Here is the book you should read now: “What Is the What” (McSweeney’s, 2006). Billed as a fictionalized memoir, it’s a collaboration between Dave Eggers, the writer who first achieved fame with “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” & Valentino Achak Deng, a Christian Sudanese who became one of the Lost Boys when civil war broke out in his country. Arab militiamen on horseback raided Marial Bai, Deng’s small village, when the boy was approximately six years old; he & his mother were boiling water over a simple fire when the ominous rumble of hoofbeats vibrated the bare earth. “This is the end,” my mother said. “They mean to kill us all. Achak I am so sorry. But we will not make it through this day.”
Separated from his mother during the invasion, Deng hid as the marauders burned & murdered, then set out on foot, eventually joining a group of uprooted boys & young men headed toward Ethiopia. After a journey fraught with nearly unfathomable perils & gruesome sights, Deng & the other survivors make it across the Gilo River, only to find it is not the paradise they’d been imagining. “I looked at the land. It looked exactly like the other side of the river, the side that was Sudan, the side we left. There were no homes. There were no medical facilities. No food. No water for drinking. … We are not in Ethiopia, I thought. This is not that place.”
Deng would spend three years in that place, & a decade in Kakuma, another refugee camp in Kenya. “There is a presumption in the West that refugee camps are temporary,” says Deng. “What Is the What” debunks this misconception & shows what life is like in such camps, detailing everything from methods for survival to how a boy might approach a girl for a date. Interspersed with the lengthy saga of hardship in Africa are the narrator’s experiences in the United States, where he is granted relocation on September 9, 2001. While the U.S. provides more than Deng could have dreamed of, it is far from perfect: the book begins as he is being robbed & battered by a couple of thugs in his Atlanta apartment. His goal of college remains elusive as he works a series of menial jobs; he frequently holds silent conversations with, for example, the members of a gym in which he mans the front desk. “Do you have any idea? Can you imagine this?” he longs to say to their seemingly carefree faces as he swipes their cards.
Although Eggers spent countless hours interviewing Deng & published several excerpts (in different form) in “The Believer,” he ultimately left himself out of the full-length version & tells it from the Sudanese man’s point of view, which gives “What Is the What” unsurpassed emotional depth. It may seem risky for a white American to inhabit the voice of a Dinka refugee, but Eggers wholly succeeds in taking the reader inside the mind of one who has been marked by the two sides of humanity’s conflicted coin: its savagery & its selflessness. Proceeds from the book will go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation (www.valentinoachakdeng.com
), whose aim is to fund other Sudanese refugees in the U.S. as well as to help rebuild Southern Sudan.