Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What Is the What? Book Review

I recently finished reading Dave Eggers What is the What, a biographical (but semi-fictional) account of a young Sudanese man's freaking horrific life and the atrocities of life for people in that country. The book is considered fictional because the subject of the biography, Valentino Achak Deng, couldn't remember all the details of certain events or conversations when he was young, so he and the author ad libbed. They claim the historical events are all accurate and true however.

I wanted to read this book because when I first moved to Vermont nine years ago, I was surprised to see some very tall and very dark-skinned young men (since, after all, Vermont is the second whitest state in the nation). I learned they were "Lost Boys" -- refugees from the Sudan who had come to Vermont for an education. The stories in our paper about the men were fascinating. I was especially taken with their plans to trade cows for wives.

Later -- a year or so ago -- I watched "God Grew Tired of Us", a documentary about the lives of four Sudanese refugees finding their way in America. I laughed seeing the men experience an escalator, an airplane, electricity, and a refrigerator. But their story isn't really funny.

Neither is What is the What. Kids shriveling and dying in their footsteps, eaten by lions, shot at by angry villagers, or recruited for guerrilla warfare at age 9. But the politics and history behind the war in the Sudan was fascinating. Seems a lot of the problems stemmed from oil -- hmmm, think of that? And I know government oppression and murder shouldn't be a surprise, but to think of what these children went through -- being forced out of their villages and hiking and across hundreds of miles of dangerous lands with no food, clothing, or shelter. And surviving to live in encampments for 10-15 years before being given the opportunity to go to America.

In America, I'm not convinced that Achak's life was better. Without giving away a good part of the story, his life was pretty tough. His girlfriend was killed, he worked very hard for little money, he was robbed and assaulted. The poor guy kept persevering and hoping though. He is currently in school in Pennsylvania and has started a foundation that uses proceeds from the book to build schools in the Sudan. (See for more details.) How someone finds such strength is beyond me.

But as Achak reminds, we're really all the same. Just trying to get by with what we got:

"The refugees created a life that resembled the lives of other human beings, in that we ate and talked and laughed and grew. Goods were traded, men married women, babies were born, the sick were healed, and just as often...went to the sweet hereafter."

So no matter where we are, what demons are chasing us, or what we have or do, we're all usually just eating, talking, laughing, and growing. There were times when I'm sure Achak was and is just as happy as I am. Everyone is or isn’t, I suppose. No matter what cards they're holding.

So should you read? Of course. It's historical, foreign, frightening, vital, inhuman. And unfortunately, true.

(544 words)


  1. I don't think I'd make it through that book. I have difficulty reading about any child missing a single meal or not being able to find its mommy for 10 minutes. But I like your assessment of what life's all about.

  2. I just finished reading this book a couple weeks ago. I think it shows the resilience of the human spirit and the amazing determination of some people to persist, no matter how dire their circumstances.