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HPPR Arts, Culture & History

Can You Hear Me Now?


We’re talking about Dave Egger’s What is the What, the third book in HPPR’s Radio Readers Fall Read. Our theme is stories, and, in this novel, Valentino Achak Deng recounts his life.  Rather than presented chronologically, rather than moving linearly through time,  Valentino’s narrative is fragmented, episodic, largely retrospective. It encompasses twenty some years, beginning in the relative present of his working minimum wage jobs in various eastern and southern cities of the United States, then to his early childhood in southern war-torn Sudan to a disordered life in the US, then back to resettlement in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. The novel concludes as Valentino prepares for yet another beginning, another relocation. When I think about it, Valentino’s life is much about endings and departures as it is about beginnings and arrivals.  His story, like Enrique’s, like Antonia’s is comprised of hostility,  hunger, violence, and death, stories that seem impossible to bear.

How does anyone endure, survive, such a life?  Do you wonder about that, too?

Valentino might say that the stories themselves are the answer.  Valentino tells us,  “I want everyone to hear…it is my right and obligation to send my stories into the world, even if silently, even if utterly powerless” (29).  Even, he adds, when no one seems to be listening. At various points in the novel, even when he can’t speak, has been prevented from speaking, he imagines himself telling his story, imagines himself being heard, being understood, being part of a community.

Here’s the final passage of the novel where Valentino speaks directly to us readers:

“…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.  I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist” (535).

Those are the words from the ending of Dave Eggers’ What is the What, an ending that underscores the importance of sharing the stories of our lives, and of listening to the stories of others. 

Please join us at Radio Readers at HPPR.org and like us and comment  on Facebook.

I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas, hoping you can hear me asking you to help collapse spaces between us.