Tag Archives: fiction

“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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Writing your own legend

My kids and I have been watching “The Grizzly Man Diaries” on Animal Planet.  I absolutely love it.

I’d seen the movie about him a few years ago, but this series gives me the chance to get a continuous drip of it.

First, I love to watch tv when I feel like my kids and I are educating ourselves at the same time: seeing the animals’ life cycles, ecology, food chain, behavior, etc.  That in itself gives the activity about 20 points right off the bat.  We have DVR, so we record the show and replay it whenever the time is right, and we constantly pause it so we can discuss things or share our thoughts.  

I love the show because it is an ongoing investigation of the idea of objective observer vs. meddler in a natural process.  This is one of the most important fundamental issues in the documentary genre as well as in the scientific community:  how much does an “objective” observer interfere with and change what they are observing, and how much should they participate in the events they are witnessing?  Most documentary filmmakers would say you should participate as little as possible, so that we usually observe from a distance things that might be heartwrenching, like a cute little bunny being eaten by a wolf or an orphaned cub starving to death.  It is generally accepted that this is the way things are and they should not be tampered with by humans.

But the Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell, has a completely different take.  We saw him get up out of his tent in the middle of the night to scare the wolves away from his fox family.  We also saw him move rocks in a too-shallow creek (not enough rain that year) and create a deep channel so that some of the salmon could make it up to the lake to spawn.  He spoke to the camera and reasoned, Humans are already interfering through our development, industrialization, pollution, etc. to such a great extent, that there is no point in pretending that our hands aren’t already dirty.  Why not step in when we see things we think we could help with.  

Why not indeed.

This is perhaps the part I love most about the show:  Timothy Treadwell is very aware of what he is doing, of what his life is about, of his goals, feelings and priorities.  He submits his actions to us all on camera.  He does not appear to have a hidden agenda, he does not seem to have any dreams that he puts off for a rainy day, he does not seem to be trying to manipulate the audience.  His words and actions seem genuine and personal.  He appears to live spontaneously whatever his brain and/or heart say to him.  He knows that he is part of the story he is telling, and he is not going to conceal any of it.

He wrote his own legend.  From his diaries and videos and still photographs, the producers of the show are constructing stories, which cannot be exactly the same as how Treadwell would have put them together, which cannot be exactly the same as how the bears would have related them, which cannot be exactly the same as the story of nature without us in it, which story we can never know.  We can only know the story through our own eyes, even if we are sitting quietly and watching it on tv, we are still filtering it.  We are understanding it by making it our own.  

I myself have no desire to document every second of an ecological niche the way he did, but I am inspired by the idea of giving up the pretension that I can be objective, of accepting that I am going to have to participate in what I am observing if only by being another body in the room staring.  I am intrigued by the idea of steering my life according to what I am most passionate about, of leaving behind the things that society insists require my attention but which I no longer have time for.

I love the idea of writing my own legend, with eyes and heart open.

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