The autobiography of a displaced Sudanese man fleeing civil war and his rocky path to emigrating to the US. An accomplished tale that puts the humanity back into what is for many just another news story.
The life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Dinka from southern Sudan, is one of constant motion in Dave Eggers’ What is the What. From the age of six, Valentino (who goes through several different names and reincarnations along his journey from Sudan to the United States) is a Lost Boy on the run from the murahaleen, the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army, wild animals, and from anyone he comes across in his travels whose allegiance or motives are unclear.
What is the What is a story of being pushed into the unknown what when all that is comfortable and familiar is stolen or burned to the ground, leaving only the ability to walk (and run) forward and seek something new.
I was put off from reading this book for several months (billed as a novel but very much the autobiography that its subtitle states it is) because of its author, Dave Eggers. Eggers is probably best known for his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It’s a lovely story about a big brother becoming a father to his little brother after losing both parents to cancer, but I was skeptical if a white American man who recounted his audition for the Real World in his memoir could inhabit the character of a Sudanese man who has faced war, hunger, and every kind of death. But Eggers completely disappears in this story so that only the voice of Valentino is left. Valentino tells his own story and it begins when he is a young man living in Atlanta, Georgia.
We find Valentino in his apartment being robbed by a man and woman and their young accomplice, Michael. Michael is left in charge of a tied-up Valentino while the older criminals take their first load of loot from Valentino’s apartment. Michael is the first character we meet who Valentino silently tells his story and journey to.
As most American children, Michael is anesthetized from this “absurd situation” by watching Valentino’s television. (Valentino refers to him as TV Boy as he tells the boy his tale in his mind.) He begins telling Michael, and the reader, about his six-year-old self who lives in Marial Bai as the son of a businessman who owns shops. He’s a boy with good friends and a mother who always wears a beautiful yellow dress and he climbs trees and spies into the bedroom of his first crush, Amath, under the cover of night.
Then the first signs of Sudan’s second civil war infiltrate Marial Bai. Valentino witnesses the SPLA steal sugar from his father’s store. Not long after, Sudanese soldiers desert the town and the northern Arab militia, called the murahaleen, invade Marial Bai, burn it to the ground and kill or abduct anyone in their way. He is separated from his mother and watches the destruction of Marial Bai from a hiding spot in a church.
When darkness falls, he runs to the forest, swarming with hidden animals. He runs until he meets up with other boys and with a teacher from his village named Dut. Dut is one of many heroes in Valentino’s journey who seems to appear from nowhere to help him, even if for brief periods of time. Together they collect more and more boys (and girls) who seem to materialize from nowhere.
When we woke, our group had grown. There had been just over thirty boys the night before, and now there were forty-four. By the time we had walked through the day and settled again that night, there were sixty-one. The next week brought more boys, until the group was almost two hundred. Boys came from towns we passed and they came from the brush at night, out of breath from running. They came as groups merging with our group and they came alone.
As the weeks go on, boys begin to die. The little bodies of the young boys are burning more calories from traveling than they are consuming. They get sick. Some turn “strange” from malnutrition, and many die from disease, hunger or lions.
Lions. This is a plot point that the twenty-four hour news networks are always sure to include in their short spots on the Lost Boys of the now ended civil war and the current genocide in Darfur. “If it bleeds, it ledes,” the old newspaper adage goes, and nothing bleeds more than a Sudanese orphan being eaten by a lion.
Until reading What is the What, the US mainstream media and George Clooney had convinced me that the narrative of southern Sudan’s children began and ended like this: young boys are chased from their homes by Arab militias on horseback wielding AK-47’s and Kalashnikov’s, they flee to Ethiopian refugee camps, most of them are eaten by lions before they reach safety.
From Ethiopia the survivors are pushed on to Kenya, where more are eaten by lions and if there are any girls in the walking caravans of orphaned children, they are raped. In Kenya, the refugees wait out their lives in tent cities in the middle of nowhere, being photographed by white photojournalists who regurgitate the above narrative and add a photo of a weary, jaundiced mother holding a stick-thin baby.
While these plot points are included in Valentino’s story, this book goes deeper than the sensational: What is the What shows that there are also little boys acting like little boys in the midst of all this violence. Valentino and his friends wrestle in the refugee camps and punch each other in their slim arms and laugh as they collect water from rivers and UN wells. Valentino is captivated by a group of young sisters who play the Sudanese version of Doctor with him. He goes to school. He finds a man named Gop who becomes a new father and he is adopted into a new family. He jokes with friends. He goes to school. He dreams.
What the news reports leave out are the personalities and humor and charm that Valentino and others who find themselves in these strange and unknown destinations have held onto despite everything. They’re not blank shapes who appeared in refugee camps one day. They’re funny, anxious, sad, quiet, outgoing, introverted, joyful, prejudiced, silly and as normal and as screwed up as the rest of us.
Hollywood seems only to focus on the Sudanese as a pet project that are only the sum of the labels given to them by the western media. What is the What‘s biggest achievement is that it reminds those of us who watch reports of the Sudanese in their UN tent cities absentmindedly while we eat dinner is that these are people living and striving as well as they can and who have their own personalities, opinions, quirks and attitudes. The western media has shoved every refugee into the form of a helpless, sick and unidentified person and never wants to waste any of their air time focusing on the people behind the labels.
Valentino’s story fills in the blanks that CNN and MSNBC have left out. He finds success in Kakuma, a Kenyan refugee camp where he and the Sudanese escape to after the Ethiopians run them out for overstaying their welcome. He keeps up with school, he falls in love, he gets a job with a Japanese NGO and life almost becomes normal. But he still thinks of moving on and of finding his parents. Kakuma is the most consistent place he has stayed since running from Marial Bai as a six-year-old boy, but he and others his age want more. As a young boy, he had no idea that Ethiopia existed, but as a young man he is becoming more and more aware of the different places that he could find himself in the world.
After many trials, he is resettled to Atlanta, Georgia, where we meet him. He is taking courses at a community college, working at a health club ” and being robbed by African Americans, being ignored by police and hospital staff, and by the book’s end is ready to travel again to another unknown destination after another violent act has pushed him out of his new home.
But this escape is his choice. America has afforded him options as well as heartaches. By the end of the book, the reader remembers an earlier passage from Valentino from his first journey out of Marial Bai:
For the first time in weeks, I was hungry for adventure again. I wanted to walk. I wanted to see what would be ahead of us that day on the path.