they had no real ability to grasp what it would be like, or their lack of perspective. They learned quickly, but not all of them were successful in their new home.
By many we have been written off as a failed experiment. We were the model Africans. For so long, this was our designation. We were applauded for our industriousness and good manners and, best of all, our devotion to our faith. The churches adored us, and the leaders they bankrolled and controlled coveted us. But now the enthusiasm has dampened. We have exhausted many of our hosts. We are young men, and young men are prone to vice. Among the four thousand [that emigrated to America] are those who have entertained prostitutes, who have lost weeks and months to drugs, many more who have lost their fire to drink, dozens who have become inexpert gamblers, fighters. [pp.475-6]
I rather think he’s a bit hard on himself, or society is. Take a group of people from a primitive place with little to no creature comforts, who have endured things for years that we can barely fathom, and leave them more-or-less to their own devices in a strange new world full of new temptations – and let’s face it, the United States is proud of the “freedoms” it offers – and you’ll get instances of abuse in many forms. You can’t fast-forward industrialisation, progress and change in all facets of life like that without some repercussions. That’s a lot to take in. Even us westerners who grew up with the advanced technology and conveniences that we’re used to, aren’t dealing with it very well.
Deng’s story is a long one, and it’s by no means a quick read. Highly involved, reflective and introspective, it more-or-less flows chronologically but not always, and dates are fluid – not surprisingly, since they didn’t keep calendars and don’t use our system of months and days (they would know what season they were born in, and can count backwards to know how old they are, more or less, but couldn’t tell you their date-of-birth by our calendars). His story fleshes out the horrors of the Sudanese Civil War more than any other book I’ve read, and makes a long-lasting impression on you intellectually and emotionally.
One of the philosophical musings is captured in the title, What is the What, which comes from a Dinka legend about God and the first man and woman. God offers the Dinka people a choice: they can have cattle, or the What. They choose the cattle, and consider them the blessed, favoured people, for their cattle are everything: milk, food, wealth, land. Meanwhile, God gives the What to their Arab neighbours. Whenever Achak had heard this story in the past, the What is simply why the Arabs are inferior. “The Dinka were given the cattle first, and the Arabs had tried to steal them. God had given the Dinka superior land, fertile and rich, and had given them cattle, and though it was unfair, that was how God had intended it and there was no changing it.” [p.63] But when his father tells it to some visiting Arab merchants months before the war arrives, he leaves is open-ended, and leaves his young son thinking. Achak finds himself asking people on his long journey, what is the What? What did God give the Arabs that he didn’t give the Dinka? The answer is never given but it is implied. The sense that I got is difficult to articulate but it goes something like this: the Dinka got a harmonious, largely peaceful way of life, left intact for millennia, with no ambition or curiosity about the world. The Arabs got the ambition and curiosity, a drive to better themselves and an unending sense of dissatisfaction. The What was the apple of knowledge in Genesis’ garden of Eden.
I would love to hear the story of how Achak Deng met Dave Eggers, how the plan for the book – the proceeds of which go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which builds schools in South Sudan – came about. When we leave Achak in Atlanta after his harrowing 24-hour ordeal, he has made some important decisions and revised his aims and also seems to be possessed of a new kind of conviction, but it sheds no light on what happened next. Clearly, or so it seems to me, it wasn’t Deng’s determination to get a degree that made things happen for him so much as the book, this book, and all the work he did to promote it. The job of starting a charitable foundation and getting things done is a daunting one to me, but I am full of admiration for the people who come from nothing and successfully do it (the subject of Linda Park-Sue’s fictionalised memoir for children, A Long Walk to Water, Salva Dut, also began a foundation to bring water to South Sudanese villages).
This is a hard book to read and an equally hard one to talk about. There’s a lot going on and I can see why there are so many reading guides floating around the web. I loved it on many levels, even though it’s not an enjoyable novel – though there are moments of humour, it’s so interwoven with tragedy that it’s hard to crack a smile. It’s a powerful novel for the way it tells the story, and for the story itself. It’s a deeply human story, shedding light into the cracks and crevices of a part of Africa that we generally don’t spend much time thinking about. Checking out Deng’s foundation website, it stirred me nearly to tears to see the progress he’s already made on the beautiful school in Marial Bai, to read about the school farm and so on. This is a life, and what a life!
“What really makes What is the What powerful is not Eggers’ writing, which is alright. It is Deng’s voice coming through the writing, telling his story, that makes it work. He reminds the reader that it is just one story out of many, that it is an average story of a Lost Boy.” Tea and a Good Book
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