“What is the What”

Since I have almost zero time free to read, when I do read something it had better be good!

The book I just finished fit the bill.  What is the What by Dave Eggers is part autobiography and part fiction, recounting the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese man who survived the civil war that destroyed so much of his homeland.

I find the mixture of truth and fiction intriguing, but as Mr. Deng explains in the preface, “It should be known to the readers that I was very young when some of the events in the book took place, and as a result we simply had to pronounce What is the What a novel.”  But he goes on to assure readers, “The book is historically accurate, and the world I have known is not different from the one depicted within these pages.”

It is also interesting that Mr. Eggers helped him write it, and is the only author listed on the cover.  One might ask, whose story is it, really?

Having studied in college the genre of testimonio, a category of writing that includes texts which tell the true story of individuals who have survived oppression and hardship, I am sure that theorists would go nuts over the truth/fiction blend going on in this book.

For me, I find it worth reading for the history as well as for the perspective of a person who has lived in both the US and Africa and can inform us of the contrast.

It is a story that never stops for a moment.  It will take you out of wherever you are and move you through a world that few of us, thankfully, will experience otherwise.  

It was worth reading just for the moment when my husband was watching a rerun of a goofy sitcom while I had my nose in the book, and I could hear the characters on the TV joking about their party-gone-sour while in the book young Achak is riding in the back of a military truck with a load of dead bodies… I had to stop reading.  Just to let it all digest, that we are all on this planet together but our realities are separated by light years.  Just to feel that moment when our realities existed, paradoxically, in the same space, when they came together in my conscious mind.

If you get a chance, join Mr. Deng’s reality for a moment.  How can we resist someone who wants so badly for us to hear his story?  As he says in the book, talking to us, the readers, about his storytelling, “…I speak to you because I cannot help it.  It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there.  I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us.  How blessed are we to have each other?  I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words.”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to ““What is the What”

  1. stacybuckeye

    I love the next to the last paragraph. It really is shocking sometimes the vast difference between our experiences. Thanks for the recommendation 🙂

  2. I heard Deng and Eggers speak about the book (the process by which it came into being, and more about Deng’s story, both in Africa and the U.S.) a few months ago, and was knocked on my heels by Valentino’s perspective, governed as it is by compassion, forgiveness, and admirably human humanity. The work he’s is doing to rebuild his home, his African town, his family are amazing. And the moment during which he absolutely GLOWED was when he announced he and his wife were having a baby, who was probably born about a month ago. He’s a admirable force of positive, forward thinking.
    Thanks for the post.

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