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The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng
And, sometimes, not in the good sense.
“What Is the What” tells one such story.
An astonishing, powerful, tear-jerking story.
Who Should Read “What Is the What”? And Why?
“What Is the What” is basically the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the thousands of Lost Boys of Sudan.
If you do know what that sentence means, then you surely know that this is a heartbreaking story which should be required reading for every human being on this planet.
If you don’t – well, consider that one more reason to read this book as soon as possible.
Dave Eggers Biography
Dave Eggers is an American writer and publisher.
Author of more than ten novels and novellas and five bestselling nonfiction books, he is probably most famous for “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” a memoir which follows Eggers’ stewardship of his younger brother Cristopher Eggers.
The book was voted as the 12th best book of the first decade of the 21st century.
Eggers is also the founder of McSweeney’s Publishing, a non-profit publishing house which has published books by numerous well-established, as well as emerging writers.
As its subtitle suggests, “What is the What” is an autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a real-life Sudanese refugee who was one of the selected few who were given a chance to restart their lives in the United States.
Even though a novel, typical of Dave Eggers’ style, “What is the What” is, in fact, rooted into reality, unassumingly blending fiction and non-fiction and producing a unique type of impersonal memoir.
As Valentino Achak Deng explains in the preface:
I told Dave what I knew and what I could remember, and from that material he created this work of art. It should be known to the readers that I was very young when some of the events in the book took place, and as a result we simply had to pronounce ‘What is the What’ a novel. I could not, for example, recount some conversations that took place seventeen years ago. However, it should be noted that all of the major events in the book are true.
“What Is the What” follows two plotlines, one chronicling Achak’s journey through Africa, and the other relating his experiences after reaching the United States. These plotlines are interspersed in the book, but we’ll recount them chronologically here.
So, we start in Africa where Valentino Achak Deng lives a relatively happy life in Marial Bai, a village in South Sudan.
He even feels a bit privileged when compared to the other people around him, since he has both a loving family and numerous friends.
Unlike many of his countrymen, he has a future as well: being a son of a shopkeeper, he is destined to take over his father’s business, once his father retires.
However, the Second Sudanese Civil War strikes and the Arab militia – murahaleen (Arabic for deported) or the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) – in an attempt to institute Islam all over the country, wipes out Achak’s hometown from the face of the earth, just like many other Dinka villages.
Though separated from his family and his childhood friends (William K and Moses), Achak is somehow able to escape and join a group of fugitive boys and girls (now known as the Lost Boys of Sudan) who are on their way to a refugee camp to neighboring Ethiopia.
Achak finds William K among them, but only for a brief period of time: just like many other of the boys and girls, William K dies from disease and malnourishment.
Achak is one of those who finally reach Ethiopia.
Unfortunately, the refugee camp is not exactly what he had hoped for: not only the conditions are bad, but, soon enough, many of the children who get to the camp end up being forcefully recruited by SPLA rebels.
Things go from bad to worse when in 1991 Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Ethiopian Marxist dictator, is overthrown and leaves the country for Zimbabwe.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front forces the Lost Boys of Sudan out of the country at gunpoint.
Follows another Golgotha, this one from Ethiopia to Kenya, or more precisely to the Kakuma refugee camp.
Thousands and thousands die while crossing the Gilo River, and many more die either of starvation or in the fangs of the hungry lions.
About 10,000 reach Kakuma, where, to their dismay, the conditions are even worse from those in Ethiopia.
Even so, most of the children manage to survive with one meal a day, and, the more they stay there, the better they feel.
Achak starts going to school, shows off his athleticism as a basketball player and even meets a girl by the name of Tabitha.
After a while, his popularity grants him an opportunity to visit Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.
In 2001, the United States Government and the UNHCR establish the Lost Boys of Sudan program through which about 4,000 boys are offered resettlement in the USA.
Valentino Achak Deng is among them.
His dreams have finally come true: in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack, Valentino boards a plane and flies off to Atlanta.
What Is the What Epilogue
But, unfortunately, that is not the end of the story.
A few years later – and this is how Eggers’ novel actually begins – Achak answers a knock on the door of his apartment in Atlanta.
It is an African-American woman who asks Achak to use his phone. He obliges, but as the woman enters, a man appears behind her and forces an entry himself.
He ties Valentino up, while the woman rummages through the apartment, stealing Valentino’s things. After some time, he is knocked unconscious, and when he comes to his senses, he wakes up next to a boy named Michael who is in charge of guarding him.
Valentino tries to reason with him but is unable to.
Soon Michael and the robbers leave, and Achor Achor, Valentino’s friend and housemate, comes back. He unties Valentino and calls the police.
A policewoman arrives, but is absolutely disinterested in Achak’s story and, by the looks of it, she has no intention of taking the investigation any further.
Achak is flabbergasted by her prejudiced behavior, but he’s in for an even more bitter treat once he goes to the hospital, badly bruised and visibly shaken.
Even so, no doctor comes to see him for hours – long enough for Valentino to give up on waiting and head to work.
At work, his colleagues ask him about the cause of his injuries and Valentina’s silence provokes them to conclude that they must have something to do with the fact that Sudanese people get into so many fights.
Depressed and disillusioned with the United States, Valentino starts thinking about his Kakuma girlfriend, Tabitha.
We learn that their relationship ended when Tabitha moved to Seattle and found a new Sudanese boyfriend.
After Achak arrived in Atlanta, he contacted her, and, soon after, Tabitha broke up with her boyfriend. However, her ex-boyfriend couldn’t bear the thought of Tabitha being with another man and killed her.
The moral of the story?
Strangely enough, the story itself:
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 and 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.
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“What Is the What PDF Quotes”
If I ever love again, I will not wait to love as best as I can. We thought we were young and that there would be time to love well sometime in the future. This is a terrible way to think. It is no way to live, to wait to love. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“What Is the What” is more than a novel and more than a memoir at the same time: it’s a heartbreaking hymn to humanity – or what is left of it.
It is impossible to read this book and not be humbled, enlightened, transformed, noted Khaled Hosseini, the author of “The Kite Runner.”
A testament to the triumph of hope over experience, human resilience over tragedy and disaster,” wrote Michiko Kakutani for “The New York Times.”
Unforgettable – we feel obliged to add humbly.