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HPPR Arts, Culture & History

What Kind of Book is This?


Since August, Radio Readers have shared stories about borders and becoming. Our stories have been prompted by the books in our Fall read: Cather’s My Antonia and Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey.

The third book in this series is Dave Eggers’ 2006 novel, What is the What : The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng.  Recognized by various organizations as a “best” and “notable” book, What is the What is titled an autobiography, described as a novel, yet frequently classified as social history.

How can that be? The answer, my friends, is found in the story of  Eggers and Deng deciding to write the book.

As social history, What is the What is the story of children, cut off from families or orphaned by war, who walked hundreds of miles to refugee camps. The war is the Sudanese Civil War in which some two million civilians died and some four million fled.  Thousands of those were children, unattended children, many very young. Valentino Achak Deng was himself six years old at the start of the conflict in the early 1980s.  He lived for about 10 years in refugee (or settlement) camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before he arrived in the United States as an asylee in early 2000. After he told one of his supporters, the founder of the Atlanta-based Lost Boys of Sudan, that he wanted to make the story of the Sudanese known, Deng and Eggers were introduced.

As an autobiography/memoir, the story is mostly Valentino Deng’s. Deng has said that What is the What is mostly true.  “Mostly true” because, sadly yet understandably, as Deng shared his life-story with Eggers, he couldn’t remember exact conversations from his early childhood or exact sequences of events (http://www.vadfoundation.org/interview-with-the-creators/).   Struggling to present a compelling narrative, Eggers realized he could do so, and honor Deng’s story, only if he could “imagine the thoughts in Valentino's mind the first day he left home, fleeing from the militias, never to return. Only in a novel could I imagine the look on the face of [a] man who rescued Valentino…. Only in a novel could I apply what I had seen in the various regions of southern Sudan to describe the land, the light, the people.” Deng’s response to Egger’s idea? "Do it the way you think it will best reach people."  Overall, the book was about three years in the making, entailing thousands of emails, hundreds of hours of phone conversations, and weeks spent together, including a visit to Sudan. http://www.vadfoundation.org/it-was-just-boys-walking/

Since What is the What was published, Eggers – a writer, publisher, and activist—has contributed proceeds from the book to a foundation he partners with Deng. Deng assists refugees and builds schools in southern Sudan, which remains a very troubled place.